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NYT Magazine: Putin's Olympic Fever Dream

Author: Steven Lee Myers
January 22, 2014


"The megaproject has returned — another Soviet legacy pursued by the singular will of Vladimir Putin, who seems incapable of escaping the ideas that nurtured him from youth. The Olympics in Sochi are often called Putin's games, a profligate investment to prove to the world Russia's resurrection, a personal validation of his 14 years — and counting — as the country's paramount ruler."

Anatoly Pakhomov was elected mayor of Sochi after the type of ersatz campaign that passes for democracy in Russia. It was 2009, and he had been appointed acting mayor — effectively the local manager of the massive construction project already underway — and in Russia incumbency means victory. His many prospective challengers included a K.G.B. veteran accused of poisoning the fugitive secret-service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko with polonium; a prima ballerina who had become even more famous after the Bolshoi dismissed her for being overweight; and a pornographic actress, Yelena Berkova, who ran a campaign ad that showed her gamboling topless along one of the Black Sea beaches that first made Sochi popular in the early 20th century.

Many challengers did not even make it to the ballot, barred for various reasons, real and contrived. Those who did qualify as candidates — most significant, Boris Nemtsov, a Sochi native and former deputy prime minister under Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin — never had a chance. Nemtsov and the others faced constant harassment and were denied crucial access to television and radio channels controlled by the state. Pakhomov won 77 percent of the vote, officially at least. Nemtsov sued — and lost — and his contempt lingers. "A real idiot, right?" he told me recently, referring to the man who bested him in an election that amounted to a farce.

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