Skip to main content

What you didn't see in Sochi

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 7:42 AM EST, Mon February 10, 2014
Fireworks explode over Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, as the Olympic cauldron is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games on Friday, February 7. Fireworks explode over Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, as the Olympic cauldron is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games on Friday, February 7.
HIDE CAPTION
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Winter Olympics opening ceremony
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Olympic organizers chose to make opening ceremony a historical pageant
  • He says by leaving out Soviet era brutality, Russia glided over a central part of its story
  • Frum: Ignoring Soviet crimes enables Putin regime to cut gains Russians made in 1990s
  • He says Russia can't correct its ills unless it faces its past squarely

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Nobody looks to Olympic opening ceremonies for historical exactitude. Yet the brutal denialism of the opening spectacle at the 2014 Sochi Games should anger and sadden every viewer -- and Russian viewers most of all.

"The struggle of freedom against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting." So wrote the great Czech novelist Milan Kundera. In Russia, forgetting has won. These Olympics opened with a pageant of Russian history that excised the crimes of Soviet Communism. No Red Terror. No Gulag. No Ukrainian famine. No Katyn.

The Russian state refuses to reckon with the past. After a brief and partial opening in the early 1990s, it has closed its archives to historians. The few memorials erected in the Yeltsin years are already crumbling, untended and disregarded. Surviving victims have received no compensation or recognition. The sorry story of this failure of conscience is well told by David Satter in his aptly titled study, "It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway."

David Frum
David Frum

Nor does Russian society press its leadership to emulate the example of modern Germany, where Nazi crimes are acknowledged, memorialized and repented. The victims of Soviet communist crimes numbered in the millions, but so too did the perpetrators and accomplices. They and their children do not wish to be confronted with the truth -- and they certainly do not wish to be held to account for it.

An apologist for the Russian state might reply: "What about slavery?" OK, fair question. American presidents from Abraham Lincoln through George W. Bush to Barack Obama have eloquently denounced and apologized for the crime of slavery. Americans fought a horrific war to arrest and overthrow slavery, and it was the foes of slavery -- including 180,000 former slaves and free black men -- who won the war, and whose institutions continue to this day. The Sochi opening ceremony did not have to address Russian history. The opening ceremonies at Salt Lake City in 2002 and Atlanta in 1996 did not offer an equivalent pageant. But had they done so and omitted slavery, yes, that would have been a scandal.

Sochi did worse than omit. It actively glorified the era of Stalinism. What was presented at Sochi was the equivalent of a German historical pageant that suggested the major events of the 1930s and 1940s were the building of the autobahn and the invention of the jet engine. It's shocking, and we should not lose our ability to be shocked by the shocking.

Flash brief: Sochi Olympics
Gay athletes welcome in Sochi?
Sneak peek into Sochi's Alpine Village

Oblivion of the past betrays the future. Because Russia failed to do justice to the old communist apparatus in the 1990s, it opened itself to the recapture of the state by that same apparatus in the 2000s. Gulag officials and secret policemen were not brought to book, and today, former Gulag officials and former secret policemen again control the Russian government -- and now also own much of Russia's wealth.

Vladimir Putin has held continuous power since 2000, without ever once facing a fair and open election. The Russian media are less free today than they were 20 years ago. More than 300 journalists have been murdered since 1991, including an American, Paul Klebnikov, the former editor of the Russian edition of Forbes.

Regional governments are controlled from the center by presidential appointment. Citizens have little voice in their own affairs. Prosecutions and imprisonment for political dissent have resumed and are accelerating.

Those who gained wealth in the Yeltsin years either come to terms with the Putin circle or are expropriated or imprisoned.

Standards of living for ordinary Russians remain miserably low. No beginning has been made on cleaning the environmental disasters bequeathed by communism. Old-age pensions are scanty, and health care provision miserable outside the capital.

Yet even as the state fails to meet these basic domestic responsibilities, it has resumed the old practice of bullying its smaller neighbors and subverting its bigger ones. The violence in Ukraine divides a public that wants to align with Europe from an authoritarian leadership backed by Moscow. Wherever you find an international bad actor, from Venezuela to Iran, there you find a Russian ally. As authoritarian regimes so often do, Russia has even taken to stigmatizing and persecuting a scapegoat minority: gays and lesbians, whose basic free speech rights have now been defined as a crime against the state.

Truth-telling about Russia's history won't suffice to redress these wrongs. But so long as the truth is denied and suppressed, the work of correction cannot begin -- and Russia's future will be polluted, as Russia's present is, by the corpses of Russia's unenumerated, unmourned and unatoned past.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT