As befits a big country and a big man, Putin's Folly has been wrought on an epic scale, and the Russian autocrat has devoted almost obsessive personal attention to the details; his fingerprints are all over the thing. It was he who chose to site the winter games at one of the few places in Russia's vast territory that rarely gets any snow, and is also close to a region of the country rife with Islamic terrorism. Over $50 billion has been spent, more than twice Russia's annual education budget. A large chunk of this (regime critics say as much as $30 billion) has been siphoned off by the corruption endemic to authoritarian regimes, and the media have vied with each other to dramatize the waste (by pointing out, for example, that one road cost so much that it could have been paved with mink pelts).
The gargantuan construction projects have devastated the town of Sochi, and despite the vast sums committed, much of the work has been done by migrant workers paid pitifully-low wages. We're already getting a first look at the results from journalists already in Sochi -- do click that link, it's beyond my power to paraphrase. If this is representative of the rest of the infrastructure specially built for the games, we're about to witness a world-class fiasco.
The omnipresent security will likely prove intimidating and oppressive to visitors, whether or not it proves as inept as the rest of the preparations. If the jihadists do make good on their threats, Putin's humiliation will be complete. Even if, as we all hope, no such tragedy occurs, he will be branded as the mastermind of a staggeringly expensive mess.
And that may matter. There are signs that the Russian people are getting fed up with their strongman. Russian's economy is sputtering and Putin's popularity, once buoyed by fervent nationalism and oil-export-driven prosperity, is tanking. A people as educated and skilled as any in the West is still not reconciled to Third-World-style corruption, autocracy, and backwardness. On Sunday, after long quiescence, Moscow saw a large protest demonstration; the immediate demand was the release of certain political prisoners, but I wonder if the Russians are starting to take inspiration from the fierce struggle of their Slavic brethren in neighboring Ukraine to protect democracy from the bargain-basement Putins holding power in Kiev.
Add in a spectacular display of incompetence, waste, and corruption at Sochi, and the Russians might just decide it's time to see if a different leader and system could do better.