For the Russian Opposition Olympic Flames Burn Cold

A guard lights the Olympic torch with a lighter during the relay through Kremlin. YouTube screenshot.

A guard lights the Olympic torch with a lighter during the relay through Kremlin. YouTube screenshot.

Over a million people have watched a YouTube video [ru] of an Olympic torch being lit with a lighter, after the flame went out as it was carried through the Kremlin during the 2014 Winter Olympics torch relay. The incident is a study in the sort of information warfare most users of the Russian Internet are engaged in — whether they like it or not.

The news spread quickly spread through Twitter, people tweeting in disbelief and with quite a bit of schadenfreude:

F*****ck!!!!!! The torch went out during the run through Kremlin!!! It was re-lit by a guard with a lighter!!!

Wrote the photographer Dmitry Ternovskiy. Lawyer Mark Feygin, of the Pussy Riot defense team fame, responded:

Its a sign. The snow in Sochi is going to melt and they'll bring in fake [snow]. Guards with lighters and gastarbeiters with cigarettes…

Feygin was referring to worries that Sochi might be too warm to host the Winter Games. Many Russians have opposed the games from the start, claiming that it is simply a vast scheme for embezzlement and an opportunity for corruption. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny quickly published a post [ru] saying that the 2014 torches cost over 200 million rubles (6 million USD) to make, and implying that the money was wasted, in a sort of metaphor of the failings of the Russian government.

Some netizens have noticed a similarity between the design of the 2014 Games torch and the logo of the Russian brand vodka. Anonymous image freely distributed online.

Some netizens have noticed a similarity between the design of the 2014 Games torch and the logo of the Russian brand vodka. Anonymous image freely distributed online.

Opposition activist Roman Dobrokhotov joked in a similar vein:

It's a little known fact, but it's not a coincidence: the Olympic torch goes out every time Putin steals a f*cking billion dollars.

The torch has gone out several more times since the first occurrence, and you had better believe that the opposition media is keeping track [ru] of exactly how many times it's been.

Unfortunately, some of the ridicule heaped at the Russian government and the Olympic project spread to the man carrying the torch that went out. The heavyset, older gentleman invited jeers from opposition blogger Andrei Malgin, who wondered [ru] why the torch was being carried by someone “fat, with breathing problems” (Malgin later deleted the statement). Another opposition blogger, Olga Leonova [ru], also commented [ru] on the carrier's “un-sportsmanlike” appearance and breathing problems.

As it turns out, and as pro-Kremlin bloggers were quick to gleefully point out, Malgin and Leonova were disparaging none other than Shavarsh Karapetyan, an Armenian, former champion underwater swimmer, and real life hero. Karapetyan's breathing problems stem from a bad case of pneumonia that he contracted in 1976, while saving 20 people from drowning in a bus that fell into an icy lake.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, the president of Russia's Olympic Organizing Committee, tweeted [ru] that educating people about “legendary” individuals like Karapetyan is the whole point of the torch relay. He also alleviated fears that the Olympic flame, which is supposed to be kept burning once it is lit in a Greek temple, is now of a more plebeian sort:

A staff member didn't open the vent all the way. The next leg of the relay was relit from a lamp carrying the authentic [Olympic] fire. This stuff happens.

Chernyshenko was correct, as some [ru] bloggers [ru] were keen to point out, citing the London and Beijing Summer Olympics — apparently torches constantly go out during relays, and there is never a big to do, since there is always a backup Olympic flame. Of course, some people would prefer it if flame was no more. For example, the wacko religious activist Dmitry Enteo tweeted ecstatically:

The Olympic torch now has a regular, not idolatry, flame!!! Thank God, who made this miracle with the prayers of St. George!

Deacon Andrei Kuraev, a prolific religious blogger, was on the same page [ru]:

Но седой Кремль и его святыни не пустили этот огонь в себя. Он погас аккурат в момент его пронесения под Спасскими воротами (с восстановленной иконой Спаса Смоленского). […] Огонь, зажженный в Кремле и обнесенный вокруг его святынь, можно передать всей России.

The hoary Kremlin and its shrines didn't let this flame within themselves. It went out at exactly the moment when it was carried under the Savior's Gate (which holds the restored icon of the Smolensk Savior). […] A flame that was lit in the Kremlin and carried around its shrines can be relayed to the rest of Russia.

Paganism-related explanations seem to be in vogue lately — just days before the torch incident another religious figure (a high-ranking monk) said [ru] that the Russian super-heavyweight boxer Alexander Povetkin lost a title fight against Ukrainian Vladimir Klitschko because of his interest in neo-pagan traditions.

Much like the extinguished torch, Povetkin's loss is also viewed by many commentators as some sort of portent. Former Kremlin insider Alexey Chadaev thinks [ru] that this type of looking for “signs” and indulging in “superstitions” is simply the result of the Russian opposition subconsciously trying to desanctify the Kremlin and President Putin. All such attempts, however, pale in comparison with good old capitalism. Zippo brand lighters now has the following cover photo on its Facebook page, along with the hashtag #zipposavesolympics:

Zippo Facebook page. Screenshot.

Zippo Facebook page. Screenshot.

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