The Russian Olympics

Observations of a Perplexed Spectator


At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, I was a spectator. I have the Spectator Pass to prove it, having walked from one location to another, and then stood in one line after another to obtain this credential. I sat in the stands for Ski Jumping while during a break in the competition an emcee warmed up the crowd in English and Russian, saying Sochi as “Z-ohhh-sheee” and boasting that “Sochi, we are the best spectators in the world.”

The official Spectator Pass, required to attend any event at the Olympics.

As a kid, I grew up watching the Olympics on TV, a ritualistic viewing that captivated me just like the launch and recovery of Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. My self-image tied to a national image, a sense of our place in the world, was linked to athletic performances in unusual sports at the Olympics and just as well in the competing space programs. I only saw one side of the competitions. In sports and space, in world-building, Russia in its incarnation as the Soviet Union was our rival. As a spectator, I thought that something extraordinary was happening, and I was involved in the outcome.

That the Olympics were taking place in Russia was the main reason for going, deciding relatively late and not fully understanding why I wanted to go. I persuaded my wife, Nancy, that it could be fun going to Russia in winter. When I first met Nancy, almost 35 years ago, I recall us talking about Nabokov and his many fascinating minor novels. (My own favorite was “Despair” which the German director Fassbinder made into a candy-colored movie staring Dirk Bogarde; it is the story of an unhappily married middle-aged scion of a chocolate business who encounters a hobo and decides that the man is his double, or doppleganger, and that they could swap lives. The Nabokovian twist is that the only person who is convinced of this likeness is the businessman who is having a breakdown.) Nancy and I shared a long-term fascination with Russian history and literature, but we had never visited Russia. For us, reading stimulates travel and travel creates new demands on reading, another kind of spectating.

Once we booked the trip last December, and began the process of obtaining a Russian visa, the media began to report on possible terrorist attacks. The news made Nancy waver on going. “Maybe going to Sochi isn’t such a good idea,” she said. The next day she had bought trip insurance.

Getting a Russian visa was a difficult process, which required paying someone else to speed the processing along. The application form asked us to list all the foreign countries we had visited over the last ten years and the specific dates of travel. It wanted to know if we had ever been to Russia, had family there or even been deported from Russia. The overall sense we had was that Russia just makes it more difficult for people to visit, even when they are welcoming the world for the Olympics.

Not making things easy also apply to the scheduled flights into and out of Sochi. We arrived in Sochi at 4 AM on Wednesday, February 12 and we stayed until leaving at 5:45 AM the following Tuesday, the 18th. We had six days in Sochi, some of it spent adjusting to the Moscow time zone, an even twelve hours ahead of Pacific Standard time and which meant we had to swap day and night.

So how was it? What is like to go to the Olympics? What did you think of Russia? Well, let me tell you, and I know this is a long, complicated answer.

What Worked

If you followed Olympic insights into Sochi on Twitter, @sochiproblems identified and mocked a range of problems in Sochi. By and large, we didn’t experience those problems but there were, of course, others that we didn’t expect. Many things worked well, and most of them are mundane things that nonetheless matter a great deal on a trip. I wanted to start out on a positive note as well — and also avoid complaining like the comfort-seeking western tourists that we are.

Transportation

Russian Railways built a new public transportation system for the Olympics. The new train was terrific — reliable, with sufficient frequency and capacity to handle the crowds. There were buses as well that connected to the trains. The entire system was free during the Olympics. It meant almost no time spent in traffic and very little need for cars.

Adler Train Station

We made our connections at the new Adler Hub, which was almost in the center of three key local destinations: 30 minutes north was the city of Sochi; 15 minutes south was the Olympic Park; and 30 minutes southeast was Krasnodar Polyana, up in the Caucasus mountains where the ski events took place.

Toilets

Toilets were fine, easy to find and free. I saw none of the awkward side-by-side toilets that I saw on @sochiproblems. In the city, at the train station and the Olympic venues, the toilets were normal by western standards of cleanliness, convenience and privacy. Ironically, we never waited in lines for the restroom. The only really awful open-pit toilet was unexpectedly found in the basement of the Sochi Art Museum.

Water

We followed the advice not to drink tap water. Otherwise, the water was fine in the sinks and showers we used. Again, we saw no evidence of discolored water that was shown on Twitter.

Weather

Sochi was warm, like a Californian winter, and just cool enough to require jackets but nothing really heavy. Yet as it was the Winter Olympics, we like many others came prepared with parkas, and that was also what the many volunteers were wearing as well. When you see enough people wearing parkas, you begin to believe it is colder than it is. Once when we boarded a bus, wearing our parkas because we had no lighter jacket, the gruff Russian driver pointed out the weather report in the paper, pointing to 13C and shaking his head at how we were dressed. Even the Black Sea did not seem so cold, by comparison to the Pacific.

