Russia for centuries has remained obsessed about its image. It demands and craves respect as a modern, powerful nation, but also struggles with images of what it considers to be embarrassing backwardness. The Sochi Olympics should have advanced Vladimir Putin's plan to move Russia back to the forefront. Instead, even before the first event, it is a public relations nightmare.
The first rule of public relations? Put the best foot forward with the media. That also may be the second, third, and fourth rule. This Deadspin assemblage of reports and tweets puts Russia in the worst possible light. The land of the bear does not come off as strong, resilient, and capable. Sochi is "a hilarious adventure," looking less like competence and more like a bad prat fall flick. London's Daily Mail shows even more horrors, as well as a picture of the Russian president.
A reporter from one of the world's most prestigious sports-only publications must climb out his window because the hotel is locked down.
Another gets a terse warning not to use the water "because it contains something very dangerous." Her picture of the water looks like ginger ale or urine.
Whatever happens next will not unring the bell. When the media of the United States, Europe, and Japan were dumped into accommodations with broken doors, urinesque water, no lobbies, and mysterious bodily fluids, they gleefully reported all the issues. Being reporters, they dug and quickly found corruption, waste, and abuse of power mostly connected back to Putin. With 70,000 workers on the ground, Sochi may well be ready for the athletes. But the media sent home jokes and ridicule.
If Russia wants to break free of stereotypes and establish a better image, it should stop reverting to stereotypical images like Potemkin Villages.
For a nation seeking respect, ridicule is the deepest cut.
The obsession with its image in the West dates back to Czar Peter the Great in the late 1600s and early 1700s. He demanded that Russia modernize along Western lines. Being a very tactile intellect, Peter worked to bring visible changes, such as factories, newspapers, and western styles of clothes.
Peter established some westernism, but failed overall. He did not understand that the successes of the West sprang not from copying others, but from a liberty that birthed inquiry and development. Since then, Russia has vacillated between Slavic nationalism and Westernism, but has only rarely thought to embrace freedom to inspire innovation. It often finds itself playing catchup in the most visible ways, while lagging behind in others.
That is not to say that other countries have even patterns of growth and development. Certainly the United States does not. But most Americans do not see the perception of the world as damaging to economic development or national security in the same way as many Russians.
And Russians have reason to be concerned. They must compete with Western Europe's manufacturing economy, the shale gas revolution in the United States, keep a close eye on an increasingly nationalistic China, and figure out how to spur diverse growth and expand its population. Russia has over twice the land of China and one tenth of its population, all the while holding territory that the Chinese still consider their own. It also has innumerable ethnic groups within its borders, many of whom resent Moscow's rule.
Putin's nationalist bluster covers glaring weaknesses and concerns. So far, the Olympics that were supposed to serve as a crowning achievement have undermined the image of Putin and Russia alike.