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Russia takes world stage

If Russia’s version of the Olympic torch relay is any indication, this year’s Winter Games could be among the most entertaining ever. Without meaning to, the relay’s organizers have served up a wide-angle view of the real Russia: corrupt, innocently patriotic, accident-prone, creative, ridiculous, resourceful and occasionally flat-out awesome.

The plan was grandiose: Carry the Olympic flame 40,389 miles through every region of Russia, visiting 2,900 towns and allowing 130 million Russians, or 90 percent of the country’s population, to see it.

“For one day each town through which the torches will pass will become the capital of the Olympic torch relay, and that is a unique chance for the towns to present themselves to the entire world,” Olympic organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko said.

Creativity is overflowing as Russian cities try to outdo one another. In Tambov, a gigantic ski hat was knitted to welcome the torch. In Chelyabinsk, a torch bearer rode a camel. On Lake Baikal, divers lit the flame underwater and then burst out of the frigid lake using a jet backpack. Deer sleds, a foray into outer space and shamans have all been part of a 123-day extravaganza.

The Olympic organizing committee spent $6.2 million to purchase the requisite number of torches for 14,000 bearers. The torch was designed by Vladimir Pirozhkov, who has worked for Toyota and Citroen, and made at Krasmash, a factory known for producing ballistic missiles.

“It is based on a unique double burner system” that will never go out, engineer Andrei Vodyanik, who was in charge of the project, boasted. From the start, however, things have not gone smoothly.

Soon after President Vladimir Putin initiated the relay in Red Square, the flame died – due to a faulty valve, according to Chernyshenko. A security guard relit the torch with his Zippo lighter. In Samara, a torch burst into flames and had to be put out with an asbestos blanket. Again, a valve was blamed.

In a country where government contracts are typically vehicles for private enrichment, allegations and finger-pointing inevitably ensued. Inflated cost estimates, kickbacks and subpar work quality are why the Sochi Olympics have become the most expensive in history.

A disassembly test that went viral in Russia found the torches to be a simple, flimsy device. A blogger reported that the torches had been assembled by students hired online by a Krasmash subcontractor.

Pirozhkov insisted the ones he tested worked perfectly. The website claimed to have spoken to Krasmash workers, who said: “We are very ashamed of what is going on.”

Still, there is more to the relay than thievery, poor workmanship and torpid propaganda from state-owned news agencies.

Torch bearers and spectators are genuinely having fun. Tatyana Lysova, editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti, which is normally critical of the Kremlin and which has investigated numerous corruption scandals, was ebullient about her torch-carrying experience.

“Hurrah! I did not set myself on fire and the torch did not go out!,” Lysova wrote on Facebook. “Lots of children came out to be photographed. Even on the bus I had to keep smiling and waving for an hour. I liked it!” Social networks are full of similarly upbeat comments from those who saw the relay.

This being a capitalist Russia, some participants immediately went on to sell their torches at a profit.

No public relations effort, no amount of gloss and whitewash will prevent Russia’s true nature, by turns serene and mercenary, amazingly beautiful and unspeakably ugly, from bursting out. Big events are designed to be showcases. Russia has paid billions of dollars to be seen. Now it will be.

Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg News’ World View.