Even if you’ve barely side-eyed the Olympics coverage this year, you’ve probably seen it: the bright rainbow of mismatched, patterned diamonds that shows up on the sides of arenas, behind the podium, on clothing, and even on the medals.
This is the official look of the Sochi Games, an eye-boggling patchwork quilt pattern that is meant to evoke traditional craftwork from different parts of Russia. Cheerful and folksy as it seems, it has a lot more to do with political maneuvering than with anything resembling traditional Russian design. The branding borrows a pattern more widely recognized as Western for distinctly Russian purposes: both to appeal to a sometimes difficult-to-unite diversity of Russian audiences and, perhaps, to camouflage an international kerfuffle over the country's gay-rights stance.
Russian sportswear company Bosco di Ciliegi developed the design and says it is meant to represent diversity in Russia, with symbols of traditional arts and crafts from 16 different regions, like the black, floral pattern of Khokhloma wood painting and Pavlovsky Posad shawls. "It offers a new interpretation of different cultures, traditions, and ethnicities which together form a united and powerful visual identity," as a press release heralded when the design was announced. (The company did not respond to requests for comment on the design.)
Yet the patchwork plastered around Sochi isn’t as visually steeped in Russian culture as you might expect. The origins of the patchwork technique (sewing smaller pieces of different fabric together) are hard to pin down, but may date back as far as ancient Egypt and became popular in England and colonial America in the 1700s. "It’s a Western look. It feels very American, it feels very English," says Wendy Salmond, a professor of art history at Chapman University who specializes in Russian art. "Conceptually, I see why patchwork—the branding together of different fragments—makes sense, but in terms of recognition it doesn’t immediately speak to Russia," she tells Co.Design. Russian designer Sergei Shanovich, who is making a film about modern Russian design, echoes her sentiment, telling me over email, "the patchwork hobby is not typical" for the Russian school of design. It's a confusing visual cue for an event celebrating the pride and nationalism of 21st-century Russia.
Even still, it contains a kernel of smart political branding. The idea of stitching together different groups within Russia is one that echoes Soviet propaganda, which at times, not unlike the American ideal of a "melting pot," emphasized the idea of a "friendship of the peoples" to unite the region’s many different ethnic groups under the Soviet banner. Unification is an issue that Vladimir Putin still grapples with today.
Bosco’s branding doesn’t seem so different from what author Anya von Bremzen describes as "a barrage of state-sponsored multiculturalism" in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, her wry memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union in the ‘60s and ‘70s:
The Bolshevik fathers created nations… Under Brezhnev, the Union’s original vision of federalism and affirmative action had been revived—as institutional kitsch. The Mature Socialist celebration of ethnic friendship produced a never-ending costume carnival of Dagestani metalwork, Buryat archery skills, Moldavian embroidery.
Salmond calls the branding "the casting of a really bright blanket over something deeply deeply controversial and complicated." The diversity of regions and traditions celebrated include Kubachi metalwork patterns of the politically troubled North Caucasus region of Dagestan, and textile designs made traditionally by Cossacks, a group with a complicated history that includes a "legacy... bound up with battle and vigilante-style violence, including campaigns against Turks, Jews, and Muslim highlanders," as the New York Times' Ellen Barry wrote recently. During the Olympics, Putin and his ilk would rather pretend such geopolitical discord doesn't exist. As he has written, "public and inter-ethnic harmony is one of our country's key requisites." Spinning Russia's complicated ethnic history into a bright quilt of togetherness to be plastered across Sochi, seen on televisions all over the world, is every bit in line with his rhetoric.
The patterns may stray a little toward the kitschy—Russian tourist markets are filled with Khokhloma dishes and Palekh lacquered miniatures—but that, too, may be the point. The familiar kitsch of these folk patterns is more about appealing to the nationalism of Russians watching at home than to an international audience. Quilting them all together is a convenient design tactic to metaphorically sew everyone together, into the proud spectacle that is the Olympics.
"These games, while they are partly for foreign consumption, they are also very much a testament for internal Russian experience," Anna Winestein, the executive director of the Ballets Russes Cultural Partnership, tells Co.Design. She speculates that the designers' aim is that "everybody can find a piece of the patchwork that’s them and engage with [it] and feel like 'we are together.'"
As others have suggested, the colorful patchwork may also work toward another of Putin's political goals: It provides a convenient way to mask any rainbow protests of Russia’s anti-gay policies. If the whole city is covered in rainbow colors—colors that don't usually feature in Russian imagery—other rainbow colors worn in protest may be a little less obvious.
These Olympics are a chance for Russia to present itself anew as a powerful, unified nation on the world stage. As the New York Times declared after the opening ceremonies last week:
[A] swaggering, resurgent Russia turned its Winter Olympic aspirations into reality on Friday night.
After seven years of building to this moment—the opening of what is believed to be the most expensive Olympic Games in history—the message of the over-the-top ceremony was simply this: In a big way, Russia is back.
And if the visual message being touted is to be believed, god dammit, it's one big happy country.