In early 2014, during the unseasonably warm month of February, I worked as a sound engineer in Sochi, Russia. I was part of a technical broadcast team hired by NBC to produce the coverage of Olympic figure skating and short track speed skating for viewers back home in America. When I arrived, much of the Olympic Village was still under construction. The landscape was dominated by mud and men in bright orange coveralls planting trees and raking up rocks. The mood was grim and foreboding. Russia was about to invade Ukraine and the U.S. State Department had issued a formal travel warning to all Americans visiting either country.
This was not the first time I had worked under these conditions. I received my first formal State Department security warning preceding the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002. Those Olympics had been played out under a similar veil of tension. There were checkpoints, fatigues and M16s everywhere. The threat of violence and oppressive security protocols made everyone’s job a lot more complicated.
Despite the initial shock and inconvenience of a world changed after 9/11, I grew accustomed to the security measures. There were similar protocols in Athens, Turin, Beijing, Vancouver and London. Life had changed. Human resource managers from NBC now held formal security meetings with the crew shortly after everybody arrived. Maps detailing rally points and muster zones hung on the wall in the dining hall next to our daily schedules.
In Sochi the terms got even worse. I received NBC production memos before I even left for the airport. These production memos tersely advised all staff to avoid public WiFi and secure our communications devices while in Russia. The age of cyber warfare was now upon us.
Sochi, was to be the eighth, and last, Olympic event I would ever work. It’s sad when I think about it. The Olympics had been like a torrid love affair that slowly soured with every attempt to recapture the past.
I cut my teeth in Sydney, working for the host broadcaster. As a member of the International broadcast crew I immediately felt that I was part of something bigger. We had been chosen to share our skills in the spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. Each of us, from broadcasters to athletes, was responsible for educating youth through sport. That was the philosophy of the games.
The games weren’t about gold medal counts and contracts with Nike. They were about tolerance, fair play and setting a good example. There was to be no discrimination of any kind. Acceptance of our physical and cultural differences trumped winning by a long shot. I’ll never forget hearing so many different languages in such a small space.
Most of my crew was from the Boston area. We took pride in our city and did our best to represent the United States in the best possible light. We had a grand time barbecuing steaks and sharing cold pints of beer with the locals.
In Sydney, many restaurants let you pick your steak from a refrigerated display case. After choosing your cut and size, patrons moved to a large, open air barbecue pit. There you grilled your meat, drank pints of beer, and shared cooking tips with people from all over the world. Smiles and laughter served to bridge any language gap. The experience is one I’ll never forget.
By the time I reached Sochi, the games had changed entirely. Brotherhood had become an empty promise under the threat of Russian aggression and the grounds resembled a poorly fabricated and underwhelming approximation of Disneyland. It was as if Tony Soprano had hired out a bunch of concrete and waste management sub-contractors to build a replica of the Taj Mahal.
Despite the multi-billion dollar price tag, it was cheap, crude and unwelcoming. I felt shame and revulsion for taking part in an event that was so clearly manufactured to promote Russian interests above all others.
The Olympic experience, under the direction of its Russian host, had essentially become a Potemkin village erected to exploit the ideals and philosophy of sport for profit. I remember seeing, for the first time, Olympic houses adorned with the names of corporations like Sperbank and Rosneft. Inside these “houses” were miniature oil derricks and slick dioramas promoting investment opportunities. Traditional Olympic houses served free beer and had all-inclusive house parties for athletes, ticketed fans and media types like me.
The differences were stark. One house was a celebration of national pride and a tribute to the welcoming spirit of openness. The other house was a thinly veiled extension of a corporate public relations department. These “other” houses were selfishly designed to monetize the spirit of the Olympic Games without giving anything back. It was shameless and vulgar.
And then there was Ukraine.
Putin and the leaders of Russia cynically chose to use the games as cover for their invasion of a country located just 450 miles to the east. The juxtaposition of these two events, especially for someone living and working so close to the conflict, was difficult to process without feeling a strong sense of revulsion. I think everyone felt it, it was impossible to ignore. While the rest of the world competed in the Olympic Games, the Russians were boldly taking the Ukrainian military base of Sevastopol and a large segment of Eastern Ukraine.
I read accounts from both sides of the dispute and watched the news whenever I could. The competing versions of events taking place on the ground were eye opening. The Ukrainians claimed to be under attack and sought international assistance. The Russians insisted that they were merely rescuing a group of people who had cried out for help and specifically requested their assistance.
It was tempting to believe the Russians. Their emotional claim to a moral imperative evoked a pious reasoning that resonated with many nationalists and religious practitioners. Putin was simply trying to help his neighbors. It was the Americans and the international community that had overstepped the boundaries of national sovereignty. NATO be damned.
I have to disagree. Putin’s emotional plea fails to account for the historical record. Are we to believe that Ukraine, the country that has served as Russia’s strategic doormat for the past 60 years, willingly embraced a quasi-moral brotherhood with their oppressors to the east? Did compassion and empathy suddenly, somehow, spring to the forefront of Russian foreign policy? The annexation of Ukraine was purely Machiavellian; cynical, self-serving, and duplicitous.
