SOCHI, Russia — With an outsize extravaganza that reached deep into the repertoire of classical music and ballet, traversed the sights and sounds of the world’s largest geopolitical expanse, soared into outer space, and swept across 400 years of history in a celebration of everything from Czarist military might to Soviet Monumentalism, a swaggering, resurgent Russia turned its Olympic aspirations into reality on Friday night.
After seven years of building to this moment — the opening of what is reputed to be the most expensive Games in the history of global sport — the message of the over-the-top ceremony was simply this: In a big way, Russia is back.
As if there was any doubt.
(Where Russia may be headed — amid an economic slowdown, continuing rights abuses and suppression of political dissent that have drawn sharp criticism, especially in the West — was a question for another day.)
The 18-chapter, 2.5-hour performance began at the symbolic moment of 8:14 p.m. — 20:14, as time is counted here — and provided a majestic spectacle that included a glowing troika of horses streaking through a snowbound sky, the multicolor onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral bobbing in the air; literary references to Gogol, Tolstoy and Nabokov; images of behemoth post-Revolutionary skyscrapers and space capsules; as well as performances by Russia’s storied ballerinas, musicians and singers.
If there were any traces of national self-consciousness lingering, nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of Communism and the loss of superpower status, they were put aside for the evening. Also set aside, however briefly, were the many political controversies that have roiled of late, including criticism of a law banning homosexual “propaganda”, and tiffs over political influence in Ukraine, human rights and other issues that prompted some Western leaders not to attend the Games.
Instead, what unfolded in the Fisht Olympic Stadium — the centerpiece of the newly constructed multiple-venue Olympic complex stretching from the Black Sea coast up into the Caucasus Mountains — was sheer pageantry and national pride, with all of the homespun promotionalism, mythmaking and self-aggrandizement that are the modern trademark of such ceremonies.
The music included pieces by Alexander Borodin, Georgi Sviridov, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, including from “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” There were roles for the opera soprano Anna Netrebko; the prima ballerina Diana Vishneva and for Russia’s best-known conductor, Valery Gergiev of the Mariinsky Theater. There were Cossack dancers and boyar puppeteers. And there were also nods to Mendeleev, who codified the Periodic Table of Elements, and Igor Sikorsky, the inventor and aviator.
The Russian flag was raised by the cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.The former first lady Naina Yeltsin was in the audience. And the Olympic torch was carried on its last steps by a cadre of Russia’s most famous athletes, including the gold medal winning rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, the champion pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and the tennis star Maria Sharapova, who won a silver medal at the Summer Games in 2012.
If the renarration of history in the opening ceremony occasionally involved some breezing past inconvenient episodes — the Stalinist purges that killed millions, for instance, and the gulags that imprisoned and killed millions more — the ceremony was, in many respects, the introduction to the world of a recreated Russia, one far different from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that held the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980.
The national anthem played to the crowd of 40,000 in the stadium and heard by billions more watching on television around the world was the same music played nearly 35 years ago. But the lyrics have since been rewritten with lines about “the united, mighty Soviet Union” and “the great Lenin” replaced by references to “Russia — our sacred homeland” and “wide spaces, for dreams and for living.”
In this sense, unlike the most recent comparable spectacles — London, in 2012, which celebrated enduring traditions and reveled in ironic, self-deprecation, or Beijing, in 2008, which firmly declared the emergence of a new power — the Sochi ceremony was a toast to reinvention. The Sochi Games, in many respects, have reflected a personal ambition of President Vladimir V. Putin, the most sensational of a series of megaprojects that illustrate the nation’s raise from post-Soviet chaos.
As with the other projects, including last summer’s Universiade in Kazan, the Games were largely financed by Russia’s astonishing oil and gas wealth, and by many of the billionaires, so-called oligarchs, who have profited most handsomely from it.
The 1980 Games, marred by the American-led boycott, have shadowed much of the preparations for these Games, and in many ways the Sochi Olympics have been designed to supplant memories of that time.
