Russians Think We're Engaging in Olympic Schadenfreude. They're Right.

by Julia Ioffe | February 6, 2014

As Western journalists have flooded into Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they have taken to Twitter to howl about the state of disarray in their hotel rooms. The curtains are broken, the elevators are breaking, the pillows are deficit goods, the water is yellow and cold, and it's all an unmitigated clusterfuck.

And the Russians have had enough. Noting that the lead-up to the Olympics was full of negative cover stories on Russia—like the Economist's and, well, ours—Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the Russian rail monopoly, slammed Western journalists for "feeding hysteria about Russia." And he's not just bothered by the images of Putin on the covers that upset him, or the stories of mind-boggling corruption, or the warnings of "black widows" and "creating fears that the Games in Sochi will not have adequate security." 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."

Now, Yakunin is a massively corrupt official whose company oversaw a massively corrupt Olympic railway project, and I'd never thought I'd say this, but I agree with him.

On one hand, yes, things are objectively dysfunctional and not ready despite the fantastic sums spent, and there is objective photographic evidence of this. On the other, as I prepare for my Moscow-Sochi flight tomorrow, a lot of this complaining does smack of some pretty fantastic schadenfreude. From where I sit—and, granted, I have yet to get to Sochi and encounter the shock of cold water in the shower, and, granted, I'm a fine practicioner of mocking Russian ridiculousness—it does seem like the Western press is on the hunt for evidence of how inept and hilarious the Russians are. There does seem to be something mean-spirited in all of this, as if the Western press came hoping to encounter pillow shortages and rusty water. 

Again, the evidence of failure is incontrovertible and embarrasing, but it is also, in the scheme of things, minor. So far, nothing major has happened. Ski jumps have yet to collapse, trains have yet to derail, there's just some cold water and an upside down toilet lid. It's inconvenient and, yes, it's funny, but here's where I agree with Yakunin: it's the tone. There's a fine line between fair criticism and schadenfreude, and the Western press has been largely well on the side of the latter. I'd also argue that there's something chauvinistic, even Russophobic in it. The Europeans may not be ready for their Olympics, but, okay, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best. The Chinese prepare for theirs ruthlessly, but we don't understand them so whatever. We railed on Romney for daring to criticize the preparedness of our British friends, and we wrote in muted tones about Athens not being ready in time for their Olympics, but with the Russians, we gloat: Look at these stupid savages, they can't do anything right. 

Within hours of arriving in Moscow yesterday, Russian friends, even the Westernized ones, those who are openly, viciously critical of the Kremlin, have expressed their hurt at the Western blooper coverage of Sochi. A whole lot of their tax money has been spent on something they may not have wanted and in ways they find criminally wasteful, and, yes, their government has not done much to endear itself to the West of late, but they're puzzled by why the Americans and the British are so very happy that the details are a little screwy, the way they generally are in Russia. 

The word they use is zloradstvo, literally: evil-reveling. 

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. 

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/116507/russians-hit-back-west-cool-it-olympic-schadenfreude