By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON: Amid the television extravaganza of the Sochi Olympics, I had a chance to visit last week with a Russian whistleblower named Sergey Kolesnikov. Back in 2010, he had revealed what he claimed was a network of corruption that included a billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea allegedly built by wealthy businessmen for Vladimir Putin.
As with the athletes who are taking great risks in Sochi, the wonder with Kolesnikov is that despite the dangers, he’s still on his feet. He hasn’t been back to Russia since he made his allegations about Putin, in a December 2010 interview with me and a simultaneous open letter to then-President Dmitry Medvedev. He offered documents and photographs to support his tale of the wildly ornate Italian-style villa, supposedly built by cronies so that Putin could entertain VIPs in the run-up to the Olympics.
Kolesnikov’s account was one of the first detailed inside exposes of the billionaires’ club surrounding President Putin, and his allegations were later explored by the New York Times, the Financial Times and other publications. Putin’s spokesman has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, characterizing the charges as “nonsense” and “nothing but absurd.”
Kolesnikov says he’s as enthralled by the Olympics as anyone else. “It’s a beautiful show of free competition among athletes, which millions love to watch,” he says. But he contends that because of insider deals and gross overspending in Sochi, “once the athletic part is over, many questions will be unanswered” for Russian taxpayers who are left with the bills.
Russians are famous for their stoicism and determination to prevail. Usually we associate those qualities with Russian athletes, or determined soldiers on the battlefield. But Kolesnikov reminds me that this stubborn attachment to a cause is true for Russia’s democratic opposition, too. The Putin regime has tried ferociously to suppress dissent, but the anti-corruption protesters and human-rights activists keep on coming. Their bravery is a reminder that democratic activism isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
This feisty determination is epitomized by a young anti-corruption activist named Alexei Navalny. He famously called Putin’s United Russia coalition “the party of crooks and thieves,” and castigated him during Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections and 2012 presidential race. He was arrested and convicted on criminal charges in 2013, but was freed by a nervous Putin government the day after he was sentenced. He said last April that he planned to run for president himself on a promise “not to lie and not to steal.”
In this Olympic season, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has posted a funny assault on the Putin crowd on its website, sochi.fbk.info. Under the rubric, “Champions of the corruption race,” it awards sarcastic medals to Putin insiders in such categories as “Classic Embezzlement,” “Verbal Freestyle,” “Pairs’ Contracting” and “Skating the Figures.” One Putin business chum is scored for receiving contracts for 30 Olympic projects; another is tagged for overseeing a boondoggle that spent $7 billion on a road-and-rail link that covered 30 miles.
Putin himself is lambasted on Navalny’s site for having claimed, less than a year ago, that the Olympics would cost just $6.5 billion, which was less than earlier estimates. “The main issue is to be sure nobody steals anything,” Putin said at the time. That must bring a smile today to many Russian lips. Total spending is estimated at $51 billion, making Sochi more than seven times as costly as the previous winter games in Vancouver.
The power of activists such as Navalny is that they appear to be fearless. They continue advancing despite intimidation, arrest and even imprisonment. We’ve seen a similar spirit on the streets of Kiev in Ukraine this winter. No wonder the Russians are worried. Once such a democratic movement gains momentum, it isn’t deterred by threats; indeed, it seems almost to thrive on them.
Kolesnikov told me last week that after he made his allegations in December 2010, a Russian insider warned him, “Traitors don’t live long.” He says that he responded by asking how long those who betrayed the interests of Russia would live. As I wrote after our first meeting, “Kolesnikov is one of those brave souls a journalist meets occasionally, who decides to expose what he sees as wrongdoing, regardless of the personal risks.”
The Olympic season is a time to celebrate courage and determination. Looking at that spirit in today’s Russia, on the ice rink or off, I am reminded just how tough and unflinching the country’s people can be when they are committed to a cause.
Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.