Comment: Sochi 2014

This online feature stems from and supplements Contemporary Theatre Review 23.4, a themed issue on ‘The Cultural Politics of London 2012’, by focusing on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Our two contributors to the feature – Yana Meerzon and Lynne McCarthy – were invited to contribute ‘flash responses’ to the cultural politics of Sochi 2014, composed in the weeks following Sochi so as to capture a sense of timeliness and urgency. Both Meerzon and McCarthy pick up on some of the key themes raised in the previous special issue, such as the performance of nation (and metropolis), ‘critical acts of belonging’ and the eviction of local residents, but also introduce new ideas and terms that might add to the debate surrounding the Olympics and performance – particularly at such a charged geopolitical moment for Russia.

For Meerzon, the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony aligns with Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the ‘aesthetics of kitsch’. She explores this notion by considering how simulation, monumentalism, sentimentalism and nostalgia feed into the performance of Russian national identity, reviving, in cultural political mode, something like the Soviet mass-pageant. McCarthy focuses on the eviction of local residents to make space for the construction of Olympic buildings and infrastructure, which was also such a pressing socio-political issue surrounding London 2012. Usefully, McCarthy considers how these forced evictions evince a spectacular staging of property relations. Borrowing from J. Douglas Porteous and Sandra Smith’s exploration of ‘domicide’ – the deliberate destruction of people’s homes to achieve a given outcome, such as the development of infrastructure – McCarthy offers a pressing and in many ways disturbing critique of staging Sochi 2014.

Like the special issue on London 2012, the responses presented here draw on multiple disciplines, but also suggest the contribution that theatre and performance studies might make to a critique of the cultural politics of the Olympic Games. In their introduction to the special issue, co-editors Jen Harvie and Keren Zaiontz describe the typical relationship this way: ‘If performance has any general use-value for critical Olympic scholars, then it is […] to designate the Games as a “spectacular circus”’. In contrast, Harvie and Zaiontz advocate a view in which performance is considered ‘as a process constituted by embodied and material exchanges that unfold through time, involving multiple actors’.1  At various points throughout Meerzon and McCarthy’s comments, Sochi 2014 is either implicitly or explicitly framed as a ‘spectacular circus’; however, this is only as a means of illuminating the processes – the embodied and material exchanges – that help to constitute that image. For both these authors, culture, as the making and representation of meaning, is deployed politically. It is bound up with geopolitics, with nation and with the construction and displacement of communities. The cultural politics of Sochi 2014 is therefore many-levelled and at each of these levels, as these two responses elucidate, we find performance.

– Adam Alston

The Russian Souvenir

Yana Meerzon

video-icon-12px Watch highlights from the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony 

Olympic events have acquired a certain ideological and performative power since the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in addition to their significance in the world of sports. The added suspense of a 21st century Olympics is in its projected influence on the economy and the world-image of a host country. The 2014 Sochi Olympics was no exception: a futuristic logo, ‘the first digital brand in the history of the Olympic movement’,2 three mascots (a polar bear, a snow hare, and a snow leopard), and a fusion of cultural and historical referents, from theatrical constructivism to Mukhina’s 1937 Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, presented Sochi’s domestic and international TV viewers with a recognizably post-Soviet performative souvenir.

Designed in the key of simulation and monumentalism, the style that Baudrillard named the aesthetics of kitsch,3 this TV souvenir had its target viewer too. Sochi’s ceremonies, similarly to ‘any officially-sponsored celebrations in Russia’, were targeting ‘the governmental structures themselves, […] important foreigners, and Russian folk in front of their TVs’.4 Stylistically, the show was addressed to those ordinary Joes (in Russia and worldwide) who identify America with McDonald’s golden arches, Russia with birches and cupolas, and think of Paris as the home of the Eiffel Tower.

The opening ceremony begins with Lyubov, a Russian girl, dreaming about her country. She travels across time to evoke for the multi-million live and TV audiences of the Sochi 2014 Olympics the signposts of Russian history by naming letters of the alphabet.5 Among them are some famous Russian exiles, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Chagall and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, whose names were used by the creative team of world-known entertainers led by its executive producer Konstantin Ernst and the Russian-American multimedia artist George Tsypin, to carve an image of Putin’s Russia that embraces cultural diversity and tolerance towards its dissidents and ethnic minorities.6

