Editorial: On Olympics, Sochi 2014, and Political Games

Ok. You know what I am going to rant about here. This: Russia’s grand vanity oligarchic Olympics, which costs $50+ billion, but has no space for LGBT people.

In Russia, LGBT people and supporters are discriminated against, beaten up, brutalized and even tortured unto death. The state tacitly supports and condones.

When it comes to gay rights, this blog believes it is very important for people around the world to see LGBT people supported and embraced by their community and see LGBT people as athletes, role-models, and above all, normal people. This debate is bigger than Winter Olympics 2014 or LGBT rights in Russia. This is also for LGBT people in other parts of world, who live in fear, under persecution, and in loneliness.

I don’t think boycotts help (I am open to persuasions on the matter). Maybe at this point, small moments of defiance will probably speak volumes. Last year, a poll published on Iconic Photos returned that the most memorable Olympic moment was when two medalists raised their fist in a Black Power salute. It is such moments that raise awareness. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) maintains the games must remain politics-free zones, does not speak out against the new discriminatory laws, and forbids the athletes from making political statements or gestures.  That is wrong.

The Olympics are a  global phenomenon, and as such their history is intertwined with political landscape of the day, from Hitler’s grandiose Teutonic spectacle at the Nazi Olympics of 1936 to the decisions to award the games to totalitarian governments in Seoul (for 1988) and in Beijing (for 2008) in hope that they open up. Thus, this blog believes forbidding athletes from making political statements or gestures is hypocritical, when both the Russian government and the Olympic committee are guilty of that.

Isn’t the very stance that the Olympics must be free of politics and protests itself a political stance — and alas, a political stance that disenfranchises minorities? Groups perhaps most affected by this stance are likely to be those discriminated or oppressed in their day-to-day lives, and those who would like to make that plight clear to the international audience. 

I hope many athletes walk down opening and closing ceremonies and walk up their podia fully supporting this important human-rights issue with pins and flags. Defying both the IOC and the Russian government.


For detailed articles for photos above, clockwise from top-left: Black Power saluteWladyslaw KozakiewiczGreg LouganisDorando PietriAmerican basketball team’s controversial lossJesse Owens gets cheersAntonio Rebollo lights the flame; the bloody water-polo match; terrorism rears its ugly hooded head.

How do you tell a lie with photos?

The Independent. 19 July 1995.

Clever digital manipulation is not necessary  — strategic release of photos often sufficed — to create myths. 

Boris Yeltsin perfectly encapsulated Tacitus’ remarks on Roman Emperor Galba: omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset (loosely translated, everyone thought he was capable of being emperor, until he became one). A pivotal figure who oversaw the tumultuous disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin was a divisive figure; he climbed onto tanks to stop a coup d’état in 1991, only to send more tanks three years later to pulverize his own parliament. He courageously heralded the end of a totalitarian regime, only to replace it with a corrupt oligarchy.

His rule was dyspeptic. Yeltsin had been a sickly child and had heart problems since childhood; the thankless task of modernizing a collapsing empire didn’t improve his health either. An uphill re-election campaign in 1995 further wrecked his health. His puffy eyes, slurred speech, stiff walk and forced self-control were reminiscent of Leonid Brezhnev in his last years. Yeltsin’s Communist opponent jibed that the Russians were being asked to vote for “a walking corpse”.

In an attempt to deny the rumors about his failing heath, Yeltsin’s press office published a photograph of him at work on 14th July 1995. However, journalists noticed the latest picture had strong resemblances to a photograph released in April of that year. In both pictures, Yeltsin had the same hairstyle and wore the same shirt; he was sitting in front of the same curtains and wallpaper, with the identical four telephones and the identical pile of documents in front of him.

