Alexander Valov, who has been blogging about the excesses and corruption and damage caused by some of the preparations for the Sochi Games, is too young to remember much about life in the former Soviet Union.
But Valov does remember his mother sitting on the couch in front of the TV, crying, following the collapse of her country in 1991.
Wasn’t she happy to see the end of communist oppression?
“I can’t answer this question without crying myself,” Valov said.
And then he told a story.
Valov’s mother believed in Russian democracy. She believed in Boris Yeltsin, who in 1991 stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament building and stared down a coup by a revanchist Soviet junta.
She voted for Yeltsin in 1996, three years after he sent tanks to blow away that same parliament rather than accept impeachment, and two years after he sent still more tanks into a disastrous campaign to put down separatists in Chechnya.
And she cried at the television, at the violence and the economic crashes and the gangland wars and the robber baron capitalism.
The way Valov sees it, there was a positive side to Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. The robber barons, the criminals— all of that was brought under control. The country’s economy stabilized somewhat, people began to be able to live, work, travel, buy things, as long as they kept criticism to a minimum.
Some of the young Russians I spoke to these last three weeks stopped there. They didn’t remember the Soviet days. They thought of the 1990s as a recurring nightmare, and whatever the limitations of Russia now, it is is better than all that.
For Valov, and a few activists I met in Sochi, better than bad is not enough. He has uncovered corruption and abuse of authority among Sochi’s regional elites during the construction of the Olympic complex, and he says he has gotten action. A corrupt regional official was fired, a riot police commander was cashiered, a man who had been evicted so a construction company could build a tunnel was given a house.
His blog, he says, is not just a place to complain. It’s where he fights for the democracy he believes in against the functionaries and crooks that undermine it.
“We don’t just write about them,” he said. “We are at war with them.”
But not at war with his own country.
“The way the Olympics were built hurt the area,” he said. “But I am trying to help. I wanted the Olympics to show Russia’s best side. I’m like any patriot who loves his country.”
As he told me all this, his eyes never dried.