From what I could gather by reading the local papers, the fires of freedom and personal sovereignty were nothing but damp squibs of ash in the hearts and minds of most Russians living in Sochi, and the wider region of Krasnodar Krai. Special operations teams regularly invaded their homes without search warrants. Political activists, gay rights advocates and environmentalists were often beaten and carried away without legal recourse. Scores of local families endured weeks without news about the fate of their sons and daughters.
The maxim of universal human rights existed only as untested theory in Sochi. Those that pushed for further “study”, invited violent repression from the state and Putin’s rabid supporters. The devotion was clear. When Putin walked into the figure skating stadium, clad in his red parka, the crowd went crazy. He was their champion. If some went home later and beat young men holding hands in public that was understandable. No one was perfect. Homosexuals had their own difficult cases. Putin pushed this false moral equivalency whenever he had the chance.
The violence in eastern Ukraine was a cynical ploy undertaken by the Russian military at the behest of the Russian President. The Ukrainians were the victims, not the oppressors. The Russians, unaccustomed to finding anything other than a geopolitical puppet to the east, reacted with typical incomprehension and violence when Ukraine refused to accept their pitiable offer for Ukraine’s extensive collection of coal mines. Instead of selling out to powerful Russian interests, as the previous administration had done, the new Ukrainian government sought to retain autonomy, and good standing with the International Monetary Fund, by diversifying ownership and risk. This drove the Russians nuts.
Suffocating control and violent retribution for any attempt to exercise personal autonomy is commonly found in many abusive relationships. This malevolent dynamic holds true for nations as well. The sale of Ukrainian coal mines was conducted by a democratically elected Ukrainian government seeking several objectives; securing IMF loans, energy self-sufficiency, and freedom from Russian domination. They knew that the Russians would never stand for it, but they did it anyway.
We all face similar choices in our own lives. We can be true to ourselves and stand our ground, or we can sell out and wear the mask of our oppressor. In this case, the Ukrainians decided that enough was enough. Years of autocratic rule, and blatant corruption practiced by the Yanukovich regime, had decimated Ukraine politically, economically and culturally. It was a shame that the rest of the world did nothing to support Ukraine at this critical moment. The Games should have been stopped.
Of course there were sanctions, imposed by the U.S. and supported by other nations, but the arrangements came too late. The Games were allowed to continue and Russia dominated. Later, when the world learned of the Russian government’s coordinated doping practices it became abundantly clear that Ukraine had been sold down the river. The entire world had failed to encourage any type of meaningful change for the entirely unrealistic and misguided chance to medal against a foe completely devoid of morals.
Welcome to 2020. Information travels faster and more comprehensively than ever before, but it is also more easily distorted and propagandized. This principle is on full display in Ukraine. The West, particularly the US and NATO, claims the struggle is about free market democracy and Ukrainian sovereignty. Russia claims Ukrainian sovereignty has been violated by the West. Witness the continued presence of Russian backed soldiers in eastern Ukraine today.
So who is telling the truth? On the surface, both appear to be right. It is only when we ignore the layers of deceitful rhetoric coming from both sides and look to the economic underpinnings of this conflict that the machinations of real politic are revealed. This is a story about energy; its discovery, its control and its power to destroy the truth.
I don’t think we should trust either side. Both are lying. Both are seeking to profit from division and misery. I have read hundreds of news articles, watched dozens of television programs and tried to make sense of their claims and counter claims ever since I first traveled to Sochi. I have studied U.S. policy in the region and researched the life of a British mercenary who traveled to Ukraine to fight on behalf of the Ukrainian nationalists. Indeed, it is a complex issue, rife with geopolitical machinations and the dark arts of disinformation.
There is however, one constant. A single underlying thread that has motivated me throughout this process of discovery. The cratered ground and shattered buildings I came across when I first saw cell phone video from eastern Ukraine on YouTube has moved me more profoundly than witnessing mass media accounts. These images underscore an undeniable truth. There are people living like rats in damp basements throughout the eastern countryside. They are sleeping on cots and shitting in chamber pots. Toilet paper and votive candles serve as primitive talismans aligned opposite the palpable fear that underlines each person’s proscribed fate.
These medieval, cramped spaces are filled with fear and loathing for the businessmen and politicians who have forgotten them and left them for dead. Many are old and unable, or unwilling, to run from the advancing armies. When the shelling stops they stumble up into the light, blinking like wrinkled moles. They search for tins of sardines, boxes of macaroni, and for those that did not find their way to safety when the bombing began.
The angry ones will face the camera and curse Putin, or Poroshenko, depending on which narrative they have embraced, and then — when they have exhausted themselves — they will weep. They will weep with a depth and unconcealed bitterness that we can barely understand. It is a car wreck of unassailable truth.
There are countless videos on YouTube documenting this sad and often gruesome destruction of Ukrainian lives. I urge you to watch one if your stomach and heart can bear it. It will change you forever.
Postscript: Search YouTube for videos containing the names of eastern Ukraine cities like Horlivka, Donetsk, Gorlovka and Luhansk to name just a few. If you are short on time this particular video is extremely compelling. It is a powerful indictment of war and the violence it visits upon everyone, including the soldiers. As for Putin, I am not so foolish to believe that he will ever change. For him, it appears that the Olympic Games, rigged as they were, will never be enough. Despite his overwhelming control over the country, Putin recently introduced a referendum that would extend his role as Russia’s devoted leader for the next 16 years. The overwhelming irony of this staged election is as exhausting as it is edifying.