SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The Winter Olympics opening ceremony kicked off at 2014 local time (1614 GMT) on Friday at Sochi's shining new Fisht Stadium on the shores of the Black Sea, and organisers promised viewers around the world a journey through Russian history.
The state-of-the-art arena, one of several construction projects that have swelled the budget of the Winter Games to a record $50 billion, holds 40,000 people, and the audience will include President Vladimir Putin and more than 40 world leaders.
Millions more will watch on television and via the Internet as Russia hosts its first Winter Olympics, an event Putin has staked his reputation on.
The run-up to the Games has been marred by threats from Islamist militants based in nearby Chechnya and neighbouring southern Russian regions to launch attacks, and by international criticism of Russia's new "gay propaganda" law.
Organisers have also been under fire for the huge costs involved, unfinished accommodation and amenities, and even the treatment of stray dogs in and around Sochi.
But Putin will hope the opening ceremony signals an end to the griping, as athletes, who have been largely complimentary about the facilities and organisation so far, begin to provide the thrills and spills on ice and snow.
Details of the 2-1/2-hour show have been kept a closely guarded secret, but Russian television executive Konstantin Ernst, in charge of ceremonies at the Games, promised a passage through key moments in Russian history.
"We made an imaginary journey back into the history of Russia. We want to carry a very strong, emotional message for the international audience," he told reporters in Sochi.
REVOLUTION, BUT NO PROPAGANDA
The ceremony will include reference to the upheaval of the 1917 Russian revolution and the importance of the avant-garde art movement at around that time.
"Avant-garde predicted the Russian revolution, and the Russian revolution killed avant-garde art," said Ernst, who as director general of Channel One Russia has been key in honing Putin's image for the Russian public.
He added that, unlike at the London Games in 2012, Russia could not draw on globally recognised contemporary music, meaning classical music and art would play a greater role.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in international opera, will sing the Olympic anthem, and ballet stars will take part in dance sequences.
Putin's role is likely to be limited to declaring the Games open, as is traditional for the host nation's head of state.
Asked if Putin might seek to trump the stunt in 2012 where Queen Elizabeth appeared in a film clip with James Bond actor Daniel Craig before body doubles skydived towards the London stadium, Ernst replied: "You shouldn't hope too much for that."
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said Putin would not use the ceremony for propaganda purposes.
"The Olympic Charter is very clear. The President can say only one sentence," Bach said, in reference to the standard line used by heads of state to open the Games, which is: "I hereby declare open the Games of the Olympiad."
Asked about the main mystery ahead of the opening show - how will the Olympic flame be lit and by whom - Ernst replied: "This is the biggest secret ever."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)