- - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hosting the Olympics — summer or winter is a big deal. They give the host city and nation a chance to strut and preen before a worldwide audience of tens of millions while attracting tens of thousands of visitors. That’s why cities vie for the honor in a fierce competition in spite of the fact that it almost always costs the winning city and country millions or even billions to prepare for the games.

This year’s Winter Games will begin Feb. 7 in Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes the games will showcase the new Russia, impress the world with the progress and prosperity of his country and attract visitors for years to come. To prepare for the games, Sochi and the Russian government have spent billions to build team facilities, hotels and the transportation infrastructure needed to make the Winter Olympics Games a success.

Whether they will be, however, is open to question. Preparing Sochi in time for the opening ceremonies has been a world class challenge, but in addition, the organizers have been forced to deal with constant threats from terrorists who have signaled their seriousness by attacking civilian sites in the region, taking credit for their acts and threatening to double down by killing people in Sochi once the games begin. Mr. Putin’s government has responded by committing thousands of military and security personnel to protecting those attending, but fear of what might happen is having a real impact on potential attendance.

The way in which the western media has focused on the potential terrorist threat and other problems hasn’t helped. The media has focused not just on problems directly related to preparing the host city for the games or protecting those who attend, but have used these problems as a springboard for criticism of a government and leader many of them simply don’t like. Modern Russia is far from perfect, but Russians wonder why the coverage of their country’s imperfections are receiving so much more critical coverage than, say, China received during the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games.

It seems to them that what they hoped would be a sort of coming-out party and celebration of the new Russia may come off as something else entirely. The Russian people have been cut off from most of the world for decades and many have been looking forward to these games as a way of demonstrating their hospitality and friendliness while re-establishing the contact with the rest of the world they were denied during their 70 years under Communism.

The suffering of the Russian people didn’t end with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Ordinary Russians endured a painful and difficult decade marked by plunging economic indices and social chaos as the nation struggled to adjust to the realities of post Communist Russia. Ill advised and badly executed “reforms” allowed corruption to run rampant and actually made life even worse than it had been under the Communists.

Since then, however, Russia has made immense economic and social progress. Not so long ago, it was one of the poorest countries in the world, but now boasts the world’s seventh-largest economy by total gross domestic product and average incomes that approach those of many European Union countries. Visitors can see the difference this makes in the flourishing cafes, restaurants and shopping centers across Russia that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago. Russians today are free to travel abroad and millions of them do so every year. They are free to start their own businesses, form political parties, and openly criticize their government, including President Putin.

Mr. Putin is no Thomas Jefferson, but today’s Russia is a far cry from the Russia of old and freer than many countries that receive less pointed criticism from the Western media. The recent attacks on Mr. Putin because the nation hasn’t moved as fast as some Western leaders in embracing homosexual rights, for example, seem over-drawn to most Russians.

The legislation many Western commentators label as anti-homosexual is perceived very differently by the vast majority of Russians. The new law does prohibit the distribution of certain LGBT materials to minors but since the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, gays in Russia have full civil rights before the law. It is true that Russia is a relatively more conservative society than many European countries or the United States, but Americans should appreciate how social change takes time, as their own experience shows in the still ongoing debate about same-sex marriage.

Old stereotypes die slowly, though, and many people still associate Russia with images of the Soviet Politburo, or the widespread poverty and criminality of the 1990s. In addition to a chance to enjoy the games themselves, Sochi represents an opportunity for people around the world to see and help celebrate the new, modern country that Russia has become and that Russians themselves have come to experience in recent years.

Americans should appreciate what the Sochi Olympics mean to Russians and the pride they feel in hosting them, as much as anyone can appreciate Americans pride in the Olympics they have hosted. As a former Soviet citizen who has for more than three decades lived in my adopted country of America, I see great potential for improved relations between the United States and Russia if people in both countries can accept that there will always be differences in our cultures and values, but that we also share common hopes and aspirations, which the Olympics symbolize so well.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.