The ceremony continues with the theme-based show ‘Dreams about Russia’ at the Fabergé egg-shaped Fisht Stadium. It runs for three hours with 44 world leaders in the audience and 140 TV cameras recording and transmitting it worldwide.7 The show includes the 2014 Olympic athletes’ parade, which features the Russian team ‘dressed as sexy Santas’. ‘Strong move, Vladimir’, Jacob Steinberg comments: ‘say what you like but the man knows what the public wants’.8 Certainly, because ‘to the aesthetics of beauty and originality, kitsch opposes its aesthetics of simulation: it everywhere reproduces objects smaller or larger than life; it imitates materials (in plaster, plastic, etc.); it apes forms or combines them discordantly; it repeats fashion without having been part of the experience of fashion’.9 But kitsch is not only about clichés and simulation; it is also a move toward simplicity, excessive glamour, and unnecessary grandeur.

In Sochi 2014, the Russian opera diva Anna Netrebko sings the Olympic anthem and the Moscow Sretensky Monastery male choir performs Russia’s national anthem, all followed by 3,000 professional performers and 12,000 volunteers presenting scenes from pre-Revolution Russia, the 1917 revolution, 1930s industrialization and the economic boom of the 1960s. This spectacle is crowned by scenes from the ballet War and Peace, featuring Vladimir Vasiliev, the patriarch of today’s Russian ballet. The soundtrack presents a similar potpourri of themes and allusions: it includes Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances and the Russian faux lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u. with their hit ‘Not Gonna Get Us’. The flying church domes, lakes, meadows, and horses complete this performative TV souvenir.

Not surprisingly, kitsch is about nostalgia too. A token of sentimental memories, a kitschy souvenir can trigger the process of remembering and so can connect present to the past. When it comes to a country’s history, in this process of nostalgic remembering, ‘often it is not the historical period itself that is being evoked in pure form, as a direct line to history, but it is as filtered through the interpretations of that history of previous generations and decades. This is where the manipulation comes in’.10 The Tsypin/Ernst’s staging closely follows the chosen tone of the Sochi opening celebrations; it echoes the 1910 artistic manifesto of the Russian stage designer Aristarkh Lentulov, who proposed to connect Russian folk art with the avant-garde. However, the 2002 Venice Biennale has already seen Tsypin’s mirage of the dancing glass cupolas: a much lower-scale production created in a delicate minor-key.11 The kitschy hue of the 2014 ceremonies comes from a shift towards a self-congratulatory major-key tone, much in line with the 1930s Soviet mass pageants and the Russian authorities’ self-celebratory rhetoric today.

Spending $51 billion on the Sochi Olympics is in line with the Putin government’s investment in Russia’s world image, starting with the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Moscow.12 This image seems intended to re-position Russia as an influential but progressive power, a country that treasures its history and is open to dialogue with its economic and political partners. As Putin stated in his opening speech,

tonight is about our dreams, the dreams of our past and our dreams for the future of Russia. […] I wanted to break the stereotype of our country. What is Russia for an average person of this world? It is caviar and matreshka dolls, balalaika or ushanka hats, or even just a bear. These things are all part of us but they are not the whole of us.13

Daniele Finzi Pasca was invited to create this image of a complex Russia for the Sochi 2014 closing ceremony. ‘In order to present our culture objectively’, Ernst explains, ‘we decided to look at it through a European perspective, through the eyes of a man born in the very heart of Europe: prominent director Daniele Finzi Pasca. We wanted to see how Russian culture reflects in the world art context and which part of Russian culture has already become an integral part of world culture’.14 The closing ceremony opens with the scene ‘The Sky and the Sea’. It unfolds to the music from the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life composed by the Russian-American composer Dimitri Tiomkin;15 and features Lyubov, her friends Yura and Valentina, and two clowns, flying over the stadium in a small fishing boat. This scene is followed by other performative sequences dedicated to Russian theatre, literature and visuals arts, featuring ‘The World of Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall’ with Chagall’s villages in 3D. A remix of the 1980 Olympics’ song ‘Goodbye, Moscow!’ is used to extinguish the 2014 Olympic flames, and, as the official Sochi 2014 website tells us, the song is there to symbolize ‘the connection between the Olympic generations’.16 The festivity closes with Hibla Gerzmava, the Abkhazian-Russian soprano, performing another song, ‘Good Bye Sochi’, alongside the Children’s Chorus of Russia, while also traversing the space of the stadium on a fantasy boat.

