This weekend, the American and Russian hockey teams squared off against each other at the Sochi Olympics and, even if, like me, you're not a fan of the sport, it was an undeniably gripping match, one that ended only after a white-knuckle shootout. Thank god it wasn't an elimination round game, though, because there was that moment with five minutes left in the game and the score tied that the Russians seemed to score a goal and an American referee disallowed it. If it had been an elimination round, there would've been no limit to the stink, no end to the conspiracy thinking.
This way, since both teams advanced to the next round, there was just a little stink, and just a little conspiracy thinking.
But what little stink there was was pungent enough. "Americans are as lawless in hockey as they are in politics," tweeted one well-connected scion of a tabloid empire, using the hashtag #AmericanCheaters. Some speculated that American goalie Jonathan Quick had deliberately moved the goalposts in a ploy to steal the game. Alexey Pushkov, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament, ranted and railed all day on Saturday about the American referee's nationality. "How can an American referee judge a game in which the U.S. team is playing?!!" he tweeted, when the goal was disallowed. "Disgusting!" Prior to that, he had not noticed the referee's citizenship. He went on ranting the next day. "A referee doesn't have a nationality?!" he wrote. "Everyone has one, but he doesn't? How interesting. So how come they didn't assign a Russian ref instead of an American one?"
Last night, television host and arch-obscurantist Dmitry Kiselev explained to viewers of Russia's main evening news show on Russian state-owned television why the goal was disallowed and the Americans allowed to win. You may know Kiselev as the man from the rant about disallowing, not goals, but organ donations by gays, saying they should instead be buried in the ground and burned. Last night, he weighed in on the shadowy workings of hockey. "The American television company NBC paid nearly $2 billion for the right to broadcast the Sochi Olympics," he said. "That's about as much as all the world's other television companies combined. What, did they pay $2 billion to show their team losing? No. In other words, we're dealing with a situation that in English is called 'money talks.'"
All this despite the statement from the referee supervisor of the International Ice Hockey Federation, a Russian, that the referee's ruling had been correct. Despite the coach of the Russian team saying, "I couldn't see from where I was sitting. The referees watched the video, then made this decision. That means it was correct." Despite the fact that Russian hockey legend and president of the Russian Hockey Federation Vladislav Tretyak said that, after watching the videos, the decision was "indisputable." "The verdict was reached in complete accordance with the rules," Tretyak said after the game. Tretyak, let's recall, was deemed important and patriotic enough to light the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony.
This is all to say that Westerners may have been engaging in schadenfreude when they arrived in Sochi and settled in half-baked hotels, that the tone was mocking and condescending and their editors may have put "hilarious and gross" in the headlines, but, you know what, sometimes the Russians are such mean sons of bitches that you feel like maybe, just maybe, they deserve it.
The hockey episode illustrates a core principle in Russia: everything is political, and everything is about showing the West how we are simultaneously superior and supremely likable. Everything is also an exercise in a nearly pathological projection that says more about Russia than about its critics. Now that Russia is putting itself on show in Sochi, it really hopes you like it, you corrupt and stupid American Russophobe piece of shit.
Take hockeygate: What happened? Two Cold War rivals met on the ice, a controversial call was made. The Americans, the ones on the winning sides of both struggles, of course showed the largesse of winners: Michael McFaul, the outgoing American ambassador to Russia, wished the Russians good luck in their next match. "I feel for the Russians and their fans," he tweeted yesterday. "Yesterday's match was a classic — 2 amazing teams. I hope we meet again in the final round." Contrast it to the Russian reaction at the highest levels, overshadowing the athletes and Russian hockey officials actually involved in the mess.
Now, contrast it to the response of Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, to negative coverage of Russia in the lead-up to the Games:
It's the vocal, ungrateful complaining about Sochi's readiness, "which takes the form of mockery worthy of tabloids and not serious journalists." "They are sending their readers signals that are far from sportsmanlike, and the tone they take with the country hosting the Olympics is far from friendly," Yakunin writes. "Really, this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Rather, it is a desire to befoul everything about the massive effort to prepare for the Winter Games, and to create a negative atmosphere for the athletes and Olympic guests." [Emphasis mine]
Sorry, what was that about "sportsmanlike" conduct and "far from friendly" tone? What could be less sportsmanlike and more unfriendly than instantly making the leap from controversial call to accusing an entire nation of cheating and corruption and far-reaching conspiracy? The Russians get very offended when Westerners write about Russian corruption, which is well-documented, but don't mind firing those same shots, backed up only with insinuation. NBC paid $2 billion if you know what I mean.
This is not to say America is better than Russia, which my Russian readers always assume is what I'm trying to say with every article I write about Russia, but that Russia has to sort out some of its psychological issues.
