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.
This delay gave me plenty of time to consider my question. Maybe I should ask: How will these Olympics affect the international perception of Russia and your leadership? After all, Putin has concocted a story for his people, that he is the one man strong enough to defend Russian territory and values against the Western invaders. Russian victories at Sochi will prove this.
The press woman led us upstairs to watch the game. Then Putin appeared, down at center ice, his voice emanating from the PA system. The press woman promised we would see him after the game. Now what I wanted to ask Putin was: Will I ever see you?
The final buzzer sounded and we hurried to a conference room. We waited more. I peeked through the doorway and down the hall. There I saw the great commotion that attends the approach of a very important person. The moment was nearly upon me, and I inhaled deeply.
Several large security men barged into the room. "Get out," they barked. They ushered us into a storage room and closed the door. There were a few chairs there, a small TV and a box of chocolate marshmallow bars. The press woman flicked on the TV, and the image on the screen was of the conference room we had just left. A group of men filtered into the room, Putin bringing up the rear. Seated at the conference table, he spoke with a measured tone. He said he was proud of the Russian victory in the game that had just ended. This was a good sign, a harbinger of Olympic victory.
I asked the press woman why we had been ejected from the conference room. Her face tightened. She spoke to me as though I failed to grasp the utility of my situation. Putin was conducting his press conference, and I was free to take notes. I looked around the room, searching for support from my Russian colleagues. There was none. One cameraman pointed his lens at the TV screen and began to record.
A s Putin enters his 15th year in a position of power, he has never been more securely in control of Russia. Part of this is by design, part plain coincidence, conditions having conspired to make Putin appear to be the world's craftiest statesman. The onetime KGB officer and former prime minister has faced down the U.S. on Syria, defusing the chemical-weapons controversy, and also the EU on Ukraine, lending Kiev $15 billion to remain in the Russian sphere. He has granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower. He has trivialized a domestic opposition movement. In October Forbes named him the most powerful person in the world. He leapfrogged Obama in the rankings, and how much fun that must have been for Putin, a virtual unknown when he was appointed president in 1999. Now the West, and the rest of the world, will be compelled to come to Sochi to live under his decree for a while.
Like almost no national leader before him, Putin has expended personal capital on these Olympics. In 2007 he presented Russia's Olympic bid -- speaking in both English and French, which surprised most everyone -- to the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala. He then pledged $12 billion from the state budget to build the Sochi Olympics from scratch. (The 2010 Vancouver Olympics cost $7 billion.) The first of that $12 billion flowed into Sochi from the state starting in late 2007, funding the construction of ski resorts, roadways, rinks and power plants. It soon became clear that Putin's estimate would have to be adjusted. Considerably. Last February RIA Novosti, Russia's state media service, announced that the Olympics had cost the government $50 billion, transforming Sochi into the most expensive Olympics ever.
When he assumed power in 1999, after a calamitous decade in which his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, devolved into a bumbling alcoholic, Putin brought stability to his country, relative to the period that preceded his presidency. That much is indisputable. Principally, he accomplished this because of rising global oil prices (Russia projects to be No. 3 in the world for oil production in 2013) and his re-establishment of state rule over business. He also clamped down on political opposition and the free press, peddling his concept of state control to the populace over Kremlin-owned TV. Increasingly, he used the imagery of sports to communicate his vigor to his people, from his longtime practice of judo to his recent dabbling in hockey. He's been photographed fishing, hiking, hunting and riding horseback, all without a shirt. The 61-year-old's photo ops provide steady reminders that today's leader of Russia is alert at the helm.
He can portray the resourceful, fearless commander a bit too lustily. In 2011 Putin went scuba diving at an archaeological camp off the Russian coast. He soon re-emerged carrying the remains of what looked to be earthen jars. He strode up the dock in his wet suit, a satisfied look on his face, apparently having made an archaeological discovery. "Treasure," he said. It turned out that these were Greek pieces from the early medieval period. It also turned out that the archaeologists working in the area had unearthed these jugs some time previous to Putin's recreational dive and placed them in shallow water for Putin to find.
The resulting perception that he was playing a role hardly mattered. Putin so monopolizes Russia's national conception of itself by now that whatever he does is by definition acceptable. After all, there is no other candidate, no other option.
