If you have been paying much attention to American commentators lately, you would be tempted to think that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has less to do with the athletes than it does with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, never one to cede the limelight to anyone, has been at the center of these games every step of the way, from the time he helped to convince members of the International Olympic Committee to let Russia’s beach resort town host the Olympics (a questionable decision given that there seem to be more naturally occurring palm trees there than piles of naturally occurring snow), to the visually stunning Opening Ceremony (a perfect propaganda opportunity, some would grumble), to posing for photos with newly minted Russian gold medalists in the team figure skating competition. You might be tempted to think these are Putin’s games rather than Russia’s.
There are few international leaders who are demonized in the United States as much as Putin, rightly or wrongly. From his body language in bilateral meetings with U.S. President Obama, to his championing of an anti-homosexual “propaganda” bill, to his insistence on masculine self-promotion, practically everything that Putin does is viewed by many in the United States as arrogant, power-hungry, or downright evil. Likewise, Americans often assume that the Russian president is a dictator and national elections are marred by fraud. Even if they do believe that Russians like Vladimir Putin, most Americans would be hard-pressed to explain why this is the case. Continue reading