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A distorted view of Russia [Commentary]

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The Olympics have begun, and it's clear already that one sport is still flourishing — Russia bashing. Or more precisely, awkward American back flips over exactly how to depict Russia. Only a few days in, NBC committed factual errors, gross distortions and patronizing enthusiasms.

During a fluff piece on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the tsar who initiated its construction was referred to as "Nicholas III." There never was a Nicholas III; anyone with a passing familiarity with Russian history knows that Nicholas II was the last tsar. The Trans-Siberian was initiated during the reign of Alexander III, Nicholas II's father. This gaffe is the equivalent of a Russian broadcaster calling our 26th president Woodrow Roosevelt. Alexander III was not an obscure figure. A simple Google search could have caught this error. If NBC broadcasters are going to try to be knowledgeable about Russia and take upon themselves the duty of unraveling the "enigma," then they should at least hire a fact checker.

Much worse was the odd commentary during the broadcast of the opening ceremony. Apparently NBC has instructed its broadcasters to be ever-vigilant against anything that hints of pro-President Vladimir Putin propaganda or any rose-colored depictions of Russian history or contemporary reality. They hired New Yorker editor David Remnick as an expert commentator (he's written books on Russia), and he warned viewers that the parade of images from the Russian past in the stunning opening display was all "idealized." Aren't all Olympic opening ceremonies idealized? Host nation organizers always pick elements from their history and culture that they want to hold up to the world as emblematic of what they think is best, what they are proud of, what is distinctive. Did anyone feel the need to decry the scene of James Bond and the queen parachuting into the London Olympic stadium as "idealized"? Where was the depiction of the brutalities of British imperialism? Similarly, I don't recall any parades of the unemployed in the Salt Lake City Olympics or Trail of Tears tributes in Atlanta. Was Mr. Remnick expecting gulags and famines?

Mr. Remnick went on to explain to viewers that the composition "Time Forward," the soundtrack for the Soviet section of the ceremony, was the opening theme to the Soviet evening television news broadcast (Vremia) that Russians watched "like some Orwellian ritual." Soviet men and women of the post-Stalin period (Vremia first broadcast in 1968) were not hypnotized dupes, but, like all citizens everywhere, a range of diverse people with layered feelings about their country, with varying mixes of pride, hope, disappointment, anger and much else depending on the individual. I doubt that Olympic torch bearers Vladislav Tretiak and Irina Rodnina, who lived through that period, would describe themselves as Orwellian robots.

Then NBC seems to overcompensate for its "tough" position on Russia with over-enthusiastic feature pieces on topics such as Siberia and the Trans-Siberian Railway. It's great to see the diverse regions and peoples of Russia, but Mary Carillo gushes over how wonderful the Russian people are as if they were an alien race being discovered for the first time. Were the British equally wonderful or just normal? Russians are like all the other peoples of this world, good, bad, wonderful, awful, depending on the individual. Can't we try to see them as they see themselves?

Such American cultural confusion and superiority regarding Russia permeated the Cold War period, but actually pre-dates the 20th century. From the early 19th century, when Russian themes became a major part of American entertainment. Americans have created, in the words of Rutgers' historian David Foglesong, a "skewed mirror" of Russia, sometimes exaggerating similarities (they are, unlike old world Europe, like us because they have a frontier and cowboy-like Cossacks) and differences (a brutal autocracy as an antipode to American democracy; prison-camp Siberia as a frozen contrast to the free American west).

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of Mr. Putin and Russia along with the costs (economic, human, and environmental) of these Olympic games. But sports are entertainment, and sports broadcasters should not feel the need to offer expert opinions on history. The Cold War is long over; the tradition of viewing Russia through a warped lens of gross factual inaccuracy and self-serving pronouncements should come to an end too.

Thomas M. Barrett, a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland, has published on the history of Cossacks, the North Caucasus, and Russian themes in American entertainment. He is currently writing a book on the image of Russians and East Europeans in U.S. popular culture. His email is tmbarrett@smcm.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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