Philip Barker, a historian of the Olympics, said that the Moscow Games were also notable for the first opening ceremony that was a true spectacle. “Before that it was a parade of teams, a bit of kids dancing, and that was it,” Mr. Barker said.
Like so much else in modern Russia, Sochi’s opening festivities were both carefully choreographed and yet oddly unpredictable, with a few surprises — not all of them good. At the very beginning, one of the five gigantic snowflakes intended to burst into Olympic rings failed to open.
The show, formally titled “Dreams About Russia,” was produced under the leadership of Konstantin Ernst, the director of Channel One, Russia’s largest state-controlled television channel, and a staunch loyalist to Mr. Putin. At a news conference earlier in the day, Mr. Ernst noted that Russia could not compete when it comes to popular music, so instead would rely on what it has done best for centuries: classical.
“We cannot like London boast of a great number of world-famous pop performers, that’s why we focus more on the most popular part of Russian music — classical music,” he said.
The show embraced not only classical music, of course, but also dance and featured not just Ms. Vishneva, the star soloist with the Mariinsky Ballet, but also Svetlana Zakharova, a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet; Ivan Vasiliev, now with American Ballet Theater, as well as other current and former stars. In one sketch, a traffic policeman was played by Nikolai Valuev, a former champion boxer.
In one eye-catching departure from the emphasis on the classics, Mr. Ernst chose the girl duo t.A.T.u. for both the final act of the preshow, and their song “They Won’t Catch Us” to accompany the arrival of Russia’s athletes during the parade of nations.
Popular in the early 2000s and one of the few Russian pop acts with worldwide fame, the duo was perhaps known best for dressing as schoolgirls and kissing on stage — a display that now could potentially generate problems under Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law.
The central character in the show, however, was a little-known 11-year-old, Liza Temnikova, from Krasnodar, the capital of the region where Sochi is. The daughter of two taxi drivers, she won the role in a casting call.
Her character, named Lyubov, which means “love,” leads the audience on a journey across centuries, as well as Russia’s roughly 4,400-mile expanse, stretching across nine times zones, from Europe to the Far East, and from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea.
The show celebrated not only Russia’s geography but also the Cyrillic alphabet, the military prowess of Peter the Great, and Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, “War and Peace.” There was also some love for Mr. Putin, Russia’s paramount leader now for 14 years, who the program noted “is also an Alpine skier and has learned to ice skate and play ice hockey.”
Just before 10:30 p.m. Mr. Putin fulfilled his role — carefully dictated by the Olympic Charter — and uttered the single sentence, declaring the Games officially opened. A barrage of red-white-and-blue fireworks immediately shot up above the Fisht Stadium, lighting up the night sky.
Notably, Mr. Ernst designed a show that like Mr. Putin is not shy about embracing certain aspects of the Soviet past. Some of the most striking sketches involved an artistic view of the 20th century, glossing over some of Russia’s darkest times, with a focus instead on industrialism and the avant-garde.
Mr. Ernst had acknowledged ahead of time that the ceremony would approach the Russian Revolution and its bloody aftermath in this regard, rather than dwell on the more gruesome history.
“Russian avant-garde and the revolution are very close to each other,” he said at his news conference. “Emergence of avant-garde predicted revolution; afterward the revolution killed the avant-garde.”
The sketches illustrated the period with huge mechanical cogs and gears, spinning and churning, as well as with images of the Stalinist skyscrapers that are among the most recognizable buildings in Moscow, and perhaps most dramatically, with an image of Vera I. Mukhina’s iconic sculpture “Worker and Peasant Woman.”
Whatever the Soviet Union’s ideological failings, the ceremony reflected a view, clearly shared by Mr. Putin, that its sheer bigness — especially its unification of Russia’s multitude of ethnicities, should be admired.
No doubt, one of the most enduring images for the audience was that of the glowing white troika, the chariot drawn by three horses immortalized in Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls.”
“Where art thou soaring away to Russia? Give me the answer! But Russia gives none,” he wrote in the novel, published in 1842. “All things on Earth fly past, eyeing the troika, and all the other peoples and nations stand aside giving it the right of way.”