In the Russian classic Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol’s main character Chichikov (an unsavory protagonist) laments his homeland:
Russia! Russia! I see you now, from my wondrous, beautiful past I behold you! How wretched, dispersed and uncomfortable everything is about you; the brave wonders of nature, crowned with the daring wonders of art … you have none of these to bring you joy or to startle your eyes … Everything about you is open, level and desert-like; your lowly towns are like dots, marks imperceptibly struck upon your plains; there is nothing to captivate or charm the eye.
This passage came to my mind following the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, as the Russia I saw on the TV screen lacked the kind of realism (the War and Peace ballroom scene aside) that Gogol exemplifies and is at the heart of Russian literature and art.
I don’t want to deny Russia the right to give the world a grandiose and over-the-top display of its own greatness. After all, that has become the order of the day for Olympic ceremonies. However, the ceremony lacked much of any reference to one of Russia’s most defining cultural expressions: its realism, its ability to express the essential dilemmas and conflicts in human nature, the suffering that is found in the world, and the acts of virtue and creation that are unique to humanity.