The Russian constitution does not actually grant parliament the right to assign homework to every kid in the land. But during the Olympics, the chamber seems to have vested itself with those powers. On Wednesday morning, the ruling party of President Vladimir Putin told all of Russia’s teachers to reduce homework for students during the Winter Games in Sochi so that they all have time to watch Team Russia compete.
“In my view, that would be the right decision,” said the chamber’s speaker, Sergei Naryshkin. To justify the measure, Naryshkin said that Russia’s Ministry of Defense had likewise cut the training hours for all military personnel during the Olympics. “Now our servicemen have more of a chance to follow the competition,” Naryshkin noted.
But these measures were not done just for the love of sport. They were an effort to capitalize on the surge of national pride that the Sochi Olympics have brought. For years, Putin has made it his mission to promote patriotism among the Russian youth, even claiming that western powers are in a constant “battle” with his government over their moral character. “Russian society today is experiencing an obvious deficit of spiritual staples,” Putin said in a speech last year. “We must not only develop confidently, but also preserve our national and spiritual identity, not lose ourselves as a nation.”
And what better way to promote Russia’s sense of national purpose than to watch Russian Olympians skiing, curling, bobsledding and riding the halfpipe on their own home turf? Maybe it would help if they were doing a little better in the medals tally. So far, Team Russia is in seventh place, one slot behind the United States, having won only one gold medal during the first five days of the Games.
But merely having the Olympics in Russia has already brought a boost to national pride, especially after the opening ceremony on Feb. 7 presented a historical collage of Russian triumphs. That night, even some of the jaded urbanites of Moscow got swept up in the moment. “Most of my fellow citizens, including me and many of my friends, are willingly succumbing to a patriotic surge,” the prominent banker Igor Kulchik wrote on the website of Snob magazine. “And for the first time in many years we are saying without sarcasm or venom, but with pride, ‘We are Russia, this is our country.'”
Now the trick will be to keep that euphoria going, to make it permanent. A couple more hours a night of Olympic hockey and figure skating may not be enough to achieve that for a whole generation. But at the price of a few lousy algebra quizzes and a couple chapters of Tolstoy, it’s worth a try.