Whatever else you might think of the Russians sending the Olympic torch into space, you have to give them credit for thinking big. But what was the real purpose and what impressions are we left with? Undoubtedly, this was a PR exercise on a breath-taking scale and understandably so. Hosting the Olympics is, after all, as much as about the promotion of the host country as it is the promotion of sport and the Olympic spirit. But for Russia this was another way of reminding the world that it is big and powerful. And modern.

Understanding Modernisation

So what does it really mean to be a modern country in today’s world and why is it important? Modernisation is essentially about development, an idea which dominated thinking in the immediate post-colonial era as newly independent states began to play economic catch-up, often with their former ‘masters’. The process most usually demanded industrialisation and with it, à la western model, urbanisation. Add to this a political element, the idea that a rational free-thinking society had to be given space to develop, with all that implied in terms of values, political system and state institutions. The theory also had the perhaps unintended effect of painting the world in terms of binary differences:  if a state was not modern, it was traditional. The modern world was associated with development, advancement, progression: the traditional world reflected a lack of development, a lack of advancement, a lack of progress. Thus to be modern was to be forward-thinking, and to be traditional, backward thinking. The implications in terms of power relations are obvious.

Unsurprisingly, modernisation theory was largely discredited as reflecting Western bias and Western developmental processes. Crucial here were the criticisms of dependency theory, which used Marxist thought to deliver insights into how Western-sponsored capitalism, far from creating a level playing field in which all states could reach the same level of economic growth, instead reinforced economic disparities and thus difference.

Inter-State Relations Today

Despite theoretical awakening in which the inherent biases of modernisation theory were exposed, many of the same prejudices still underpin relations between states. To that extent, thinking about modernisation helps us understand why some states position themselves the way they do. Developing states or newly developed states certainly understand the necessity of presenting themselves in a fashion that emphasises their modern credentials, using media to challenge and overcome dominant views in relation to their place in the world. Having capacity, firstly, to host the Olympics, and secondly, to hoist the Olympic flame into low earth orbit sends an unambiguous message about what Russia believes its place to be within the international economic and political architecture.

Perceptions of Russia

At the same time, Russia has not had it all its own way in terms of media coverage and therefore perceptions. Much has been made in the  media at home and abroad of the fact that the Olympic flame has gone out no fewer than 44 times, it is calculated, on its journey through Russia. Thus, embarrassing questions have been asked about what a failure to keep a torch alight says about Russia’s technological development. Scrutiny has also extended to Russia’s domestic politics. As a result of the 1972 Olympics, it is not unusual for host states to be preoccupied with security. However, Russia’s longstanding domestic problems with terrorism, coupled with criticisms about its recent treatment of migrant workers, including workers in Sochi itself, mean it may be far more vulnerable on this point than more recent host countries. Given Russia’s preoccupation with asserting its power, this is an unwelcome perspective. Add to this the furore about gay rights, which has resulted in an unprecedented additional point on the need for social inclusion to be included in the usual United Nations call for a truce during the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games and the message seems clear: Russia’s standards are not those of the modern world.

For Russia, being modern is about economic growth and technological advancement. Seemingly, it also means asserting power and position in the world. Judged even only on these terms, Russia looks vulnerable. Its economic future is not assured and the inability to keep the Olympic flame alight is symbolic of its struggle to find its place in a technologically-advanced world. Its vulnerability to terrorist attack at home undermines the message of power and status it seeks to assert abroad. Judged by Western standards where modernisation is as much about political and societal growth as economic development, Russia’s record on human rights and political freedom and participation is deeply worrying.

However, problematic such perceptions may be in terms of reflecting the continued dominance of Western ideas and the failure to develop more inclusive notions of economic, political and social development, they still form the framework for international relations and thus the standards against which Russia is measured. In this scenario, Russia’s road to modernisation is a deeply contradictory one.