Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sochi and Schadenfreude. By Andrew Cohen.

Sochi and Schadenfreude. By Andrew Cohen. Ottawa Citizen, February 10, 2014.

Russians Think We’re Engaging in Olympic Schadenfreude. They’re Right. By Julia Ioffe. NJBR, February 8, 2014. With related articles.


It is open season on Russia. Angered by its contempt for human rights, its rampant corruption, its intimidation of Ukraine and its president-for-life, the West piles on.
The context — or pretext — is the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. There, a carping foreign media revel in unfinished hotels, inadequate venues, empty seats and suffocating security.
Julia Ioffe of The New Republic, a former Moscow correspondent who has written critically of the regime, has one word for the early reviews from Sochi: schadenfreude. The Western media delight in any misfortune that befalls Russia’s Olympics, hoping it all goes bad.
But if there is schadenfreude, it isn’t hard to see why. Our liberal sensibility is offended by a swaggering strongman who picks the wrong friends at home and abroad, jails his enemies and wants to rule forever.
We’re offended by an Olympics that displaces people and despoils the environment. We’re offended by spending some $50 billion on a show. And beyond the real estate play by the Black Sea, we have a catalogue of other grievances: Vladimir Putin’s support for Syria and Iran; his heavy-handedness toward Ukraine and his proposed economic union to rival Europe’s; his offering refuge to whistleblower Edward Snowden.
We are outraged by how Russia treats its gays and lesbians. At a time this issue is all but settled in Europe and North America, we consider Russia’s repressive law antediluvian.
And so we should recoil, for so many reasons. That’s why we talked of boycotting the Olympics. It was a natural if ineffective response to “do something” about something appalling.
The ethical problem for us is that, while we are quick to condemn the Russians, we accept no responsibility for the regime. We didn’t create Vladimir Putin, but he lays bare our own hypocrisy and amnesia.
When it comes to Russia, we forget that the West missed an opportunity to form a partnership with our old enemy after the end of the Cold War. For this failure, we blame the recalcitrant Russians.
To Stephen F. Cohen of New York University, one of the world’s leading Russian scholars, the Americans and their allies are at fault. He thinks that we have missed opportunities to engage the Russians in a way that would have eased their transition from communism and authoritarianism.
In the 1990s, Cohen says, Bill Clinton took an “aggressive triumphalist approach,” which imposed Western economic policies on Russia, moved NATO into Russia’s security zone and broke strategic arms promises.
After Sept. 11, 2001, for example, when Putin provided assistance against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Cohen calls the treaty “the linchpin of (Russia’s) nuclear security.”
Did we think of the consequences when NATO (of which Canada is a charter member) decided to expand east and build missile defence installations near Russia’s borders? Did we think as we broadened our own sphere of political and military influence, that Russia, with its understandable insecurity, would want a zone of its own?
This doesn’t excuse Putin’s regime. But our indifference helped create a climate of anxiety among a proud people who had lost their empire, their stature and much of their dignity. We were insensitive to that.
In demonizing Russia, as we do so easily today, we forget the 20 million who died in the Second World War. We forget that it was the Russians who were killing Nazis (equipped with American arms) before we opened a second front in Europe in 1944. We forget the impact of their revolution, civil war, collectivization, purges and famines. Honestly, did anyone suffer more in the 20th century?
In rounding on Russia, what some call Russia-phobia, we scarcely acknowledge the country’s dazzling achievements in literature, music, art, architecture, science and space.
Like all Olympic hosts, the Russians celebrated themselves at the opening ceremonies, sumptuously if selectively. But if nothing else, we should be reminded that these are a great people.
At the same time, we might recall how relatively uncritically we marched to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the assault on human rights goes far beyond gays and lesbians. Did anyone ask then what was done at Tiananmen or in Tibet? To a degree, yes, but the threat of official boycott was far stronger this time, and was fuelled largely by one issue, the mistreatment of gays and lesbians. Call this selective ethics.
Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy asked Americans to rethink the Russians. He wasn’t embracing tyranny or exonerating communism. He was humanizing them.
“We all breathe the same air,” he said on June 11, 1963. “We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
We don’t have to like Putin and his regime. But had we been less sanctimonious and more perceptive, we might be seeing a different Russia behind those Olympic Rings today.