My heritage is Lithuanian but my Grandfather studied in Moscow and told me once that in his youth he met Lenin himself.
I've read the great literary works of Solzhenitsyn and his chronicles of the Gulag Archipelago, and Sholokov's tales of the Cossacks. Tolstoy and Doestoevsky. Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago. I have a natural affinity for Russian culture. So let me try and explain what I know of today's Russia.
Boris Yeltsin presided over the reckless privatization of Russia's assets when the Cold War ended. But complicit in this plunder was the West. Banks like Credit Lyonnais and CitiBank were among the first Western corporations to open branches in the new Russia.
In Washington they saw the dismantling of the Soviet empire as a way to shape an ally in their own image, and for a time Russia was like a Wild Wild West, something the Americans understand.
While Yeltsin was in power there was deepening inequality, mounting unrest, social disorder and at one time an attempted coup by the Old Guard of communist sympathizers and generals.
So while Russia's vast natural resources allowed a few to become obscenely rich, there was an increasing popular call for the restoration of law and order.
"To regulate the heist and limit the damage," Marwan Bashar of the Al Jazeera network pointed out in an excellent documentary called 'Putin's Russia,'
"a new brand of centralization through authoritarian rule and populist nationalism was introduced in Russia by the Yeltsin clique in 1999"
And as history records, Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer and later deputy mayor of St. Petersburg rose to the top of that clique and eventually the presidency. He's not subtle. He has one message: Putin equals power.
Yeltsin was portrayed in the West, and for good reason, as a drunken clown who let the oligarchs run Russia. Putin's message is that with him in charge, Russia is strong. And that translates to the Russian people having power.
But with so much of Russia's power based on its energy reserves of natural gas, oil and minerals, the economy is still at the mercy of the global commodities markets. Putin knows Russia doesn't live in a global vacuum, but he also knows that he must continue to project power to his people.
To him, all politics is local.
And that is why the Olympics are so important to Putin, and by and large to the people of Russia. They are all too acutely aware of how the world sees their homeland, as a totalitarian state of brutal masters and lowly slaves.
Ask any foreigner now in Sochi how they are being treated and they'll send back glowing reports of friendly people eager to please. Russians are, contrary to popular belief, very accommodating to guests. Not in the Soviet era, they weren't allowed to be.
But yes, they are as eager to please as any host nation is.
Most journalists, myself included, have nothing but fond memories of the reception that was afforded to everyone who visited the tiny town of Lillehammer during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The best part about it is that it was not contrived, it is just who Norwegians are.
Two years later in Atlanta at the summer games, one could get free Coca Cola almost anywhere, but that was pretty much the best thing one could say. Transportation nightmares (except for the VIPs and friends of the IOC family), poor organization at the venues and of course a terrorist bombing in Olympic Park, (despite a massive security presence), were the legacies of the 1996 summer games.
There is much to criticize in Russia, but going through the international press, especially in North America, one would think that the most important thing people should be thinking of is Russia's gay rights policy. A friend of mine, Brian Passafiume, who is no longer in the television industry and lives in Alberta, has been following my posts and wrote this:
"In a country where people still mysteriously vanish over political views, journalists are bullied and often brutalized when they tout an editorial view that goes against state policy, and police turn a blind eye towards roving gangs of extremists who terrorize and often kill minorities (while posting videos on the internet), gay rights are among many human rights issues that plague modern Russia.
As well, it's equally abhorrent that you're branded a bigot if you think that Russia's anti-gay policies aren't more important than other human rights issues."
Does he have a point?
One of my "go-to" daily news sites is The Guardian in the UK. I read it mostly because they have excellent soccer writers and anyone who knows me understands my passion for the game. But they also have a political bent that speaks to my world view.
The Guardian is fervently anti-racist and great defenders of gay rights, but in their letters section have been receiving mail that echo the perception that the point has been made, sometimes too stridently.
"Can we please see an end to the publication of hysterical, hypocritical and at times frankly racist protests about Russian treatment of LGBT people? Russia is not Nazi Germany and, given that an estimated 20 million Russian people died fighting Nazism in the second world war, such comparisons are deeply offensive to the population of that country -- whatever their sexuality. Gareth Edwards (Letters, 7 February) is the latest to draw comparison but, as far as I know, LGBT people in Russia are not barred from professional occupations, denied access to education, or expected to wear identifying stars on their clothing. Nor are they being detained in camps, whereas by 1936 the concentration camps were certainly in evidence -- Sachsenhausen just outside Berlin was opened the same year."
My posts about the Sochi Olympics are about reaching out to people of differing viewpoints from as broad a spectrum as I can gain access to. It is too easy to find things wrong with Russia. They can find plenty wrong with the West. Corruption? The Russians would say that's always been the way its done. One shrugs one's shoulders in that uniquely Russian way of showing resignation, figures it out and lives with it.
We don't have a history of Western-style democracy, they would say. We knew the Tsars, then the Bolsheviks, then the Communists, now the Oligarchs. And what do you call your banking meltdown and credit default swaps and the rule of corporations. Is that not corruption as well?
And can we really say much about inferior construction and poor water supply? Is that something we can criticize when entire populations of Aboriginal people are at this moment living in ATCO trailers in Canada?
Putin is all too aware of the fact that the Russian people are dying off at an alarming rate. Male life expectancy is only 59 years. Too much drinking. At this rate, Russia is set to lose 50 million people in the next 40 years. This is a country of 143 million in the largest land mass on earth.
A catastrophe is in the works.
Russians know it and they are scared. Putin reassures them.
The Olympics, with the incredible pictures beamed around the world of athletic endeavor and Russian flags, has been a message to the world. Rightly or wrongly that's what Putin's populist agenda has promised and is, so far at least, delivering.
Still two more weeks to go, though.