THE NEW RUSSIA'S PUSHING A BABY CARRIAGE

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- From 1917 onward, it has not taken a lot of imagination for Americans to criticize Russians.

When I went to Russia before the breakup of the Soviet Union, I'd try to enjoy that universe's vast storehouse of memories and keep my head straight across its 11 time zones, only to get a terrible headache from the miserable vodka. I'd search out the exquisite monasteries and nunneries up the Volga River, only to find they were being used by the communists to store grain.

And when I tried to speak to the Soviet Russians, they either would stare at me speechless before briskly walking away, or they would insult or humiliate me, with their endless enthusiasm for such good "sport," and always with that special, sarcastic Soviet half-smile.

So I was not surprised, in the days leading up to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia's "deep South," that the American pre-coverage of the Games was itself critical. I have stayed in those Russian "hotels," where the doors don't close and where the room you reserved three months ago was already taken last week.

Still, as the Olympics began to unfold, I thought we were for once giving Russia too hard a time. When The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins called the Olympics "this rotten event" and "an act of destructive grandiosity," one couldn't but feel that we may have absorbed some of Russia's historic negativity.

Yes, I have known you, Mother Russia; but after these first two weeks of the games, I'm not sure I know you still. Russian President Vladimir Putin planned to present you there, in pretty Sochi, as the "New Russia," but are you turning out to be that new, ambiguous creature?

The opening act -- always "the" national showcase for the entire Olympics -- was stunning. The show left the Mongols to their destruction and focused instead on the figure of Peter the Great, the ballroom scene from "War and Peace," with lovely, diaphanous dresses whispering around the dancers, and then the trains -- always the symbol of the Revolution.

How on earth would they characterize the Revolution? I had wondered. How would Putin come up with a "usable past" when everyone in the world knew about the gulags, and the KGB goons, and the roughly 60 million killed by the Soviets domestically and in World War II?

They did it quite deftly. Actually, they seemed to me to have copied the British games several years ago when Britain's leadership in the industrial age was dramatized -- lots of huffing and hauling and building. They just forgot about the unpleasant details.

And, you know, that's all right. Because the opening ceremonies ended with post-communist-era pioneers marching smartly, with 1950s Soviet cars speeding around, with Elvis music and "Moscow Nights" and with scores of baby carriages being wheeled around to symbolize the future, the hope, the now.

If this IS their now, then, "Hooray for the Sochi Olympics!" What this evoked for me was a story of how today's post-Soviet Russia just wants to live a normal life -- like other "normalized" countries that do not see themselves as something exemplary and great, but as countries that build roads and schools and department stores.

Indeed, at one point, an announcer seemed to proclaim this when he said, "Tonight we are writing a new chapter in Olympic history."

Russia, you see, was never a "normal" country. The very idea appalled the Russians, as they sat in the Kremlin with their maps, trying to figure out who to take over next. Moscow suffered always from its vision of itself as the "Third Rome," after Rome and Constantinople. Russian communism would rule the world, but when communism was officially disbanded in 1991, the Russians had 10 years of trying to look modern while actually having lost everything.

Now they're playing with nationalism over Marxism, but it is the nationalism of the baby buggy.

That doesn't mean there will be no more cruelty, no more mockery, no more suffering. It only means they've tried to lay out a new map.

I can't close without bringing in the dogs. From the pre-Olympic coverage onward, there has been constant comment about wild dogs roaming Sochi. The Russian bureaucrats, with their sensitivity to Tolstoy and Turgenev, announced they were going to shoot the dogs. (Some habits die slowly.)

But then some of the foreign athletes decided to take some of the dogs home. And then Russians came from around the country to save the dogs and take them home.

Just think of it: baby carriages and Russians saving wild dogs! Would you have ever believed it?

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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