Olympic flame arrives in Russia ahead of Sochi Games

Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a torch in Moscow, Oct. 5, 2013.

The Olympic flame arrived in Moscow on Sunday ahead of next year's Winter Games in Sochi that have been marred by protests over President Vladimir Putin's perceived crackdown on dissent.

The cherished symbol of world peace and international camaraderie was lit in Greece's Ancient Olympia on Sept. 29 and officially handed over to a Russian delegation in Athens on Saturday.

The torch was flown into Moscow's Vnukovo-3 airport — reserved exclusively for VIPs and officials — before being rushed in a white van to Red Square for a cauldron-lighting ceremony overseen by Putin and broadcast live across the nation.

The Games will show Russia's "respect for equality and diversity — ideals that are so intertwined with the ideals of the Olympic movement itself," Putin declared in a veiled reference to Western criticism of his policies.

The traditional torch relay will kick off on Monday and conclude when the cauldron is lit at Sochi's brand new Fisht Olympic Stadium at the Games' opening ceremony on Feb. 7.

Runners will cover 40,400 miles as they wind their way across Russia's 83 regions —stopping only to see the torch visit the International Space Station (ISS) on Nov. 7-11.

Russia takes great pride in its space program and spent years looking for a way to feature the ISS in the Olympic event.

The final plan will see the torch flown to the space station by a special Soyuz mission while the flame itself remains safely rooted to the ground.

The silver-and-red torch will then be taken out for an honorary space walk on Nov. 9 by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky.

Russian officials have made clear that the torch will not be lit when it boards the Soyuz because of the dangers involved.

"It would be strange if a cosmonaut went into a rocket with a lit torch," Kotov joked before blasting off for the ISS on Sept. 26.

'Human rights violations'

Putin was at his diplomatic best when he managed in 2007 to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to bring the Winter Games to Sochi — a Black Sea summer resort lined with beaches and Russia's lone stretch of palm trees.

Russia has since earmarked a record $50 billion of state and corporate money for construction projects aimed at turning Sochi into a global tourism magnet after all the athletes depart.

Environmental groups have panned the massive project for its alleged disregard for local flora and fauna as well as its use of low-cost migrant labor.

But some of the heaviest criticism has come from international human rights groups and governments concerned with what many fear is an increasingly shaky state of freedom under Putin's rule.

"The Olympic flame can throw the light on the human rights violations that the authorities would prefer to hide behind the celebratory decorations," said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International.

Putin in June signed into law legislation that punishes the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors but which activists say can be used for a broad crackdown against gays.

The law sparked calls from campaigners and celebrities such as British actor Stephen Fry to strip Russia of the event and move it to a nation that respects individual rights.

"Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world," Fry said in August.

Newly elected IOC president Thomas Bach said on Sept. 29 that he had received assurances from Russian officials that the "anti-gay propaganda" law would not affect athletes participating in the Games.

But a small protest was still held outside Athens' Panathenaic Stadium on Saturday when Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak received the flame from Hellenic Olympic Committee chief Spyros Kapralos.

The Sochi event will mark the first time that Russia has ever hosted the Winter Games.

Moscow hosted the 1980 Summer Games that were boycotted by many Western countries because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.