Why does power need glory? Why did Vladimir Putin spend $51 billion on his leitourgia in Sochi? Political theater has ancient origins. Wealthy citizens of ancient Athens were expected to fund a great liturgy (“work of the people”) — a ship, a sporting event, a play, etc. A savvy Pericles advanced his political career by funding Aeschylus’s The Persians.
Bound up intimately with Putin’s ambitions, the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are a grand example of political theater. Why does Putin’s power need these the glory of Sochi?
The answer lies, I think, with the desire to turn deliberative and reflective public opinion into unanimous acclamation. A line of political theory running from Carl Schmitt to Giorgio Agamben argues that modern public opinion is simply the updated version of ancient acclamation. Here I’ll quibble, deferring to Kierkegaard, who distinguishes the acclamation of ancient throngs from public opinion of the modern body politic:
In antiquity the individual in the crowd had no significance whatsoever; the man of excellence stood for them all… The eminent personage dared to consider everything permissible, the individuals in the crowd nothing at all. Nowadays we understand that so and so many people make one individual, and in all consistency we compute numbers in connection with the most trivial things. For no other reason than to implement a whim, we add a few together to do it — that is, we dare to do it. (Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 85)
The authoritarian figure must stand for the body politic — in other words, the “man of excellence” or “eminent personage” needs acclamation — and supplant the deliberative process which is abstractly represented by “public opinion”. The dictator who desires to “stand for the crowd” requires acclamation. Acclamation, in turn, requires the deft use of political symbols. These must be ambiguous, non-specific enough to gain universal acclaim, not “sticky” enough to prompt deliberation.
Let’s fixate on two symbols in the opening ceremonies of Vladimir Putin’s leitourgia at Sochi. Did the ‘first Russians’ arrive on triremes or Viking longships? Was this an Aeneas, sailing from Troy to found the “Third Rome” at Moscow? Or was this Rurik leading the ‘Rus people? The symbol of the ‘first Russians’, arriving in the Motherland on their ships, navigated a perfect ambiguity, melding together the religious claim of the Russian Orthodoxy to be the heirs of the See of Peter, the imperial pretensions of the tsars, and the nationalism of ethnographic origins. The ‘first Russians’ could signify so many things, what Russian would not acclaim it?
A more obvious symbol — and a yet more ambiguous one — was the symbol of the red balloon, which the young girl Lyubov (Love) let go to symbolize the end of communism. I recalled the Albert Lamorisse’s famous 1956 film The Red Balloon, in which the red balloon is the only vibrant hope in a dingy, colorless working-class Parisian neighborhood. The red balloon is the object of faith, persecuted by a gang of thugs. Is this nostalgia for Russian communism, an innocent girl letting go of her hopes? Or is it a symbol of overcoming the childish experiment of communism? Again, the ‘red balloon’ could signify so many things, what Russian would not acclaim it?