Get Ready for an Olympics Filled With Potemkin Village Metaphors

If you're a media outlet with any kind of a website, chances are you've run a story in the last 36 hours about the stream of complaints from journalists assembled in Sochi about the shoddy media accommodations. It's all very meta.

Doorknobs are falling off, hot water is lacking, an entire hotel lobby is missing, and American news outlets can barely contain their glee in relaying the hellscape journalists have found themselves in. "Journalists at Sochi are live-tweeting their hilarious and gross hotel experiences," blared the Washington Post headline. "Bee-filled food, yellow water, stray dogs, strange toilets, and other adventures at the Sochi Olympics," USA Today cackled. The Hollywood Reporter even got in on the act: "Sochi: Hotel Horrors Haunt Olympic Journalists."

These headlines aren't without irony: Western journalists have traveled to Russia in search of the country of their dreams, and, lo and behold, they have found it. This is the Russia of the Western imagination: Corrupt, hollow, and dysfunctional. Sadly, the initial reports out of Sochi indicate that Olympic Games are going to be covered in utterly predictable fashion: as a confirmation of everything terrible the West thinks about Russia. The toilets don't have doors! The water can't be consumed! The people are impossible!

The shoddy accommodations, in particular, are sure to feature heavily in every Sochi story you will read from now until the Olympics' end. They play on an old notion of Russia in the Western imagination: a land filled with Potemkin villages. The comparison is appearing in the media, and it certainly won't go away anytime soon. Is there some truth to the notion that Sochi was largely constructed as a vanity project -- and, yes, a Potemkin village -- to please Tsar Putin? Certainly. But the metaphor will be deployed with such laziness as to be meaningless. Here's the takeaway from the Toronto Star's piece comparing Sochi to a Potemkin village: "It feels like a place that is desperate to impress but just can't quite get the details right, no matter that $51 billion was somehow spread around to make it happen."

The notion that Sochi is "desperate to impress" is particularly hilarious. Isn't that the sole purpose of hosting the Olympics? The 2008 Beijing Olympics were heralded as China's arrival on the world stage. And at the conclusion of the 2012 London Olympics, none other than David Cameron declared to his countrymen that "we showed the world what we're made of, we reminded ourselves what we can do." Was he called "desperate to impress" for that, well, rather desperate statement? Of course not.

It isn't that these tropes about Russia don't contain a shred of truth - the country certainly is corrupt, cold, and very fond of vodka - rather, it's that Western coverage of Russia all too often presents the sad realities behind these stereotypes without any kind of nuance or imagination. Among the more recurring features of pre-Sochi coverage has been the obsession with a pair of side-by-side toilets inside the same stall. The toilets have become something of an Internet sensation. Journalists keep discovering them all over the resort and have been furiously tweeting images of them. They have now become something of a (strained) metaphor for the games. For what kind of management could fail to install a divider between toilets?

Put another way, what kind of journalist is sufficiently lazy to make a pair of toilets the central metaphor of his Sochi coverage?

Putin often complains that Russia comes in for unfair treatment at the hands of the world media. Sochi will prove that he probably has a point. In the eyes of the Western media, Russia is different, weirder somehow, stuck with that lunatic president of theirs, filled with corruption, vodka, and black bread. Expect all those tropes (and more!) to be deployed during the media extravaganza that's barreling toward your eyeballs.

Oh, and don't forget about the detaching doorknobs.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images


Iran's Hard-Liners Just Tried to Muzzle Hassan Rouhani

BEIRUT -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's battle with hard-liners in his own government broke out into the open Wednesday, with the head of the country's state-run television company temporarily preventing him from giving a live interview in Tehran.

Rouhani was supposed to appear on a television station owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the government-run radio and television company, at roughly 9 p.m. in Tehran. But nearly an hour after the scheduled time, the interview had not begun. This was no technical difficulty: The head of the IRIB, who was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally tried to cancel the interview.

The state news agency IRNA was the first to accuse the IRIB head, Ezzatollah Zarghami, of blocking Rouhani's appearance. It was swiftly followed by Rouhani himself, who took to Twitter -- which at least in theory is banned by the Iranian authorities -- to level a similar accusation:

Zarghami, however, lost this particular battle with Rouhani. Shortly after the Iranian president publicly criticized the IRIB chief, state television wound up airing the interview. In what he billed as a discussion with the Iranian people, Rouhani defended the interim nuclear deal he signed last years with world powers as a "win-win" agreement, and boasted that Iran's improving standing on the international stage was resulting in increased business opportunities for Iranian firms. 

Zarghami appears to be precisely the sort of hard-liner who would oppose Rouhani's attempt to reach a rapprochement with the West. A former general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Zarhami is believed to have close ties to Khamenei and was personally sanctioned by the European Union for human rights abuses. During the 2009 Green Movement protests, he claimed that videos of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, which sparked outrage among protesters across the country, were not authentic and had in fact been manufactured by CNN and the BBC.

In the interview, Rouhani announced a plan to give all Iranians access to insurance -- and took a page from President Barack Obama's playbook in the process:

(Apparently, he's unconcerned by Obamacare's low public approval ratings.)

Rouhani did not, however, explain why his appearance had been delayed or whether he stood behind his earlier public criticism of Zarghami. Those around the world interested in viewing Iran's political drama, therefore, have been left wondering whether the delay was a one-off event -- or the first shot in a war between factions within the Iranian government.