Paradoxically, this mixture of celebratory rhetoric, sentimentality, and the kitschy style managed to simultaneously excite and alienate many Russian and international audiences. As Owen Gibson of the Guardian writes, ‘Ernst sought to follow Boyle in trying to show how this vast country wants to be perceived by romping through its past. But, unlike Boyle’s pitch-perfect depiction of multicultural modern Britain, he ended up revealing little about what it’s like to live in post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps tellingly, under Putin’s gaze, he instead delivered an homage to the glories of Russia’s past’.17 On the other hand, the Olympic Games remain an example of today’s popular TV entertainment. As such, it should appeal to the population’s taste for both kitschiness and sentimentality, and its sense of national pride, be it China, Great Britain, Canada or Russia. In the Russian case, the performative traditions of the state sponsored mass-celebrations take the leading role. Long before Putin’s time, they were created to celebrate the new Soviet ideology and to showcase the talent of the country’s theatre makers: such was Nikolai Evreinov’s staging of ‘The Storming of the Winter Palace’ in 1920.18 In the 2014 Sochi, what had seemed a long-forgotten tradition of the Soviet mass-pageant was given a second chance, bringing the artistic skills of entertainers in line with the demands of popular taste and statist ideology. After all, Baudrillard’s kitschy object can ‘proliferate everywhere’, specifically in the ‘holiday resorts and places of leisure’,19 with Sochi 2014 being a significant part of Putin’s program to turn Russia into a trustworthy economic partner for the foreign investors and the city itself into an international holiday resort.20 Hence, the 2014 Olympic celebrations went along with the popular TV aesthetics and also reminded its viewers that ‘Russia is a strange, remarkable country that’s endured horrific wars and oppression while also creating some of the world’s greatest achievements in art and science. It has produced Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and a men’s police choir singing Daft Punk. It’s complicated, so let’s treat it that way’.21 Indeed, kitsch or not, Russia is complicated and its projected image is difficult to read; that is exactly what the February-March Crimea crisis, which followed the Olympic festivities, has illustrated.

Yana Meerzon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests are in drama and performance theory, theatre semiotics and communication, theatre of exile, and cultural and interdisciplinary studies. 

Domicide and the Olympics

Lynne McCarthy

In the preparations for Sochi 2014, the round of land clearances that accompany the transnational placement of the Olympics were inevitable. Compulsory purchase orders, forced evictions and resettlement are a marker of the Games: the displacement of 1.5 million people in Beijing; 9,000 people in Atlanta; the largest compulsory purchase order in the history of the UK was undertaken for the London Olympics;22 and 2,000 people were forcibly evicted from Sochi National Park. Planned displacements like these are invoked in the national interest: interests that are articulated as power, prestige and the cultural projection of nation irrespective of where the Olympics are staged. Here I trace how property relations are staged by the Olympics and where these relations can be read as both a domestic and international performance.

I distinguish between two forms of property relations that played out at Sochi 2014: firstly, making space for the Olympics always involves the destruction of homes, and in ways that have become a pre-game performance for any nation hosting the Games. The dispossession of physical property across communities is spectacular in the sense that it functions to make infrastructure disappear and along with it the social organisation that was dependent on its form. Such destruction is also spectacular in the brutal detachment of people from home. Secondly, and on a larger scale, property is territory and can be viewed as the division of national boundaries in terms of what is and isn’t within possession. The Olympics is a platform for a hosting nation to consolidate national property in cultural terms. I am thinking of culture here as an expression of national ownership that is used to portray an outwardly-facing nationalism on the Olympic stage.

In light of the 2,000 forced evictions that took place at Sochi, the term ‘domicide’ is a means of describing the planned demolition of home in the common good. According to the scholars, J. Douglas Porteous and Sandra Smith, domicide is the ‘deliberate destruction of home by human agency in pursuit of specified goals, which causes suffering to the victims’.23 Effectuated through eviction, relocation, eminent domain, and internal displacement, domicide is an accurate depiction of events that take place behind the scenes of the Olympics. Compensation for eviction through the Russian equivalent of the UK compulsory purchase order (law 3.01) at best was set at the market price for a property and did not evaluate the trauma of detachment from home for Sochi residents. Laws such as 3.01 can only be enacted in the common good. A historically contentious term , the common good is the identification of resources that are requisitioned for public use , but whether in an utilitarian, capitalist or socialist scene, the problem of what is in the common good is usually determined in the state’s interest. Rather than benefitting an entire population, the common good is most often deployed to expropriate in real terms from the minority of a population. For Porteous and Smith the concept is a contradiction because it ‘excludes the victims it creates’.24 What is the common good when hosting the Games?: profit, prestige, progress and surely the pay-off of positive international relations.

