Why Putin wanted the Olympics for Russia

No. The theme of these Games is simple: this is Putin’s pop-culture reassertion of Russia, a worldwide media-saturated insistence on its modern power and capacities, all done with a flash and a reach that no diplomatic summit could ever match. Dissident Russian voices such as Alexei Navalny, Masha Gessen, and the members of Pussy Riot all call these “Putin’s Games”; they talk of a pharaoh intent on building, and displaying, his pyramids. In fact, minus the tone of derision, when you talk to Russian officials close to Putin, the explanation for his motives is not so different. The level of risk may be greater than anyone quite imagined in 2007, but Putin wants to show that his country is capable of doing more than sucking oil and gas out of the ground and building a new Dubai in Russia. Putin, obviously, is no democrat. Not remotely. He is not interested in the contemporary requirements of human rights. He is not interested in empowering a real legislature or ceding true independence to the courts. Democracy is not his interest. Stability and development—those are his themes, first and last. And Putin regards any and all attempts from the West, from human-rights organizations, and from the press to call him to account on nearly any issue as acts of anti-Russian self-righteousness and hypocrisy. That is how he sees the world and his critics. He doesn’t hide it. He performs his contempt. That is part of the hard-man persona…

Putin is a gosudarstvenik, a state-builder. Even the most predictable moment of the opening ceremony—the raising of the Russian flag and the playing of the Russian anthem—makes this clear. At his insistence, the Russian anthem combines modern lyrics with Soviet music. He retains oversight of the depiction of Russian and Soviet history in all new schoolbooks. He is the singular shaper of modern Russia and looks neither to the tsars nor to the Communist general secretaries as a model; his historical hero is Pyotr Stolypin, a Prime Minister under Nicholas II. Stolypin was known both for his deep agrarian reforms and for his brutal repression of dissent. “A true patriot and a wise politician, he understood that various forms of radicalism and standing in one place are equally dangerous to the country,” Putin said a few years ago.