Psychological issue #1: paranoid projection. Russians, like Americans, are true denizens of empire: they think the rest of the world is just like them. I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain to Russians—different Russians—that, unlike Russian traffic cops, American traffic cops are highly unlikely to take—or ask for—a bribe. Or that the White House doesn't dictate The New Republic's editorial line. Or that the whole point of American foreign policy is not to stick it to the Russians. Russia and America, sprawling, exceptionalist empires, are similar in many ways—as anyone from a smaller, less brassy country can tell you—but they are pretty fundamentally different. My jury is still out on America—I haven't been back that long—but I know what Russia is from intimate experience: Russia is a fantastically cynical, corrupt, and cruel place. That doesn't mean that America also is just because Russia is. America can be cruel and corrupt for its own reasons. Just as Russia functions according to its own logic and frame of reference. That, in turn, doesn't mean that America functions in the simple inverse of that logic. (My response to a comparable American simpleton here.)
Psychological issue #2: Stockholm Syndrome. I can't tell you how many Olympic newscasts on state-owned Channel One have begun with a rundown of what the Western press thinks about Russia. What did the Western press think about the opening ceremony? What nice things did the Western press say about the Sochi Olympics facilities? About our stupendous athletes?
I'm sorry, are you not a resurgent superpower, the country of Gagarin and Dostoyevsky? Why do you care about what the corrupt West thinks about you if you are? But the Russians care. Oh, they care so much. Moscow's biggest radio station has a show that airs on weekend evenings called "Cover Story," an entire hour dedicated to what the Western press writes about Russia. Russia's state-owned news agency RIA Novosti has an entire outlet dedicated to translating Western coverage of Russia. It's not the only such outlet here. Russia Today famously obsesses over how Russia is covered in the West. (In fact, my recent story about Western journalists swarming the one gay club in Sochi merited a mention on RT as proof that Western journalists are just nefarious and unprofessional shills, trying to make Russia look bad. Which, needless to say, was not the point of my story.)
The Russians, however, are shocked to discover that Russia no longer occupies a similar amount of disk space in the American imagination. Which only fuels the curiosity about what we're saying.
Before you say that the Russians are commendably more aware of the world around them than the ocean-sheltered, solipsistic Americans—they're not. It's not the world that they're curious about. They're curious about what the world is saying about them.
Psychological issue #3: inferiority complex. Also, note that I've been saying "Western" rather than "international" press. The Russians couldn't care less what the Indian or Chinese papers are writing. Russia's centuries-old internal debate about whether it is East or West today manifests itself as a militant insistence on its European-ness. This or that building is "European." This or that import is luxe and coveted because it's "European." I once saw Vladimir Putin at an investor conference launch into a long tirade about how very European Russia is—exactly the kind of ranting you'd never hear in, say, France. This is in part why Russia has a hard time dealing with the Chinese or the Japanese: it sees them as Asian and therefore somehow inferior, as less prestigious international partners than those tiny countries to the West.
Which are at the same time infecting it with their perverted social norms like homosexuality. (Psychological issue #4: schizophrenia.)
Psychological issue #5: not understanding consequences. Russia has taken a strong position on the world stage. It has done some pretty controversial things: It has banned adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans, it has passed anti-gay legislation, it has imprisoned three stupid young women for dancing in a church, it has given refuge to Edward Snowden, yet expects the Americans to send Barack Obama to the opening of the Olympics and expects the world to speak admiringly of its historical grandeur and its might. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has decided to be feared but it also wants badly to be loved, and it can't understand why, while it is walking around kicking shit and giving everyone the finger, the world isn't showering it with kisses.
Psychological issue #6: delayed adolescence. There's something deeply adolescent about modern Russia. Her behavior smacks of the kid with identity issues, who takes out her growing pains on those around her; who withers and bristles in the face of the slightest criticism; who feels superior precisely because she is misunderstood (Russians often quote the famous poem, "The mind cannot comprehend Russia"); who wants desperately to be liked yet cannot keep her advances steady enough before the violent, vocal resentment and fear of rejection come bursting through, killing her chances of acceptance; who angrily, hopelessly yearns for acceptance from those she perceives as the cool kids and resents those who would accept her because if they could accept her, how cool could they really be?
This is a deeply Russophobic post, I agree. It's just that this teenager and I are very close, relatives almost. We go way back and I, I understand her. There are days when I write about Western schadenfreude—which is very, very real—and feel hurt on her behalf, and days when the Russophobe in me comes out to rage against this place that makes its most brilliant citizens feel like traitors and foreigners for attempting to question, to do something different. Today is one of those days.
New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.