But Yeltsin had what many other leaders in the democractic world could only hope for: a cooperative press. Although many accused Yeltsin of bribing the press, the truth was more complex. Although Russian newspapers duly noted darkly that the Kremlin’s practices of suppressing news about the health of the country’s leaders reached back to the Soviet times, they decided not to pursue the story any further. The Russian media was in favour of keeping the democratic option open with Yeltsin in power; a wobbly reformer was better than a Communist, they decided.

A few days later, Yeltsin appeared on television and admitted that he had suffered a heart attack. He won the election, but his health continued to deteriorate. By 1999, Yeltsin would rarely appear in public. When he did so he seemed decrepit, inarticulate and in need of physical support. Retirement seemed a sensible next move, and that was exactly he did on the last day of the departing millennium. By doing so, Boris Yeltsin became the first Russian leader in five centuries to voluntarily walk away.

Bloody Sunday, 1905

The 20th Century opened with Russia slowly teetering towards disenchantment and chaos. Emancipation of serfs in 1861 left many landowners at a loss — unable or unwilling to implement better administration and more efficient farming methods, they rapidly ran up crippling debts. Directly or indirectly, this led to series of poor harvests and a widespread famine in 1891, which revealed the inadequacies of the Tsarist government. Demonstrations, strikes and general unrest were slowly gathering momentum as Russia commenced a long anticipated war on Japan in 1905.

The war was initially viewed as an opportunity to improve Russia’s domestic situation, but its navy suffered humiliating defeats in the Far East. The Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve, who predicted that the impeding war with Japan will be a ‘victorious little war’ was assassinated. In January 1905, as military disaster unfolded, dissatisfaction erupted into revolution in St Petersburg. The immediate spark was the dubious dismissal of three workers, and the leader of the demonstration was the factory chaplain named Father Georgi Gapon. Gapon was himself no revolutionary, though he was subsequently represented as one. He wrote, “I went to the Tsar in the simple-hearted belief that we would receive pravda …. I went … to purchase with my blood the renewal of Russia and the establishment of pravda.”

At the Winter Palace, the protestors were met not by the Tsar, who was in his retreat outside the city, but by the Preobrashensky Regiment which opened fire on the procession. Above photo of the line of soldiers in their long winter coats taking aiming at a crowd on the other side of a brilliantly white square was thought to have been the only photo taken that fateful day which would go down in history as Bloody Sunday. The protestors had approached the regiment believing that the soldiers would not fire upon people carrying religious icons and images of the Tsar. They did. In the photo, demonstrators scrambled to safety as a sole isolated figure intriguingly was left alone in the no man’s land.

At the end of the Bloody Sunday, Gapon had fled, 130 demonstrators had been killed and 300 wounded according to official estimates. Foreign journalists reported as many as 4600 casualties. Its consequences were even more far reaching: as the news of the massacre spread, strikes broke out all over Russia, demanding shorter hours and higher wages. Aboard the battleship Potemkin, indignant sailors hoisted the red flag because of maggots in their meat. In Volokolamsk, peasants formed their own successionist ‘Markovo Republic’. Elsewhere, peasants looted and burned down their landlords’ residences, or cut down timber from landlords’ forests. For the first time since 1721, a Russian Tsar was forced to create a legislative assembly, the Duma. Although this Duma would prove to be ineffectual and short-lived, the other legacy of the Bloody Sunday was more indelible: before 1905, socialists, anarchists and many members of the bourgeoise had no possibility of breaking the hold of nobility and clergy in Russia. After Janaury 1905, it finally seemed their time had arrived.

(N.B. Even as I wrote this, I was aware of the controversy over the authenticity of the image. Some contend that the all-powerful Soviet TASS news agency took a still from a 1925 film by Vyacheslav Viskovski called Devjatoe Janvarja (The Ninth of January) — which was also known confusingly by another title Krovavoe voskresenje (Bloody Sunday). However, it is unknown whether the scene was created for the film, or the film used an earlier still photograph. Most scholarly books I have encountered view the photo as authentic.)