T he man who was talking to me at Starbar, a locals' watering hole, was involved in his own competition, overturned shot glasses forming the Olympic rings on the bar in front of him. We were in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, where the skiing, snowboarding and sledding events will take place. He referred, in his own way, to how Putin took Russia back from the oligarchs who ruled Russia in the 1990s and gave it not "to the people" but to those like himself -- officials from the KGB, the military and the security services, who have divvied up Russia's spoils anew. "These KGB people are really low-quality people," he said, slurring his words. "Like Putin." Sochi has been another such opportunity and an example of how the system fostered by Putin works via kickbacks among government contractors or, perhaps worse, an absence of legal agreements or any collegiality between builders and operators. In Russian development, sometimes it is better to put your head down and go it alone, no matter if the job and the building may fall apart.
A few people within earshot shuddered to hear such blunt talk. The Russian government under Putin has jailed and handed stiff punishments to people who have done little more than attend political protest rallies. The vindictiveness has unnerved people into believing even simple words could result in life-threatening consequences.
Adding to the tension of the moment is the fact that Putin has only just been in Sochi, a mere 30 miles away. He spent an evening at the waterfront nightclub Platforma, entertaining his close friend Steven Seagal. Two summers before this, Putin, a black belt in judo, entertained Jean-Claude Van Damme. This is Putin's level, the people he enjoys having around him. Imagine a country ruled by Frank Dux, played by Van Damme in Bloodsport, an Army officer looking for a fight. Or Nico Toscani, Seagal's role in Above the Law, a special ops veteran, a renegade Chicago cop on a mission. In Russia there is no need to imagine. Vladimir Putin is like a 1980s action hero, except he commands the largest country in the world.
But when it comes to real-world dilemmas, Putin has his real-world limitations. The city of Volgograd, which stands 400 miles northeast of Sochi, has suffered three suicide bomb attacks in recent months. The latest bombings, carried out first at a train station and then on a trolleybus on consecutive days in late December, left 34 dead. The attacks showed that Russia's Islamic terrorists, headquartered just over the Caucasus Mountains from Sochi, can perform coordinated actions at whim. In January, Pyatigorsk, just 168 miles east of Sochi, was put on a terror alert after police discovered six bodies riddled with bullets beside a series of explosives rigged to go off. Soon afterward, in Nalchik, 195 miles east of Sochi, police arrested five terror suspects, claiming they were in possession of grenades, ammunition and a homemade bomb.
A few days after the Volgograd bombings, Putin skied down the slopes in Krasnaya Polyana as TV cameras followed him, showing how safe it was. "Putin is heading forward to his cherished goal," said a friend of mine, a Volgograd native. "Hosting the Winter Olympics in a subtropical beach resort next to the Caucasus, where bombs explode virtually every day. It's where he likes to ski, and he's going to force everyone to like to ski there. No matter what it costs."
I met Dmitry Gudkov in a Moscow café. Gudkov is a member of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. For a time, he belonged to the political party A Just Russia, one of the few opposition figures in the chamber that exists as Putin's rubber stamp. This explains why, despite the absence of reliable oversight on the $50 billion of state money that has gone into Olympic development, there has been no discussion about Sochi in the Duma for the past few years. Gudkov is one of the few elected politicians in Russia who is willing to speak about such things. His father, Gennady Gudkov, did the same, before his fellow Duma members voted him out of the chamber on fraud charges.
There are issues in Russia far more important than Sochi. Gudkov mentions education, road construction, health care. But Putin, he says, has persuaded those who suffer most acutely from society's shortcomings to look to the Olympics for salvation. "People are waiting for a miracle," Gudkov says. "The Russian president has been building a big illusion that there are enemies all around us. Putin is considered to be a very strong leader. And because we are strong, we will win these Games."
But there is a flip side that will challenge Putin, Gudkov believes. "If we do poorly, it will be the failure of the big illusion. People will need someone to blame. And it can bury this regime."
Gudkov is perhaps too hopeful. Putin has grown crafty through his years in power, manipulating perceptions with surprising timing and deftness. Without warning, in late December, Putin freed Russia's three most celebrated prisoners, two members of the punk collective Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man. The amnesty was something less than it appeared to be. All three prisoners were due for release within months. No matter. This was a brilliant move. Now there will be no "Free Pussy Riot" placards in Sochi, no interviews on NBC Sports with Khodorkovsky's lawyers. Putin scored points as the compassionate leader, Vladimir the Kind, proving that it's easy to be merciful, if at first you are without mercy.