Security

Security was a constant presence but it was consistent and fairly sensible, never onerous or arbitrary. Russian security was comparable to TSA in its methods, but perhaps even more polite — not nice, just respectful. One know what they were going to do and you got used to it easily. There was always a physical patdown, no matter how many scanners or detectors you went through.

Which brings up this point about Russian security. They don’t just rely on technology but instead they use a lot of people. These people are well-trained and professional, although wearing enough different uniforms and distinctive hats to make one think a costumer was working on a set.

Security forces were ominpresent. You would see them everywhere, along the train routes, at the airport perimeters, at the entrances to your hotel, and at checkpoints in all the Olympic venues. For instance, when we took the train up into the mountains, we thought it was like a game to spot the security details along the route — standing atop the bluffs overlooking a river and the train tracks, camping out in camouflaged huts in the woods or positioned as sentries along the tracks at regular intervals.

The heaviest security was at the transportation centers, and that is where you almost always first went through security. That is, when you boarded a train in the city center in Sochi, you through the scanners and patdown before being allowed into the train station. However, when you got off the train at the Olympic Park, you did not go through another security checkpoint. We hardly ever encountered lines at security.

You have to give Russia credit — security is something they do well, which no doubt involves extensive coordination of local police and military forces. We often saw these different groups, a brotherhood huddled together, talking and passing the time.

The Black Sea


Seeing the Black Sea was one of the main attractions of the trip. This body of water, ten times the size of Lake Superior, is connected to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus, which starts at Istanbul. It is bordered by Russia, several former states of the Soviet Union, Ukraine (Crimea) in the north and Georgia in the south, several Eastern European states in the west and Turkey in the south. Sochi’s location on the eastern coast of the Black Sea makes it a summer destination, purportedly the warmest spot in Russia.


The first impression of the Black Sea was the great expanse of the sea itself stretching to the horizon. Then we noticed the navy boats at anchor. They did not move all week. Looking along the rocky shoreline revealed a coast defined not just by rocks but also concrete. There were concrete piers jutting out into the sea at regular intervals, and concrete blocks were tumbling and spilling into the sea. Multi-story concrete platforms were also breaking up what one just couldn’t call a beach. They all seem discarded from another period in time, not just abandoned in winter.

Our hotel was “on” the Black Sea. Going to see the water was the first thing we wanted to do after waking up in Sochi. However, walking to the sea entailed going out the back of the hotel, exiting the property and going through a tunnel underneath the train tracks. Emerging from the tunnel, we came across a small car parked on grass, which seemed to be there permanently. We walked past it and found a gated compound where a gray-faced security guard nodded to us as we walked past, finally heading directly to the water.

Resort Hotel

We stayed at the Burgas Hotel, an older hotel in the Alder district of Sochi. Old is good in Sochi, even if it means outdated. The Burgas was not one of the new Olympic boom-town hotels that were rushed to completion or left unfinished and unoccupied like the modern glass hotel tower next door to the Burgas. Built in the Soviet era, the exterior of the Burgas and most of its interior furnishings were gold and white, but without much luster. Also, like all hotels we would see, it was surrounded by fence and had its own sentries at the entrance gates. At the Burgas, a pair of guards regularly walked the grounds, often accompanied by what looked like a stray black dog.

Our room was quiet and comfortable, which is what mattered most to us, with two single beds pushed together to make a double.

The Burgas was a resort, or spa, a common designation for hotels in Sochi. But it is not how Americans quite think of a spa. In Russia, a spa is a health clinic or sanatorium. In our wing of the hotel, the first two floors were medical offices, patrolled by heavy-set Russian nurses in white uniforms with green trim. I ventured down a corridor of the clinic and looked at closed doors labelled with plaques, identifying a mix of homeopathic, therapeutic and standard medical specialties. I paused when the plaque on one door read “Sterilization.” Next door was “Massage.”

Makeshift booths were set up in the lobby to sell souvenirs to Olympic tourists. One corner booth had a large display of Russian winter hats, many of them made of fur. Two days later, the winter hats were gone, replaced by ball caps and knit caps with the Sochi 2014 logo. Nancy noticed that a woman in one booth looked at her rather sternly. After a day or two, Nancy stopped and bought several souvenir spoons, the woman lit up and subsequently smiled warmly at Nancy whenever we passed through the lobby.

The Town

The Railway Station in the center of Sochi

We went into town on our first day to pick up our event tickets and obtain our spectator passes. It took us a lot longer than we ever expected and we covered more of Sochi than we thought we would on our first day.

We had to visit a ticket agency that was located in a mini-mall near the train station. This rather inconspicuous mall had multiple cell phone stores and hair salons but what really stood out for us was a gun shop. It was something to see, especially given the security issues surrounding the Olympics. It was both outrageous and normal.

We got our tickets, which required waiting in one line to get a piece of paper that we’d take to a second line. Then we went back to the train station to get our Spectator Pass.

