Cherry Picking The Soviet Past And Russian Present – Analysis


The July 12, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) photo gallery of some past Olympians emphasizes an exclusive non-Russian categorizing of selected Soviet athletes – something noteworthy, given the high degree of Russian athletic participation and success in Soviet era sports. The RFE/RL photo gallery serves as evidence that the Soviet legacy was not just about Russia and Russians.

In this exhibit, Russian Sergei Belov is referred to as a “Soviet basketball great” and “Moscow resident”, unlike the other featured Soviet athletes, who are identified by the origin of their given non-Russian republic. Along with “Soviet”, the category of “Moscow resident” is not necessarily synonymous with a Russian identity. (For quite sometime, Moscow has had a considerable multiethnic dynamic.) Nevertheless, Soviet and derivatives of Moscow (like “Moskal”) have been periodically used by some anti-Russian leaning elements as interchangeable equivalents for describing Russians in general.

Whether rightly or wrongly, sports and athletes have at times been viewed as being more earnest than some other fields. In the United States and elsewhere, children and adults seeking the autographs of high profile athletes is more commonplace than desiring such for politicians and wealthy businesspeople. Without meaning to be overly presumptuous, a subliminal message of sorts might be at play in the non-Russian emphasis of the photo gallery in question.

The person/persons involved with the RFE/RL Olympic photo exhibit appear like they might be aloof, if not sympathetic, to the kind of anti-Russian biases evident in such instances as the Captive Nations Committee (CNC), which has clearly favored anti-Russian/anti-Communist views over pro-Russian/anti-Communist perspectives. The somewhat skewed suggestion that a Moscow resident (Belov, who is originally from elsewhere in Russia) was perhaps unfairly given an honor over someone outside Russia plays well among those harboring views along a Russia unfriendly mindset.

The RFE/RL photo display portrays Belov as the guy who questionably got the nod to light the 1980 Moscow summer Olympic torch over legendary Soviet triple jumper Viktor Saneyev, who is categorized as a Georgian. In his respective sport, Belov was not a slouch. In 1991, the International Basketball Federation (known as “FIBA” under its initialized French name) voted Belov as the best FIBA player of all time.

Belov lighting the Olympic Cauldron during the 22nd Olympics opening ceremony in Moscow,
Belov lighting the Olympic Cauldron during the 22nd Olympics opening ceremony in Moscow,

There were likely several determining factors in the selection of Belov as the honored Olympic torch lighter. His sport (basketball) is more popular than Saneyev’s (track and field). As undoubtedly great as Saneyev’s athletic achievements were, his triple jump event is not generally considered among the more glamorous of track and field events. Belov’s Moscow ties have included playing for that city’s CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Army) team, which was historically dominant in the top Soviet basketball league. This aspect brings to mind a situation in North America, where the publicity accorded to great athletes (in the top spectator sports) has been known to become greater, when they leave a team in a comparatively small city, for one of the large ones. Besides Belov and Saneyev, a good case can be made for some other Soviet athletes to have lit the 1980 Moscow summer Olympic torch.

Regarding the aforementioned RFE/RL photo exhibit, Saneyev’s surname does not come across as being Georgian. Upon some inquiring, I was forwarded biographical information noting his family background as that of an ethnic Russian and Russian based Kuban Cossack origin. (Of mostly Russian and Ukrainian backgrounds, the Kuban Cossacks are a multiethnic group, descended from farmers, who served as border guards for the Russian Empire.) Saneyev’s parents moved to the now disputed former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic territory of Abkhazia, where Viktor was born. The recorded census data going back the past (close to) 130 years indicates that the Georgians during this period were never a majority of Abkhazia’s population. Throughout the Soviet Union, millions of Russians and non-Russians lived outside the republic of their ethnic background. Viktor Saneyev’s wife is Georgian. At last notice, Saneyev and his family reside in Australia.

The opposition against anti-Russian biases can sometimes get compromised. A recent news story highlighted the incorrect way that a Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) related source listed the birthplaces of Russian Olympians born outside Russia, but within other parts of the former Soviet Union. The birthplaces in question were misidentified as a part of Russia. At present, there does not seem to be any follow-up on the specifics of how this situation occurred.

This mishap gave the Kyiv Post (KP) and some others a legitimate talking point that goes against improving Russia’s image. Never mind the (put mildly) questionable KP biases (noted in my April 2, 2012 Eurasia Review article “Coverage of Russia Uncensored“) and the fact that with the exception of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, post-Soviet Russia does not officially challenge the Communist drawn boundaries of the other former Soviet republics. As reported in the KP, the ROC has acknowledged the erroneous descriptions, with a stated intent to revise accordingly.