In Sochi it is reported that those residents who could not declare their titles or deeds of ownership were evicted without recourse to alternative housing or compensation.25 Jessica Allina-Pisano, discussing land transfer in the break-up of the USSR and in the particular context of the Ukraine, notes how the transition from state ownership to private ownership was uneasily managed off-setting anxiety about ‘ownership society’.26 One Soviet definition of the common good – shelter for all – has changed for Russians, who, under liberal democracy, now make new adjustments to the fact that home is no longer a state guarantee. Not that the history of property relations has been without contention, for instance, Soviet Collectivisation wiped out the infrastructure of entire rural villages to implant spatial models of the ideal Soviet community. And the original Potemkin village was a portable scenic set constructed to impress Catherine the Great as she toured the Ukraine and Crimea in the 1780s. Not dissimilar to the Olympic stadium, the Potemkin village was used as a front and distraction from the social unrest in rural villages of the time.27

Added to the contentious property relations that are already present in contemporary Russian spatial planning, staging the Olympics brings with it an inwardly focused violence. Some of the rough evictions that took place at Sochi were conducted by police with the use of Kalashnikovs and without appropriate notice given to residents.28 Domicide should therefore be considered an act of violence made against minority members of a population that is carried out as a technique of governance. In the context of the Olympics, the destruction and annexing of homes is vindicated by the politics of advancing the nation. In a sense, domicide is a performance that shows how seriously hosting the Games are taken, and the measure to which a nation will carry out internal displacements to make room for the international stadium of the Olympics. Seen this way there is little to distinguish the acts of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from barbarism. As a form of social planning, the state use of domicide reflects the ways a nation attempts to fortify itself on the international stage through sacrificing members of its population.

But planning for the Games also has an aesthetic and spatial dimension. Set within the boundaries of a stadium, the Games spatially intensify cultural activities condensing them into spectacle. The reproduction of culture in the national interest, and in the case of Sochi 2014, was worth fifty billion dollars to Putin’s Russia. As with many opening and closing ceremonies, the Russians displayed cultural history, unity and diversity, but more significantly they demonstrated national power. Mass spectacle is a familiar feature of Russian social planning and organisation. The restaging of the Russian Revolution in 1918 by the director Anatoloy Lunarchsky commandeered the city centre of Moscow, and was used as a means of getting the right aesthetic look for the new Soviet era.29 This investment in spectacle is a means of consolidating culture to such an extent that it becomes a form of national property, or a set of relations identifying what it is to be in possession of something British, or Russian, etc.

The physical infrastructure of the Olympic stadium bears another aspect to property by creating intimate spatial politics where the close proximity of contending national cultures overlaps and frays. While the sporting activities of the Olympics symbolically highlight what is lost and gained, the division of interests between nations can also be literally staked. For instance, the IOC banned Ukrainian athletes from wearing black armbands to mark their respect for those who died in the protests at Kiev, and Ukrainian paralympians boycotted the athletes’ parade. The ‘violent nationalism[s]’ that attend the Olympics, outlined by Jen Harvie and Keren Zaiontz in the editorial to Contemporary Theatre Review’s issue on ‘The Cultural Politics of London 2012’, became a de facto aspect of Sochi this year.30 Russian military manoeuvres in the surrounding areas of the Ukraine, and its annexing of the Crimea occurred very closely to the Games at Sochi. Putin met the president of the Ukraine at the side lines of the Olympics and the G8 conference, due to take place at Sochi, was withdrawn over moral concerns about Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine. The Olympics at Sochi manifested how symbolic and cultural nationalism easily descends into a crisis of international relations.

To host the Olympics makes the relationships between the home and the state and between the state and international relations both visible and contentious. The performance of national interest through the cultural platform of the Olympics can, as in the case of Sochi 2014, quickly transform into a political realism where competing nations and competing interests collide with violent consequences. What I propose is that staging the Olympics exacerbates property relations such that modes of possession are performed on a domestic and international scale, which include deracination, internal displacements and forceful anxieties about territory and nation.


Lynne McCarthy is a PhD student in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research engages with people-property relations in current cultural practices, with a particular focus on the interactions of artists with homemade space, evictions and waste. Her work aims to articulate contemporary modes of cultural possession.


