-- SOCHI, Russia -- Music, dance and plenty of Russian bravado unleashed the ultimate achievement of Vladimir Putin's Russia on Friday -- a Winter Olympics to showcase the best athletes on ice and snow that the world has to offer.
The opening ceremony on the edge of the Black Sea and subsequent games are Russia's chance to tell its story of post-Soviet resurrection to the world, and dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that has marred the buildup to these most expensive Olympics ever.
Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a pre-show crowd still taking their seats: "Welcome to the center of the universe!"
For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3,000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at the Winter Games.
A satellite image of the earth was projected on the floor of Fisht Stadium as they entered during the parade of nations, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country. The athletes from the Cayman Islands arrived wearing shorts.
After Greece, traditionally first as the birthplace nation of Olympic competition, the teams marching into the stadium in Russian alphabetical order, putting the U.S. between Slovenia and Tajkistan.
Before the athlete's entrance, the ceremony hit an early bump when only four of the five Olympic Rings materialized in a wintry opening scene.
Five large, glowing snowflakes emerged from a whimsical opening meant to depict the four seasons. They floated to the top of Fisht arena and, one by one, started to morph into the rings. But only four joined together while the fifth remained a snowflake, apparently stuck behind the rest of them.
The five were supposed to join together and erupt in pyrotechnics to get the party started. Instead, they were eventually darkened and moved out of the arena, just as Putin was introduced.
The broken snowflake isn't the first opening ceremony blunder in Olympic history, of course. Vancouver, Sydney and Seoul all had issues with the torch lighting.
Sochi's opening ceremony is crafted as a celebration of Russia and is presenting Putin's version: a country with a rich and complex history emerging confidently from a rocky two decades and now capable of putting on a major international sports event.
The official ceremony opened with the Russian alphabet projected on the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country's heroes and their globally renowned achievements: composer Tchaikovsky; artists Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich; writers Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov; Mendeleev and his periodic table; the first spaceship Sputnik and Russia's space stations.
In a nod to Russia's long history, the national anthem was sung by the 600-year-old Sretensky Monastery Choir, a symbol of an increasing rapprochement between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is led by Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known to be Putin's confessor and one of the nation's most influential clergymen.
Every seat in Fisht Stadium had cloth bags that included a faux Olympic medal that they asked those in attendance to put around their necks. The medals lit up in several different colors, including blue, white and violet. The decorations sent shockwaves of light in sync with the upbeat techno music playing in the background as each nation was introduced.
The announcer paused for dramatic effect before the Russians were introduced, and the lights formed a red, white and blue waving flag as the crowd leaped to its feet and clapped along to a thumping beat that shook the building.
After the athletes had taken their seats in the crowd, a fanciful scene started with three giant, white, illuminated horses leading a parade of towering inflatables on to the stage. The balloons -- all with the familiar bulbous tops of Russian cathedrals -- bounced around the stage as children frolicked in a euphoric state of play.
It looked like a Russian version of Disney on Ice, and the thrilling scene wrapped with church bells ringing and the kids bounding off to loud cheers.
The night also included the ballet, classical music and odes to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy as expected.
Before the televised portion of the ceremony, Russian singers Tatu performed "Not Gonna Get Us" -- steering clear of the anger over a Russian law banning gay "propaganda" aimed at minors that is being used to discriminate against gays.
The women in Tatu are known for putting on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick, but on this night, they merely held hands, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances.
This time, their lead-in act was the Red Army Choir MVD signing Daft Punk's Grammy-winning "Get Lucky."
For people who don't know much about Russia, the ceremony's director, Konstantin Ernst, promised "relatively simple metaphors" -- and no obscure references, like the nurses in the London Games' opening ceremony representing the National Health Service, which he called one of the most "incomprehensible" moments in Olympic history.
Ernst said Tatu's "Not Gonna Get Us" was chosen because it's one of the only Russian pop songs that international viewers might recognize. Ernst also argued the choice of Tatu's song was about motivating athletes with an upbeat dance song that challenges competitors by saying, "You're not going to get us."
The Winter Games ceremony is generally a more low-key event than the summer opener. Ernst said organizers tried to keep it from dragging out too long, since most viewers only care to watch their own team and its key rivals.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.