Yeltsin dances

On June 10th 1996, Alexander Zemlianichenko captured in a photo that would eventually win a Pulitzer and a Word Press Photo award the essence of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. In the photo, Yeltsin was dancing at a rock concert in Rostov while campaigning for his re-election. In 1996, his main opponent was Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who was ahead of Yeltsin in early polls. His dance at Rostov was to prove that Yeltsin was in good health but it was merely indicative of Yeltsin’s erratic leadership, always known for wrong moves at wrong times. Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin indeed stood tall on a tank during the failed coup attempt in August 1991, but spent the next decade besmirching this early integrity as not the Soviet system but also law and order collapsed around him. He sat idly as his family and cronies plundered not only the state’s coffers but also its prized assets.

Holed up inside the Kremlin with a trusted group of oligarchic advisors, Yeltsin was also plagued by chronic drinking problem. Yeltsin won the 1996 election handily through publicity stunts like the Rostov concert, and through dozens of popular legislation (such as one that multiplied the savings of all Russians older than eighty by a thousand). The Russian media, which preferred Yeltsin over any harkening back to Communism, also helped him by cordially withholding some negative information. For years the media had speculated that the Russian President was in ill-health, due to his alcoholism, but during the campaign, it disappeared as a major issue.

Yeltsin’s drinking was proverbially “normal” for a Russian, i.e. one bottle of vodka a day. As his ill-health and alcoholism — no doubt exacerbated by the stress of managing increasingly chaotic Russia —  worsened, his erratic acts multiplied. During a visit to Washington D.C., Yeltsin was found on Pennsylvania Avenue, drunk, in his underwear and trying to hail a cab in order to find pizza — that perennial food of choice among the inebriated. Yeltsin would also call the White House from the Kremlin totally drunk. Once above the Shannon Airport, Ireland, his plane circled overhead for at least an hour as the welcoming party waited on ground, Yeltsin being too ill — read, too drunk — to meet the Irish prime minister. Although mostly harmless, this unpredictability caused great alarms in outside Russia as he threatened the West with a world war when the NATO bombs fell over Belgrade in 1999, and ordered the military to shoot on civilians and burn down everything in Chechenya.

Lenin in Stockholm

To the Russians, Vladimir Ulyanov was already a living symbol in 1917. Ulyanov – now better known by his revolutionary nom de guerre, Lenin — himself was in exile in Switzerland, and his Bolsheviks Party was withering when the Russian Revolution actually took place in 1917.  On 15th March 1917, Lenin’s problem was to travel back from Zurich to St. Petersburg to lead his party again. Although he wanted to charter a plane and fly back, the war made it risky. He approached the German government, then fighting the Provisional Government of Russia, for a transit visa. Since he didn’t want to be seen as ‘consorting with the enemy’, Lenin also have his train granted the extra-territorial status as a foreign embassy. Both requests were readily honored by the Germans. (There were two German military escorts on the train, but they too were kept separate from Lenin’s cadre).

The party atmosphere accompanied the ‘sealed train’. Lenin had to silent his crew at times, order lights outs and rearrange sleeping arrangements to separate merrymakers. They were an unruly company; a conflict arose immediately between the smokers and non-smokers. Lenin, who despised cigarette smoke, ruled that smoking was to be allowed only in the toilet. This was immediately followed by a second argument between the smokers and those who needed to use the toilet. Another argument was between the Russians and two Germans, who protested that the former’s penchants for the French revolutionary songs were insulting to the German nation.

