Monopoly Games

Vladimir Putin

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 3 Music issue. Subscribe today!

W hat to ask the ruler? Last summer I joined the presidential press pool in Sochi, Russia, the home of February's Olympics. Russian president -- and self-appointed Sochi Games manager -- Vladimir Putin was in town to christen an Olympic hockey rink and watch a junior game between the U.S. and Russia. The woman from his press office said I would have the chance to ask him a question. This was a significant proposal. Putin holds just one press conference a year, and even that is more like an autograph session.

I hopped inside the van outside the Sochi Breeze Spa Hotel, near the eastern coast of the Black Sea. I was the only foreigner. The rest were journalists from state-controlled TV. We drove along Sochi's winding main road, past the construction zones that had plagued this resort town for the past seven years, past Olympic rings, 20 feet high, set among a tangle of new highway overpasses. My foreign colleagues were sociable, and we conversed in Russian. It wasn't long, however, before they pressed me to answer for America's shortcomings: the NSA's gathering of personal data, Barack Obama's sinking approval rating. Having lived in Russia from 2003 to 2008, I was used to these types of questions. I just smiled. I had other things to consider.

Hoping to strike the right balance, professional but probing, I thought I might ask Putin: What is the meaning of the Sochi Olympics for the Russian people? Then I imagined he would purse his lips, as he is known to do upon fielding a dull question, and quack out a pat reply. That wouldn't do. As one of my colleagues asked me why I wanted to go to war with Syria, I thought I should ask Putin something as provocative. There was no shortage of material.

These are Putin's Games, after all, a product of the ego, built by blunt command. The command is to construct a stage on which the style of Putin's "managed democracy" will enlighten the world. Yet as the Olympics approach, that stage sure is getting crowded. The Russian parliament recently ratified a bill, signed by Putin, that outlaws gay propaganda. And just 200 miles north over the Caucasus Mountains, the leaders of Russia's Islamic insurgency have pledged to disrupt the Olympics with terrorist violence. Every country has its troubles, but given Russia's theatrical scope, here problems assume dramatic proportions.

We arrived at the coastal cluster, a collection of ice rinks where the skating competitions will take place. Several men in dark suits ran us through a body scanner. The detector emitted a few beeps and blips, but no one seemed to pay much attention.

We waited in the hockey rink's press room for a few hours, but no sign of Putin. He is a notorious dawdler. He has kept the pope waiting for him. Queen Elizabeth too. He is also tautly disciplined. He carries himself with controlled menace and rarely smiles. When he walks into a room and coolly levels his gaze at those gathered around him, this is no act. His opponents have routinely wound up in exile or in prison. In Putin, there is nothing of a Western political leader, the perpetual candidate who charms his public, conveying a personable disposition. Putin is in charge, and he doesn't care what anybody thinks.

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