The Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony, Explained

Americans getting ready to watch NBC's tape-delayed broadcast of the Sochi Opening Ceremony are gonna have some questions.

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Americans getting ready to watch NBC's tape-delayed broadcast of the Sochi Opening Ceremony are gonna have some questions. That's why we're here with the answers. It should go without saying, but those who would prefer to watch NBC's curation of the hours-long event without knowing what they're in for should avoid the rest of the article, which is full of spoilers.

Overall, the Opening Ceremony seemed to go as planned, with the exception of the very noticeable failure of one Olympic ring to light up towards the beginning of the pageantry. While often visually stunning, the Sochi narrative contains a lot of specific references to Russian literature, history, and culture that might not translate very well to other countries. We've pulled out a few of these references, along with some other pressing questions, to explain below.

The Parade of Athletes

Here, Russia did something kind of cool: each country's athletes entered from the center of the stadium, surrounded by a satellite image of their country as seen from space. Space is a big theme of the Opening Ceremony, for reasons we hope we don't have to explain.

Why did the countries enter out of alphabetical order?

Russia used its own Cyrillic alphabet to order the entrance of countries into the stadium, meaning that those used to the typical Roman alphabet might be a little confused. As always, Greece goes first, and Russia, the host country, goes last.

Who had the most embarrassing entrance?

This guy, for sure:

Austrian down! Austrian down! (Not a great omen for medal hopes) --

— Reid Wilson (@PostReid) February 7, 2014

What's up with the women in impressive headgear leading each team into the stadium?


The women are dressed as Snow Maidens, or Snegurochka. Although the Snow Maiden has her origins as the daughter of Father Frost and the Snow Queen, the figure also has her own separate Russian folk tale that's part Pygmalion, part Frosty the Snowman. Basically, an old childless couple longing for the kid they think they'll never have make a young girl out of snow. She comes to life, but meets an untimely end that summer while trying to join in a playful, flame-leaping game with other village girls. You can read more about the myth here. And also, get used to fairy tales. They're all over the ceremony.

Were there any protests of Russia's anti-LGBT laws?

Perhaps, if you count Germany's uniforms.

#OpeningCeremony: Germany makes an incredibly low-key entrance (Photo: Getty)

— GuardianUS (@GuardianUS) February 7, 2014

There, of course, were other protests around Russia. Those protests resulted in arrests. 

The Performance

The main part of the Opening Ceremony does, in fact, have a plot: a small girl moves dream-like through Russia's history in a series of scenes beginning with the Medieval era. She witnesses the construction of the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, moves on to the country's cultural capital of St. Petersburg, and so on through the 20th century and into present day. The narrative here is, obviously, quite positive, and keeps a light touch on virtually all of the more troubling moments in Russia's history.

Please explain the flying horses.


That's the troika. Think of it as Russia's Pony Express, if the Pony Express had the same symbolic meaning for the U.S. as a bald eagle. Troika, a carriage with three horses running abreast, was used for quick mail delivery around Russia in the 17th century. But a flying troika is extra special: it's a literary and cultural symbol, nicknamed a "troika bird," most famous from its use in Gogol's Dead Souls. The Olympic troika is pulling the Sun, of course.

What were the boats for?

The boat scene is one big love letter to Peter the Great. The leader's reign straddled the 17th and 18th centuries, during which Russia became a major European player. Crucially, Peter created a navy, which gave his country access to the sea outside of the stadium (near Sochi). To give his navy some reliable access to non-frozen water, Peter secured his country's access to the Black Sea (Sochi is on the coast of that sea). Peter the Great also did a lot to attempt to westernize his country: to encourage Russian men to shave their very non-European beards, for instance, Peter imposed a beard tax. He also moved the capital of Russia to the coastal St. Petersburg, a then brand-new city built on a swamp. St. Petersburg is still a well-known cultural focal point in the country.

That ballet performance was really beautiful. What was it about? 

The ballet, performed by some of Russia's most famous dancers, was based on the ballroom scene from the famous novel War and Peace. The piece featured Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi Ballet. In Russia, she's a superstar. 

What was happening with the traffic jam scene? 

OK. This scene is both one of the more visually stunning of the ceremonies, what with the Soviet poster art everywhere and super-saturated color scheme. It's also one of the most confusing for non-Russians. At the center of everything is Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev. And he's playing a policeman, but a very specific one: Uncle Styopa. He's a beloved children's book character, basically a friendly giant, which is why it's kind of funny that Valuev is playing him. 

The scene, depicting post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, is supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, as BBC2 explained on air. But it's also supposed to evoke nostalgia for Russians. 

Who lit the torch, and why are they important?


The torch finally enters the stadium after a light show that ends with a hockey player shooting a hockey puck over the moon. (Yes, this is as ridiculous as it sounds.) The torch was carried into the stadium by tennis star Maria Sharapova and then passed around to a few prominent Russians, including Vladimir Putin's rumored girlfriend, before ending up in the hands of our final bearers: Vladislav Tretiak and Irina Rodnina. Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal in the 1970s and 1980s playing goaltender for the Russian hockey team. (Hockey, Putin has said, is the event in which he most wants Russia to win gold.) (Too bad. -- Canada.) Rodnina is a three-time Olympic gold medalist figure skater who also hates Obama

How prominently was t.A.T.u involved? 

Early reports suggested t.A.T.u., the Russian pop duo who many wrongly thought were lesbians, would headline the Opening Ceremony. We are disappointed to report those rumors were false. But that doesn't mean the group was completely absent from the event: t.a.T.u. performed during the pre-show, and a Daft Punk remix of a t.A.T.u. song payed when the Russian athletes entered the stadium. 

What was up with the floating little girl and the red ballon? 

One of the Ceremony's most powerful images comes at the very end when Lubov, the little girl who acts as a guide through each era of the performance, releases a red ballon while floating in the air above a large blue globe. Releasing the red balloon is meant to signal the end of the (very red) Soviet Russia, and "the dream of an era with great hope for the future," according to the official media handouts. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.