Much has been written about Sochi and its varying degrees of glitz and cover-up. This piece considers the dystopian aspects of Sochi and how it compares to recent fictional dystopias.
But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success…
If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.
There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.
Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.
Perhaps we should then ask what the average viewer/consumer is supposed to do in this situation. Ignore the Olympics? Engage in a more real world right in front of them? Insist the Olympics avoid countries with lots of inequality (Russia might seem like an obvious choice but others might argue this could rule out the United States)?
This also hints that the really important dystopias are not ones we imagine but rather ones that are right in front of us that we don’t notice. This might be like the tourist experience: we are often like visitors who hope to see the popular sights and are distracted by what is new and exciting. How closely do we look behind the scenes? (This is starting to sound like a pitch I would make in an Introduction to Sociology course.) A number of sociologists have voiced their concerns about “fake” places, often invoking Disney World or Las Vegas or Times Square, that tend to hide the real world behind consumerism and private spaces.