With its opening ceremonies Friday evening, the XXII Winter Olympic Games kicked off in Sochi, Russia under a cloud of negative media attention. Yet for all of the seeming deficiencies in the game’s preparation and Russia’s treatment of human rights, Georgetown students and faculty have had mixed reactions to the games, some running contrary to the recent media attention.

Much of the media’s attention has focused on the Putin regime’s discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people under the guise of laws protecting children from sexual propaganda.

“What they can hope for is that the international attention and the influx of people into Russia will help open up Russian society a bit more,” psychology professor and Director of Georgetown’s Conflict Resolution Program Fathali Moghaddam said. “Whenever the spotlight is put on a dictatorship such as Russia … there’s the possibility of change. For example, pressure is placed on Russia to change its human rights practices, particularly with respect to minorities.”

Travis Richardson (COL ’15), however, reported a radically different experience as an out gay man studying abroad in St. Petersburg last semester.

“My experience with Russia is that it isn’t the huge persecuting monster that the Western media likes to play it up to be. Just from my experiences talking with my host family to joining a Russian discussion group, it’s my understanding that Russians aren’t inherently against homosexuality,” Richardson said. Despite calls from LGBTQ activists for the United States and other countries to boycott the games, none chose to do so; though, in a small display of dissatisfaction with Putin’s policies, President Obama recognized three openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation to the games. Richardson disagreed with this technique, as it curtails the community-building function inherent to the games.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Olympics are a chance to put politics aside and take out any frustrations that countries may have with one another on the field,” Richardson said. “By having our leaders say that they’re not attending due to certain issues — that’s basically saying you don’t find value in the Olympics and the way that it can bring people together.”

Lioudmila Fedorova, professor of Slavic studies, suggested that the influx of foreigners and new ideas into an isolated region could be beneficial across the board.

“I think there is not much education in this area in Russia, and there are some scary stereotypes that people have because Russia is a country of traditional family values … I think that the Sochi Olympics actually are helping [counter these stereotypes] because it is useful for these people to know that in the eyes of others, it’s normal,” Fedorova said. “I think that there was some rhetoric that looked really broad in the eyes of the West, and they [Russians] are trying to comply somehow.”

Moghaddam, however, predicted Russia would not allow much outspoken dissent over the next few weeks.

“The issues of security will be used as an excuse by the Russian regime to persecute dissidents even more, to close up society even more and to gain publicity for their regimes.”

The regime enforced the anti-propaganda laws Friday, when police arrested 14 gay rights activists protesting in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

According to Moghaddam, the increased media attention on the practices of the Russian regime should be beneficial.

“The Olympics being in Russia is positive in the sense that now the spotlight is on Russia, and everybody’s asking questions about the regime there, and that’s very positive,” Moghaddam said.“The regime feels under pressure. And that can only be good.”

Buoyed by viral images of the Sochi Games, Katrina Zheleznyak (COL ’16), a daughter of Russian immigrants, agreed that Russia’s decision to host the games has itself been a stepping stone to creating a more open society.

“On the one hand, there’s that negative part, but then again you see all these different videos online about how the Olympics have always been a little bit gay. And I’m not saying this could’ve happened anywhere else, but I think that this is a really important milestone,” she said.

Richardson, however, did not anticipate the political climate in Russia changing regarding gays as long as the population was being used as the sitting duck for a host of other issues in Russian society.

“I’m not sure if the Olympics are going to change that much about the future of how gays can express themselves in public,” he said. “I feel like the gays in Russia are being used as a scapegoat for other issues Russia is going through, like the negative birth rate for ethnic Russians.”

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