I don’t how many of you watched the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics last night, but I sat through the entire thing. Opening ceremonies have become a Fea family ritual. In fact, I even wrote briefly about the opening ceremonies of the London games in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.
I can’t remember being more engaged with an opening ceremony than I was last night. As a historian, I was eager to see how the Russians would interpret their past. I was also fascinated by the way the folks on my Twitter and Facebook feeds responded to the Russian past as portrayed in the ceremony, especially those old enough to have lived through the Cold War.
David Remnick‘s contribution to the NBC coverage of the ceremonies was excellent. The editor of The New Yorker and a former Washington Post correspondent in the Soviet Union brought some historical and intellectual depth to the broadcast. At one point Remnick mentioned how Putin and his people were searching for a “useable past” (you don’t hear that phrase used very often on network television. Remnick even explained what it meant!). His historical musings about the way Russia has always been isolated from the West were on the mark. He even convinced me that I need to add a trip to St. Petersburg to my bucket list. Remnick’s comment on how some Russians still looked back nostalgically on their Soviet past was great. Finally, I thought I would impress all of my Twitter followers by noting that torch-lighter and Soviet Red Army goalie Vladislav Tretiak was yanked during the famed 1980 U.S. hockey victory over the USSR, but before I could type out the tweet Remnick had already mentioned it on the air.
Much of what Remnick had to say was old news to historically-minded Americans and scholars of Russian history, but most Americans watching last night were not historically-minded or scholars. Very nice work.
Back in the day, I used to teach Lenin's Tomb as part of my Comparative Politics course. My students raved about Remnik's analysis and ability to help them imagine life in Soviet Russia. On the other hand, I wanted to anticipate Matt Lauer's comments so I could turn the sound down.