Above was the only one photograph of the travelers, taken in Stockholm on 13th April 1917. Above, Lenin was carrying an umbrella and wearing a hat. Behind him, with an enormous hat, was his wife, Nadezhda. Behind her was the other woman in Lenin’s life, his mistress and revolutionary Inessa Armand. At the back, holding the hand of four-year old Robert was Grigory Zinoviev, Lenin’s designated successor, later to be purged by Stalin. In Stockholm, the Swedish socialists threw a banquet in his honor and for the first time in his life, Lenin was received as a prominent statesman. The Swedes, however, didn’t fully understood his vision; they found him quaint, and even gave him some money to buy new clothes, unaware that formerly poor revolutionary was now being lavishly funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Communist history books rigorously denied this, but when Lenin arrived back to St. Petersburg, the Provisional Government – with the help of the French intelligence service – began a through investigation into the Bolshevik finances, but the 21-volume dossier was destroyed on the orders of Leo Trotsky right after the October Revolution.

Buoyed by the German money, the Bolsheviks went from strength to strength, buying out printing presses, publishing their propaganda in multiple languages, and sending them out into the battlefields. By October, train and police stations, electricity plant and telephone switchboards were firmly in the Bolsheviks’ hand that the storming of the Winter Palace – despite its prominence in subsequent Communist hagiography – was simply a walk over.

Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev (1937 – 2010)

Yanayev, second from right, was as dour as any Soviet apparatchik

Along with Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, it was one of the iconic images of the dying Soviet Union’s comic opera coup in August 1991: Gennady Yanayev, the new figurehead president, facing the world’s press for the first and only time, stammering out one inept and bumbling answer after another, his voice quivering and his hands shaking from nerves and too much vodka. It was a performance that confirmed the coup was amateurish and helped undermine it.

A coup by hard-liners had been in the air since the previous December, but few would have guessed that Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev — the man described by David Remnick in his magestrial history of the end of the Soviet Union Lenin’s Tomb as “a witless apparatchik, philanderer and drunk” — would be at the helm of the USSR. Whether Yanayev ever bothered to sober up during the three-day coup is unknown. Although he was not one of the principle players in the coup, as the USSR’s vice-president, he was the palace coup’s veneer of constitutionality. On 19th August, 1991 — the day after he declared a state of emergency — Yanayev held a disastrous press conference at the Foreign Ministry, in which the ruling ‘State Committee’ projected nothing but hesitancy and weakness. Ironically, the plotters, who viewed themselves as patriots, merely quickened the demise of the Soviet Union. The coup quickly withered, and with it the Soviet Union itself.

Yanayev was initially imprisoned and charged with high treason, a crime that carried the death penalty. But as disillusion with new Russia grew — and with it nostalgia for the Soviet Union — he and other coup leaders were pardoned by the parliament in 1994. Yanayev returned to the obscurity — from which he had briefly but so dramatically been plucked — and died there last week, virtually a forgotten man trampled by a wave of history he never understood yet struggled in vain to resist.

— the obituary adapted from the Independent. See his trembling hands here. I don’t speak Russian that well but people who do should comment.

The Conflict on the Ussuri

For a few unsettling months in 1969, tensions between two nuclear powers reached fever-pinch. On March 2nd, Soviet and Chinese forces engaged in a ludicrous hand-to-hand combat on an uninhabited island in the frozen Ussuri River that separates Manchuria from Russia.

The Sino-Soviet split which reached its high with the above conflict was baffling. Once, Beijing imitated many Soviet projects, from five-year plans to spy bureaus. The Soviets supplied MiGs to fight in Korea. Chinese kids were taught Russian. However, when Mao denounced Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, the latter decided to cancel the Soviet aid to the Chinese atomic program and many infrastructure projects.

On March 2nd, Chinese soldiers crossed the ice to dig foxholes on the island. Deliberately provoking the Russians, they returned the next day shouting Maoist slogans. No one was sure how it began (both sides blaming each other), but after a two hour clash, two dozen Soviets and an unknown number of Chinese were dead.

In a second incident on March 15th, hundreds of Chinese died. Subsequent clashes occurred and China moved back industries to protect them from an air strike. Eventually, with a nuclear annihilation looming, both sides blinked–in October, a Soviet delegation arrived in Beijing. China looked elsewhere for much-needed allies, and found one in Richard Nixon.