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  1. Jen Harvie and Keren Zaiontz, ‘Introduction: The Cultural Politics of London 2012’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 23 (2013), 476-485 (pp. 478-79).
  2. Jonathan Kolatch, ‘Behind Sochi’s Futuristic Logo’, New Yorker, 3 February 2014, <> [accessed 20 March 2014].
  3. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London: Sage, 1998).
  4. Dmitri Ol’shansky, ‘O Prasdnikah v Rossii’, Ekho Moskvy, 7 Feb 2014 <> [accessed 2 March 2014].
  5. Lyubov was played by the 11-year-old gymnast Liza Temnikova.
  6. Ian Chadband, ‘Sochi opening ceremony: From Russia with love – Swan Lake, War and Peace and the Russian Revolution’, Telegraph, 7 February 2014, <> [accessed 15 March 2014].
  7. However, the Telegraph suggested that ‘If there was no Barack Obama, no David Cameron and no Angela Merkel around, perhaps scared off by being associated with this ostentatious, controversy-packed show of strength, then that was their loss, Putin’s self-satisfied look seemed to suggest’ (Chadband, ’Sochi opening ceremony’).
  8. Jacob Steinberg, ‘Beauty and splendor of Winter Olympics opening ceremony hit home’, Guardian, 7 February 2014, <> [accessed 15 March 2014].
  9. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, p. 111.
  10. Yana Meerzon, Benjamin Poore, and Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe,‘Nostalgia’, in Observing Theatre: Spirituality and Subjectivity in the Performing Arts, ed. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2013), p. 15
  11. Grigory Revzin, ‘Ne geroism smerti, a triumph zhizni’, Novoe Vremya/The New Times, 9 February 2014. <> [9 March 2014].
  12. Joshua Yaffa, ‘The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics’, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 2 January 2014 <> [accessed 9 March 2014].
  13. Putin quoted in Chadband, ‘Sochi opening ceremony’.
  14. ‘Sochi 2014 Closing Ceremony Unites Olympic Generations’ SOCHI.RU.2014, 24 February 2014 <> [accessed 22 March 2014].
  15. Warren M. Sherk, ‘Music by Tiomkin opens Sochi closing ceremonies to high acclaim’, ‘Dimitri Tiomkin, The Official Website’, February 2014, <> [accessed 22 March 2014].
  16. ‘Sochi 2014 Closing Ceremony Unites Olympic Generations’.
  17. Owen Gibson, ‘Sochi 2014 opening ceremony: Ernst delivers disco-led paean to the past’, Guardian, 7 February 2014 <> [accessed 15 March 2014].
  18. Curiously, Tiomkin, whose music was used in 2014 ceremonies, participated in making ‘The Storming of the Winter Palace’ before his emigration to the West.
  19. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, p. 110.
  20. ‘The triumph of Vladimir Putin’, Economist, 1 February 2014, <> [accessed 20 March 2014].
  21. Alan Yuhas, ‘Mythbusting: Russia, Putin and why the Sochi Olympic Games matter’, Guardian, 7 February 2014, <> [accessed 20 March 2014].
  22. Craig Thatcher, ‘Forced Evictions: Legacies of Dislocation on the Clay’s Lane Estate’, in The Art of Dissent, Adventures in London’s Olympic State, ed. By Hilary Powell and Isaac Marrero-Guillamon (Hackney Wick, London: Marshgate Press, 2012 ), p. 197.
  23. J. Douglas Porteous and Sandra E. Smith, Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home (London; Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), p. 12.
  24. Ibid, p. 14.
  25. Katya Golubkova and Melissa Akin, ‘Bulldozers clear the way in Russia’s Olympics Showcase’, Reuters, 5 November, 2012, <> [accessed 26 March, 2014].
  26. According to Allina-Pisano, the redistribution of land was municipally led by land officials and therefore varied from region to region. Land officials often used resistant and informal practices to stabilise the economic risks involved in privatisation reverting to the collective, co-operative system to offset the transition. This meant a gap emerged between individual legal ownership and the de facto use of land. See Jessica Allina-Pisano, The Post-Soviet Potemkin Village: Politics and Property Rights in the Black Earth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 1-27 and p. 3.
  27. David Horsey, ‘Sochi Olympic Games are Russia’s Newest Potemkin Village’, LA Times, 11 February 2014, <,0,7970143.story#axzz2z9ySCYH0> [accessed 13 March, 2014].
  28. Sergei L. Loiko, ‘Sochi Winter Games at Heart of Residents’ Woes’, Los Angeles Times, 6 February 2014, <> [accessed 13 March, 2014].
  29. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 195-196.
  30. Harvie and Zaiontz, p. 476.