RUSSIA

What’s It Like for the Olympic Torch to Pass Through a Warring Region?

RUSSIA
Jan 29, 2014 at 3:07 PM ET

For the host country, the Olympics are all about optics—showing the rest of the world how prosperous, well-organized and welcoming you are.

Russia’s Olympics have yet to begin, but that public-facing image has been bludgeoned by boycott threats over humanitarian and gay rights issues, not to mention allegations of wholesale corruption. Oh, and there’s that pesky issue of possible terror attacks from Islamic insurgents in the North Caucasus who want to strike fear into the heart of Moscow.

The Olympic torch, that beacon of peace and international goodwill, traveled through one of the most troubled regions of the Caucasus this week in Dagestan, albeit on an abbreviated route. Just nine days earlier in the region, Russian security forces killed seven people on in an anti-terrorism raid.

About 270 torchbearers were scheduled to take the flame through the streets of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, but that number was reduced to 67 for safety reasons. The original relay route was planned for the city’s main streets, dotted with historical sites, before ending in the central square. Instead, it was moved to Anzhi Arena, where security could be controlled more easily.

The changes ensured that the Dagestan relay went off without a hitch—no flameouts or minor explosions like in previous jaunts through Russia. Here’s how it all went down from the spectators’ point of view on social media, which, as always, allowed opportunity for snark:

Scared to look?

“Today the #OlympicTorch comes to #Dagestan, hopefully no one puts it out there.”

“#OlympicTorch finally got to Anzhi Arena in #Dagestan. The International Ball of Corruption is starting in 11 days #Sochi2014.”

Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s biggest opponents, released a report earlier this week on alleged corruption casting a shadow over the Sochi Olympics.

On the streets of Makhachkala, however, it doesn’t look like many people care.

This could be the reason why certain outlets are reporting that students were sent to fill Anzhi Arena as “extras.” Some photos of the 30,000-seat arena show less than half of it filled for the relay. According to The Caucasian Knot, readers wrote in that students faced a “voluntary-compulsory” (a classic Russian contradictory phrase) order to attend, and were not allowed to leave. It fits with previous reports about mandatory attendance at relays.

Such mandates aren’t just restricted to wherever the torch is—a parent in Sochi posted a school note online on Jan. 26 that says children in the city will pretty much be required to participate in events for the duration of the Olympics. Here’s the note:

“School schedule during the Olympics:

School functions as normal until February 6. Vacations are from February 7 to February 20. Back to school on February 21, weekend on February 22, 23. From February 24 to March 6—school days. Vacation again from March 7 to March 16. Back to school—March 17.

Dear parents! We’re asking you to let us know of any plans during vacation. You must notify the director with the dates that you’re planning to leave the city. The children who are in the city will take part in citywide events, of which you will be notified in advance. Signature_____________.”

And the parent’s reaction on BlogSochi.ru:

“It turns out that our children are at the personal disposal of the school principals and they can only leave the city of Sochi with their written approval.

These bitches in power are brain damaged! They can go f*ck themselves with these Olympics!”

Putin’s not having much luck winning over his own people. Maybe he’ll have better luck with the rest of the world. (Unlikely.)