The Execution of Masha Bruskina

In October 1941, at Minsk, Belorussia (then occupied by the Nazis), a 17-year-old Soviet Jewish partisan Masha Bruskina was arrested. Her crime? Along with two others, she was accused of killing a German soldier. Before being hanged, she was paraded through the streets with a plaque around her neck which read (in both German and Russian): “We are partisans and have shot at German troops”.

On October 26, 1941, she and her two comrades were hanged by the Nazis. In order to frighten the people into submission, the commander of the 707th Infantry Division, decided to hold a public hanging adjacent to a yeast factory. Every step of this grueling experience by documented by an unknown Lithuanian collaborating with the Nazis in seven infamous pictures.

After the war, the photos were made public — Masha’s two companions were immediately identified, but “the unknown girl” in the photo was not identified until 1968. Soviet authorities, however, refused to recognize her or to award her a posthumous medal. This snub was caused by the prevailing sense of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. In addition, her execution was two months before that of the renowned Soviet resistance fighter Zoya Kosmodemianskya — who was the symbol of Russian women’s resistance to the Nazi occupation.

See the works of Lev Arkadiev and Ada Dikhtiar, who popularized Masha’s cause.

The 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution


Born in Paris to Russian parents, and educated in America, Elliott Erwitt took up photography before being drafted into the US Army in 1950. He made his name with photo-essays on barracks life in France then joined Magnum and travelled the world, capturing famous faces and places and producing quirky studies of dogs.

In 1957, Erwitt was covering the 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution for the American magazine Holiday. It was when the first Sputnik was launched; his photographs of a lecture at Moscow’s planetarium appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. Up to that point, no western journalist had managed to get pictures of the October anniversary parade (no foreigners were allowed to take part in the parade) but Erwitt tagged along with a Soviet TV crew and managed to pass five security lines, setting up his camera right by Lenin’s mausoleum: “Although I was questioned by a guard, I was able to convince them that I belonged to the parade. I shot three or four quick rolls and then raced to my hotel room a few blocks away, where I processed them in the bath.”

Above was his picture of the Red Army’s new intercontinental ballistic missiles. He went to Moscow with the intention to cover the 7th November parade and prepared an instant developing kit for it. He raced back to the Metropol Hotel where he was staying, sent a telex to New York saying he had something special, developed the film in his room, and caught a plane to Helsinki. There, Time magazine arranged a special lab for him, from where the pictures were developed and distributed all over the world. Several magazines displayed those pictures on their cover.

The Fall of Iron Felix


RUSSIA COUP ANNIVERSARY(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

During the Soviet times, the head of its feared secret police (which underwent so many different name changes, the most enduring being KGB) occupies a third floor office in Lubyanka Building overlooking the large statue of Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the feared Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, which specialized in state terror and was the forerunner of the Soviet KGB. Dzerzhinsky was there at Lenin’s side when the Bolsheviks, then a minority party, took control of the February revolution, and was also there as a pallbearer at Lenin’s funeral.

On August 18th 1991, hardliners in the Communist Party demanded the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. When he refused, they held him prisoner at his summer dacha and declared his resignation due to ‘ill health’. The next day, tanks rolled into Moscow to protect the Russian Parliament. In the end, the hardliners failed to win over the military and the KGB and the coup fell apart within three days.

Most of the Western photographers in Moscow were on their August vacation and the events were recorded by two AP photographers, Olga Shalygin and Alexander Zemlianichenko, who won the Pulitzers for AP the next year. On the night of 23/24 August, Zemlianichenko documented the statue of the Iron Felix being toppled by a cheering crowd. As with many Soviet monuments, it was so well constructed that it could not be simply torn down – it took five heavy-duty cranes to lift it and topple it. The statue that came to symbolize the terror committed in the name of the revolutionary cause was one of the most reviled symbols of Soviet rule, and its toppling end of an era.