The Sochi Olympics proved to be a big success. It was exactly what Russia and especially what Vladimir Putin wanted. Right from the opening ceremony itself, the entire event was a megalith in terms of popularity and success. If one wanted to catch a glimpse of Russia’s glorious past as well as its vibrant art, this year’s Winter Olympics were worth watching. However, they were not without their share of controversy. Take, for example, the case of the Pussy Riot protest performance. So success on one hand and chaos on the other. A mixed bag, probably? However, Russia’s mixed bag had one key element missing. The plight of the Muslims of Sochi.
Once the city was awarded the Winter Olympics, Sochi underwent a massive reconstruction. Roads, bridges, train stations, schools, hospitals, luxury hotels, Olympics’ villages, post offices, and a floating archipelago — yeah, Sochi got all that within the short span of the past six years.
But one particular project was denied. Sochi’s 20,000+ Muslims, most of whom had migrated to the city to help with the construction process, just wanted to build a small mosque. Nope. Disallowed. The issue regarding the construction of a mosque in Sochi is older than the city’s Olympics, by the way. The first request to allow the construction of a mosque in the city was put forth in 1996 — denied. Year after year, on and on. Same story — the answer is never in the affirmative. The city’s leaders, like the Deputy Mayor, Anatoli Rykov, claims that Sochi’s Muslims do not really need a mosque because the mountain village of Tkhagapsh (roughly two and a half hours by road from downtown Sochi; no rail connectivity) has a single-room mosque.
In reality, Sochi’s bias against Muslims has a historical bent. The entire region was ethnically cleansed of Circassian Muslims by the Czarist regime in the 19th century.
Yet, the athletes who went to Sochi did not have a hard time praying. The organizers had ensured the presence of separate prayer rooms for various religions. But for the city’s Muslim residents, unfortunately, the story remained the same. Furthermore, the fact that Muslim athletes had prayer rooms at their service was not a sign of religious tolerance. It was, in reality, a shy effort to quell the voices against Islamophobia.
In fact, these Winter Games brought to the fore an ugly face of rampant Islamophobia in Russia. While issues such as rights of the Russian LGBT community managed to receive the limelight, Russian Muslims were ignored by both the local and international media.
Russia’s homophobia was severely criticized — almost every Western country decided to take a stand against it. But Russia’s Islamophobia went unquestioned. Sochi is not the only city in question; Moscow, for example, has over two million Muslims, but just four mosques (and this number does not seem likely to change anytime soon, according to the Mayor of Moscow).
The billion-dollar Olympic structures described as a symbol of a new Russian nation, also signifies Russia’s deeply entrenched phobias.
Truth is, Sochi’s mosque-less skyline is just the tip of the iceberg. In Russia, Muslim identity in itself is a matter of suspicion. Also, Russia is not just about Islamophobia. The definitions of Russian nationalism are way too narrow for most folks to fit into. As such, xenophobia and subtle racial hatred are not alien concepts in the country. Winters are cold, after all.
On the brighter side, Sochi has shown that Russia can pull off world-class events and conduct them with success. Russia’s infrastructural investment is paying off well, and the country, against all odds, is doing better than most of its European buddies. Yet, Russia’s growth will be meaningless if xenophobia continues to dominate Russian society. Resorting to racial stereotypes and hatred is not a policy that a state should practice.
At the end of it all, if Russia wants its growth to be truly appreciated, it will need to shun its narrow-minded ways, because as of now, all the infrastructural advancement looks futile. Sadly, Sochi will be remembered not just for its world-class stadiums, but also for its pillars of hatred.