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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Olympic Opening Ceremony

How copyright infringement explains modern Russia


So you know how the Olympic opening ceremony was supposed to show us the quintessence of Russia? Well, now it turns out that it really, really has. The essence of Russia was not in the red Constructivist shapes, or the Bolshoi prima, or even the list of writers that Russia has given the world. The essence of Russia was actually in a copyright infringement mini-scandal.

The opening ceremony had barely ended when Russian singer Zemfira (who, just FYI, is gay) wrote on her website that the ceremony had used her song "You Want?" without her permission. "This is a direct violation of copyright," she wrote. "The opening was great! Kostya [Konstantin Ernst, director of the Ceremonies and head of state-owned Channel One], congratulations! But what is this shit? You do whatever you want?"

Okay, so I'm going to answer Zemfira's question for all of you because within the answer lies one of the essences of Russia, and that answer is "Yes."

Yes, Konstantin Ernst basically can do whatever he wants, especially when he is putting on what one foreign correspondent called Cirque du Soleil on acid for his boss, the father of the Russian nation, Vladimir Putin. On this night, even more so than on any other, he can do whatever he damn well wants. For this is the hierarchy in Russia: Putin > Olympics > Ernst> ... > ... > Zemfira's stupid copyright > mere mortals.

That's part one. 

Part two came today when Ernst, in a radio interview, pooh-poohed Zemfira's complaints as well as rumors that she would sue for copyright infringement. Ernst used to run the label that first signed Zemfira, you see, and Ernst reminded listeners that she had broken a contract "five or seven years ago." At the time, Ernst, out of the goodness of his heart, decided not to sue. Now that Zemfira was threatening legal action, Ernst threatened legal war. "She can sue," he said, "but in that case, I'll be forced to return to the story of her broken contract." He added, "I think I did a lot for Zemfira and her career. And this kind of pettiness is embarrassing for such a great singer."

If you're following, here are the principles at work:

  • In Russia, the law is not a framework of rules and protections, but a weapon to be used not when it is broken, but when pain needs to be inflicted or pressure exerted.
  • Everyone has shit on everyone in Russia, so be careful how you wield your weapon, lest someone out-blackmail you.
  • If you do something nice and meaningful for someone, you may claim signorial ownership over them.
  • Russian artists are special and they, therefore, are enserfed to the grandeur of the State.
  • Copyright enforcement = embarrassing pettiness. 

And that, folks, is the quintessence of Russia. How very illustrative this opening ceremony was! 

New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.