Olympic flame relay highlights Putin’s Russia
MOSCOW (AP) — In the words of President Vladimir Putin, the four-month Olympic flame relay will “show the world Russia as she is and as we love her.”
The relay for the Sochi Winter Games, which began Monday in Moscow, will pass through many cities that showcase the historical, cultural and ethnic richness of Russia. But other cities on the route will do more to remind the world of the evils of Stalinism, the harsh treatment of dissent under Putin or the Islamic insurgency simmering in the Caucasus Mountains not far from Sochi’s ski slopes. And as the relay crosses the expanses of Siberia, it will put the spotlight not only on Russia’s immense wealth of natural resources but on its rusting industrial towns.
For most of the 65,000-kilometer (39,000-mile) trip, the flame will travel by plane, train, car and even reindeer sleigh, safely encased inside a lantern. But 14,000 torch bearers also will take part in the relay at the more than 130 stops along the way.
After leaving Moscow, the relay will make a wide, sweeping circle around the capital through some of Russia’s most historical cities before heading north toward St. Petersburg. It will then travel from the far western exclave of Kaliningrad to the easternmost point just across the Bering Strait from Alaska, before swinging back through the vast country to Sochi in time for the opening ceremony on Feb. 7.
Here is a look at some of the cities along the route:
A favorite with tourists because of its museums and palaces, St. Petersburg was founded in the early 18th century by Peter the Great and for two centuries was the capital of the Russian Empire. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the capital was moved back to Moscow. St. Petersburg saw its star rise again when native son Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 and filled the ranks of government and business with old friends and colleagues from his hometown.
Kaliningrad is the capital of the westernmost region of the country, which was part of East Prussia before being absorbed into the Soviet Union after World War II. After the 1991 Soviet collapse, Kaliningrad, which sits between Poland and Lithuania, found itself cut off geographically from the rest of Russia.
Murmansk, the largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle, played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II as the port of call for U.S. and British convoys bringing in supplies to help the Soviet Union fight Nazi Germany. In more recent weeks, though, the city has made the news because of the 30 Greenpeace activists in its jails, charged with piracy after a protest at a Russian offshore oil platform.
The center of a Western Siberian region where more than half of Russia’s oil is produced, Khanty-Mansiysk is a boom town in the middle of the taiga that looks more Scandinavian than Russian. The city and region were named for the indigenous people, the Khanty and Mansi, who by tradition are reindeer herders.
This northeastern city was the gateway to the most notorious Gulag labor camps under dictator Josef Stalin. The Mask of Sorrow monument in Magadan honors the tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who died either en route to or in the Kolyma camps, where prisoners, many of them intellectuals, mined for gold, cut lumber or built roads during long, brutally cold winters. At the protest rallies in Moscow in the winter of 2011-12, demonstrators chanted “Putin, skis, Magadan.”
The easternmost point of Russia on the Bering Sea, Anadyr is the capital of the Chukotka region, whose governor from 2001 to 2008 was Roman Abramovich. The Russian billionaire is now better known as the owner of the Chelsea Football Club, a soccer team in London.
This city is the final stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a seven-day journey from Moscow, and Russia’s largest port on the Pacific Ocean. Vladivostok’s economy is greased by the import of Japanese cars, and used cars from Japan with the steering wheel on the right fill the streets. In preparation for hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2012, Vladivostok got new roads and bridges, including one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world.
Birobidzhan is the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which Stalin created in the 1920s in an unpopulated area along the Chinese border. Jews now make up a small minority of the population, but the city has seen a revival of Jewish culture in recent years.
Mikhail Kalashnikov put this industrial city on the map. The assault rifle he designed, the AK-47, is produced in Izhevsk, and Kalashnikov, now 93, still lives in the city. Putin once joked that the Olympic torch looks like the famous rifle, quipping that “no matter what you try to make in Russia, it always turns out like a Kalashnikov.” Others, though, have compared the torch to the flame in the logo of state gas company Gazprom, which spent billions helping Sochi to get ready to host the games.
Saransk, a provincial capital with big pretentions, is one of 11 cities in Russia that will host soccer games during the 2018 World Cup. The city of 300,000 also counts French actor Gerard Depardieu among its residents. After receiving a Russian passport early this year, Depardieu chose Saransk as his official place of residence. Saransk is also the closest city to the women’s prison where one of the Pussy Riot members is serving a two-year sentence for an anti-Putin protest inside Moscow’s main Cathedral.
An epic battle in Volgograd, known then as Stalingrad, helped to turn the tide of World War II. A statue called the Motherland Calls towers over a memorial complex honoring the more than 1 million people who died in the Battle of Stalingrad, a decisive Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
The name of the city, which sits on the Volga River, was changed after Stalin’s death. But starting this year, the city decided that it will once again be known as Stalingrad, at least on the days commemorating the 1943 victory.
Near the end of its journey, the Olympic flame will pass through the North Caucasus, an ethnic patchwork of mountain peoples, most of whom are Muslims. Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, made the international news following the Boston Marathon bombings in April when it became known that one of the suspects had spent much of last year in the city, where his family has roots. It is not known how much Tamerlan Tsarnaev was influenced by the Islamic militants operating in Dagestan, the center of a low-level insurgency that spread across the region following two separatist wars in neighboring Chechnya. But bombings and shootings take place on a near daily basis.
The capital of Chechnya, rebuilt after the two devastating separatist wars in the 1990s, boasts the largest mosque in Europe. With money and backing from Moscow, thuggish Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has brought a degree of stability to the republic, although attacks still take place. The Islamic insurgency poses a daunting challenge to Russian security forces during the Winter Games, but Putin insists he has full confidence in their ability to prevent any terrorist attacks.
The Black Sea resort has been transformed by preparations for the Olympics, with much of the infrastructure and almost all of the sports venues built from scratch. Russia spent more than $50 billion on the games, making them the most expensive in history. Sochi has a subtropical climate, and palm trees line its streets, but up in the mountains above the city the first snow of the season fell in September.