Viktor Saneyev
Viktor Saneyev

The non-Russian born athletes representing Russia include ethnic Russians and non-ethnic Russians. There are also Russian born non-ethnic Russians on Russia’s Olympic team. Along with other examples, this facet runs counter to the image of Russia being a hated nation. Globally, multiethnic nations of a historically great power status have had a share of issues pertaining to chauvinistically intolerant attributes, blended with tolerant examples. The situation in Russia is a part of that reality.

In his July 12, 2012 Washington Times article “Bury Lenin Without Honors“, Jeffrey Kuhner selectively and inaccurately sees what he wants to, while not addressing other particulars, which do not conform with his desired image.

He erroneously suggests that the Russians are only now considering a removal of the Lenin mausoleum. The issue of whether to bury Lenin or not has been an ongoing matter in Russia for a good few years. Meantime, it is faulty to portray this Soviet historical figure as someone still highly revered by post-Soviet Russian officialdom and much of the rest of Russia.

Kuhner notes that the Russian government’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky supports burying Lenin with state honors. This reference by Kuhner excludes the somewhat delicate position which a person in Medinsky’s position faces. There is the perception that the ardent supporters of Lenin tend to come from Russian seniors citizens (specifically, non-ethnic Russian and ethnic Russian citizens of Russia), with some others as well – who on this topic are not indicative of Russia’s population and officialdom at large. One senses that Medinsky is probably trying to deemphasize Lenin in a way which limits (as much as possible) an outcry from a portion of Russia’s population. Medinsky appears more interested in stressing the positive attributes of pre-Soviet Russia than promoting the Soviet past. (By the way, Medinsky is Ukrainian born and is described as an ethnic Ukrainian.)

Without any analytical follow-up, Kuhner says that Germany has a greater success in shedding its Nazi past when compared to how Russia has approached the Soviet legacy. A process of accessing Russia’s past has been underway in that country. There are reasons why that undertaking is different from what happened in Germany after World War II.

The Soviet Union was not militarily defeated and occupied like Nazi Germany. Nazism did not have as long a staying power as Marxist-Leninism. In contrast to the 1991 Soviet breakup, Nazism has been a defeated entity for over 60 years. The bigoted manner of Nazism made that ideology an easier movement for many to loathe unlike Communism.

Kuhner downplays several non-Soviet trends in contemporary Russia. There does not seem to be any great effort to change St. Petersburg’s name back to its Soviet era name of Leningrad. The Russian tricolor flag and two headed eagle national emblem do not appear on the verge of getting replaced by the Soviet flag and coat of arms. There has been the implementation of mandatory Russian public school instruction of some of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s critical commentary against the Soviet government.

Kuhner makes it a point to list a number of non-Russian nationalities which suffered under Communism. He omits mention of two other realities that concern the many Russians who suffered as a result of Soviet instituted policies and that the more brutal of Soviet actions included the participation of a noticeable number of non-Russians.

In Russia, there appears to be an effort to mesh the past positive attributes of that country in line with modern day realities – while not seeking a return of either an absolute monarchy or Soviet Union, of which the proposed Eurasian Union is neither.

Michael Averko

Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. He has appeared as a guest commentator on the BBC, RT and WABC talk radio, in addition to having been a panelist at the World Russia Forum, Russia Forum New York and Experts' Panel. Besides Averko's Eurasia Review column -, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Global Research, History News Network, InoSMI.Ru, Johnson's Russia List, Journal of Turkish Weekly, Kyiv Post, Oriental Review, Penza News, Pravda.Ru, Pravoslavie.Ru, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russia Insider, Sputnik News, Strategic Culture Foundation, The Duran, The Huffington Post, Valdai Discussion Club, Yonkers Tribune and WikiLeaks, are among the numerous venues where his articles have either appeared or been referenced. The American Institute in Ukraine and the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies, have referenced some of Averko's articles, along with academic white papers prepared for NATO Watch, Ohio State University, Problems of Post-Communism and the Royal College of Defence Studies. He has been referenced in the Council on Foreign Relations, Defense One and The New York Times. Averko is source referenced in Richard Sakwa's book "Frontline Ukraine". His Eurasia Review article on Pavlo Skoropadsky, provides the first full online English language transcript of Skoropadsky's edict calling for an "All-Russian Federation", inclusive of Russia and Ukraine. Among other issues, that article explains the relationships among the major combatants in the Russian Civil War. He can be reached via [email protected]

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