The Olympic rings are reflected in a puddle at the Olympic Park for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, January 30, 2014.
Phil Noble / Courtesy Reuters

Russians love sports. They always have. Like their counterparts in other countries, they believe that athletic prowess reflects national strength. Russians also like television. The country has hundreds of channels, and although young people might reach for their cell phones or laptops in the big cities, as many as 85 percent of Russian citizens still depend on television for their news.

The Olympics, which start today, will bring these two loves together. Across the world, round-the-clock television footage will feature white-knuckle competitions and emotional celebrations in Russia’s staggeringly beautiful Sochi, a resort town ringed by the snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus. Russian President Vladimir Putin will get the chance to show a vast global audience how modern and powerful -- in soft and hard terms -- his country is. He will no doubt be pleased if the foreigners who have questioned Russia’s ability to pull off the games have to retract their words.

But if the days leading up to the games are any indication, Russians watching at home will see slightly different coverage. After a difficult year of protests and economic malaise, a well-run Olympics would be a good reassurance to domestic viewers that their country is back on the upswing. Unfortunately, however, events in Ukraine are getting in the way. So, as Russians tune in to the familiar box, what will they see?

Like many countries, Russia has a number of television stations that broadcast only sports, but many of those require special sets. Russians can also get sports programming beamed in by satellite, but the subscription fee is often prohibitively high. As a consequence, the vast majority of Russians watch one of the three domestic state-controlled TV channels for news and entertainment.

Of the trio, Channel One draws in the biggest audience for its nightly official news broadcast. The network has been around for ages, serving up raves of every Russian leader since Nikita Khrushchev. The brief tenure of President Boris Yeltsin changed things a bit. The channel loosened up and introduced opposing viewpoints. But before long, Yeltsin was out and the old way was back in. Still, practically everyone tuned in for two reasons. First, because maybe some corner of the picture or some vague contradiction could offer viewers a hint about what information and events were being held back. And second, because the state-controlled channel sometimes broadcasts policy declarations, and -- who knew? -- maybe something of grave consequence was afoot. 

To this day, Channel One’s thoroughgoing bias (and the viewing public’s motivations for watching) has remained unchanged. The state still approves the channel’s news script; Konstantin Ernst, the head of the station, reportedly talks to Kremlin officials several times a day. In the last few weeks, one topic of discussion has likely been how the state should cover the Olympics. The news director of Channel One’s most authoritative news program, Vremya (“Time”), would surely prefer to devote as much airtime as possible to upbeat coverage of the Olympic extravaganza. And all else being equal, Putin would presumably like the channel to use its broadcast minutes playing up the state’s athletic and event-planning prowess. 

Unfortunately, however, that is not how the chips have fallen for either man. These days, at least, the violence in Ukraine overshadows all else. That is partly because it is a very real security issue for Russia. The West, particularly the European Union, could, as the Kremlin believes, use Ukraine as a wedge against Russia. In addition, half the country is Russian, not Ukrainian. Ukraine’s southern reaches were given away to Ukraine by Khrushchev to commemorate a historic pledge of unification in 1954. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, families were separated; in any given group of Russians, someone is bound to have family in Ukraine. 

Given the public sentiment about Ukraine, Russian television has been loath to look away from the demonstrations there. Of course, state-owned channels present only the official Kremlin line about the violence. There is nothing about what has really happened: a popular uprising against an increasingly repressive president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the birth of a genuine opposition movement with a trio of leaders who can speak to the masses. All one finds on Russian television is correspondents lamenting the West’s plans to use Ukraine to destroy Russia and the protesters’ violent bigotry.

For example, during one Vremya broadcast on Channel One in late January, anchors spoke for over six minutes of horrendous fires on the streets of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. The viewer saw protesters bent on inflicting serious harm to government security forces, demonstrators breaking up cobblestones to throw at their enemy, and riot police in their full-body shields made of Perspex advancing and retreating -- and blood and inert figures in the streets.

It was late in the show before the program got around to the Olympics. An official -- plump and jovial -- reported that, this year, Russia would field its largest and youngest Olympic team ever. In fact, he said, Russians would even be competing in curling -- a first. By way of explanation, the program quickly cut to some pictures of the sport. (American broadcasters do that, too. Curling, it appears, is incomprehensible to non-fans everywhere.) Finally, the program lingered on the ever-attractive Yevgeny Plyushchenko, a champion figure skater, as he attempted to qualify for the Russian team. After the bitter fight-to-the-death in Ukraine’s Maidan -- the capital’s central square -- the footage came as quite a relief.

Subsequent broadcasts that month on Vremya also opened with reports from Ukraine. In one on January 24, the headline story was that peace talks between Yanukovych and opposition leaders had failed (cut to footage of one of the opposition leaders, the former world champion boxer Vitali Klitschko, towering over everyone else) and that the Ukrainian prime minister had resigned. As in earlier coverage, the opposition was subtly, and not so subtly, blamed for the violence. For example, producers paired footage of one correspondent calling the revolt a “so-called peaceful protest” with video of police demonstrating for the camera wounds that supposedly peaceable protesters had inflicted.

After a while, the unsavory thugs and extremists within the protesters’ ranks took center stage on Russia's state-owned channels. The stories showed Putin, at a press conference in Brussels, claiming that information in the Western media had been one-sided and that many protesters were nationalist extremists who hurled racist slurs at Jews, blacks, and Russians. Without hesitating, Putin used the same terms to condemn the protesters. As usual, the program then cut briefly to the Olympics at the end of the news: foreign specialists praising technical aspects of Sochi’s ski jumps and speed-skating track.

Days later, Ukraine led Vremya again. Yanukovych had been hospitalized for an unspecified illness. Street fighting was continuing; the reporter referred to the Nazi tendencies of the demonstrators. A detailed segment on crippling snowstorms in Russia’s south touched on the Olympics. The team carrying the Olympic flame had traversed gigantic snow-covered mountain peaks to stop at a Russian village for the handover. In a piece later in the broadcast, foreign athletes told an interviewer that accommodations in Sochi were much better than at previous games. The spot cut to young people -- rosy-cheeked, smiling, wearing brightly colored jackets -- strolling happily down the main street of a toylike village built just for the Olympics. Then there were the large brand-new hotels, one after the other stamped out of the same whitish-gray material. Later, the camera entered an as-yet-unoccupied athlete’s room. Inside were two cots made up with sheets and sturdy wool blankets. In another building, cameras took viewers inside a mass kitchen, with cooks at work cheerfully talking about the extraordinary variety of meals that they would have to prepare to meet all the athletes’ dietary needs. 

If things had gone as planned, Russian Olympic broadcasts should have helped underplay tensions at home. But, increasingly, what Russians see on the tube is violence and the spread of terrorism -- even to Moscow. The games will still be a welcome diversion if nothing untoward happens, but most viewers are feeling insecure. And coverage of unrest in Ukraine will probably stoke it. All three of Russia’s main channels do, of course, have occasional short news items devoted to the coming Olympics. And after watching the big news stories of the day, viewers can stay tuned for sports -- the same format as in most European countries -- and Olympics specials. But on the news itself, the Olympics remain an afterthought. As violence continues to rock Ukraine, Putin’s prime motivation for hosting the Olympics, a sports competition cum celebration, is undoubtedly to enter the world of “indispensable” nations, a term former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once used to describe the United States. The news from Ukraine, however, will continue to provide a dramatic counterpoint at home. 

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  • ELLEN MICKIEWICZ is James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Political Science at Duke University. She is the author of the forthcoming book Splinters in Ice: The Internet Life of Russia’s Future Leaders (Oxford University Press).
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