I t is afternoon at the nightclub Cabaret Mayak in Sochi. Without the evening clientele, it is difficult to figure out what sort of club Mayak is. But the beefcake shots on the wall give it away. Isn't this just the sort of "gay propaganda" that was made illegal recently? Putin has made a point of vilifying the growing support for gay rights in the West. This is a strange topic to stress, with so many important issues to choose from, but his version of Russia is a conservative, insular, anti-Western country built on a clear choice: either Putin or a morally decrepit West, where identity and gender are blurring into a single perverted mongrel.
"Europeans are dying out," Putin said in a speech in the fall. "Gay marriages don't produce children ... Without the values at the core of Christianity and other world religions, without moral norms that have been shaped over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. [In Western Europe] there is a policy equating families with many children with same-sex families, belief in God with belief in Satan."
Mayak's owner, Andrei Tenichev, said he has faced no crackdown since the new law went into effect. He said his club operates as it always has, with no interference, here right off the Black Sea beach. "Sochi has always been a tolerant place," Tenichev said. "I'm worried about extremism in Russia, but we haven't experienced it so far." Putin is perhaps too smart to give such ammunition to the openly gay delegates, including Billie Jean King, whom Obama is sending to Sochi.
I joined a hockey game in the coastal cluster just a few months after the fake presidential press conference. I skated with a team of employees from Olympstroy, the state-owned contractor for Olympic venues. We played on a modest practice rink, which national teams will use at the Olympics.
On the bench, the players discussed the importance of Russia's winning gold in hockey. Vladimir Cherkasov, the manager of the Olympic rinks, mentioned the humiliation of Russia's last Olympic game, a 7-3 quarterfinal defeat to Canada in Vancouver. "Other teams will come here to win or lose," he said. "We will win, or we will die."
They speak in the context of the Soviet hockey team, the Big Red Machine, symbol of Soviet geopolitical power. There is strong in Russian society, and there is weak, and there is nothing else. In the Soviet era, the national hockey team dominated international tournaments (de facto professionals in the amateur competitions), winning gold in seven of the nine Olympics in which it entered. In the last five Olympics, Russia has medaled only twice, once earning silver, once bronze. While Russians revere the dominant Soviet team with emotional attachment, they deride its pathetic Russian successor, stocked as it has been with individualistic mercenaries from the NHL. With the games in Sochi, under Putin's banner of new Russian strength, the pressure on the team will be immense. It will be stocked, but the general manager of one Scandinavian national team says: "Russia might ?not medal."
The players' eyes moistened in the memory of what was, nostalgia strongest in those who have lost a (cold)war. All they talk about is a Sochi final matchup with Canada, their old antagonist and measuring stick from the days of the Canada Cup. Alexander Stus, a manager for Olympstroy, gestures at the rink. "Why do you think we built all this?" he asks. "If we lose, they should shoot everyone."
Russia's hockey players aren't the only ones who might be concerned about their future. In Krasnaya Polyana, my taxi drove past hundreds of muddied migrant workers. Workers have continually complained of late payment. In October one laborer appeared at Sochi's Olympic media center, his lips sewn together in protest of two months' worth of unpaid wages. In 2012 more than 25 laborers died in accidents on Olympic-related sites. My driver turned up the car radio, his voice concealed by the noise, and said, "I know where they're buried." He said there is a mass grave in the mountains, holding the bodies of 50 or so workers. I asked him where this grave was located, if he could take me there. His face went slack, and he mumbled something indecipherable. Later, others spoke of such a grave. It exists as a phantom of local conviction, that the Russian state and its contract construction firms, in their authority, are capable of ripping up not only the land but the people.
I t is said that when Putin visited Sochi over the past few years and clouds happened to speckle the sky, exceptional measures were taken to accommodate him. As the presidential plane descended, military helicopters took flight. Their rotor blades spinning, the helicopters dispersed the clouds. In this way, Putin could obtain an unobstructed view of his creation along the coast of the Black Sea.
Back in the storage room, watching Putin speak a room away, eight hours into a day administered like Russia itself -- by fiat, without much planning and with no accountability or protest -- I finally saw what I should ask Putin: How will the Sochi Olympics truly reflect your view of the world?
But when I turned to go find Putin, security guards blocked the door. I was going nowhere. So I grabbed a marshmallow bar and watched the rest of the show.