Gun shop in mini mall

Unfortunately, when we found the Spectator Pass Center inside the railway station, we were told it was closed because it was too busy. A man directed us to a mall, which he said was about a 20 minute walk away. He thrust his arm in a general direction and gave us the name of the mall in Cyrillic. Soon after we set off in the direction he had indicated, we found ourselves in an industrial area of town and knew we were lost. Eventually, we came upon the Sochi River, and followed it for a while until we saw the large white mall.

In a storefront in the mall, young volunteers took our pictures, typed in our names, checked our passports, chatted with each other while waiting for the computer to respond, and then pointed us to another line to get the laminated credential.

On our walk, we began seeing some of the architecture in Sochi, which was a clash of geometries, like the green round tower with its Tetris-like exterior and insect-like legs.

A beautiful, simple wooden bridge crossed the Sochi River, lit by late day sunlight, reminding us that we had spent most of our first day just getting around — airport, hotel, ticket agent, railway station, mall, and then we got back to the railway station.

The wooden pedestrian bridge crossing the Sochi River.

The Olympic Park

Our first visit to Olympic Park was at night. Getting inside was a bigger challenge than we anticipated. I’ve written an article on MAKE, “Makey Visits Olympic Park” about difficulties getting tickets into the Olympic Park and our first night tour. We could not believe how hard it was just to get inside the Olympic Park, and it had nothing to do with security.

The Olympic Rings outside the Olympic Park

The Olympic Park, also known as the Coastal Cluster (and cluster as an adjective is a word you think of at the Russian Olympics), consists of six buildings centered roughly around the Olympic flame. As a spectator, the key thing we learned is that it is about a mile from the entrance to Olympic Park to some of the event venues, a vast stretch of asphalt to cover on foot.

Map of Olympic Park (wikipedia)

There must have been an existing amusement park on the edge of this site. It’s not on the map and I could find no explanation for it. What we saw was a Disneyland-like castle bathed in purple and a closed-down roller coaster in bright yellow. Both seemed to be part of the Olympic Park but were outside its fence. That it did not exist on the map made it more interesting.

An unidentified amusement park.

On our first night, we didn’t see the crowds that came later in the week. The most obvious thing was not just that there were few Americans in the crowd, but few Europeans as well. The crowd was predominantly Russian tourists. This was an Olympics by and for the Russians. There was very little international character to the event, except for a couple of American or Korean corporate sponsors. The one exception was a building from the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, and you kind of expect Switzerland to be there by itself in the middle.

Russia was on the stage, front and center, and even backstage. It was seen inside Russia as a triumph for Putin and the return of Russia to world prominence. It was also colorfully packaged as building the Russian brand for millions in a television audience watching from Europe and the US. Yet, as one American who had been to the Olympics in Vancouver said to me: “This is a somber Olympics.” It was not a party for anyone but the Russians themselves, and they came from remote regions to get their pictures taken here, holding their own flag. Perhaps for them, like us, Sochi was a version of Russia that they had not seen before.

Tourists from Kurgan

The Mountain Cluster

We could see the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains from Sochi. We went by train to the Mountain Cluster in Krasnodar Polyana, a 30-minute ride from the Adler Hub, going upstream along the Sochi River. It was obvious that a lot of land had been cleared to create new roads and a railway to the mountains, providing easy access to the newly created ski resort.

Truth is, there wasn’t a lot of snow in the mountains, except on the peaks and where it had been made by machine. Skiing, snowboarding, snow jumping, cross country and biathalon all took place on man-made snow.

Snow in the peaks but not at lower elevations in Krasnodar Polyana

We went up to the mountains without tickets for any events and thought we might be able to buy tickets at the venues. Getting tickets was frustrating because finding out which tickets might be available and where to buy them was impossible. Perhaps it was easier for Russians. Instead, we walked into the village, built along both sides of the Sochi River. The picturesque village seemed as new as the man-made snow, and one wondered if the buildings were more than a facade.

There wasn’t much to do but walk around. Signs pointed to “Sochi Live” so we followed them to a plaza beneath a tower that resembled the Stalin-era tower in the Sochi Railway Station. This “live” area, like many that we’d see, was a secure area surrounding a stage that offered traditional folk dancing and singing to loud recorded music. The mix of security and less than compelling entertainment meant that most people stayed on the perimenter of the live areas.

Tower in Krasnodar Polyana

It wasn’t often that we found street vendors in Sochi but there were some in Krasnodar Polyana, and what seemed most popular was tea with hot water tapped from a brass-plated samovar.

Samovar in Krasnodar Polyana

Food and Drink

In restaurants, service was slow and servers inattentive, which doesn’t mean they were unfriendly. You just had to wait and then food would arrive eventually, most often not in the order one expected it to arrive. There was very little food available at the Olympic venues or its waypoints. At Krasnodar Polyana, there were more choices. Around the Olympic Park and the main Adler train and bus hub, there were no restaurants within walking distance. One night we took a taxi to the center of Adler and found very few options and ended up in a pizzaria that also had sushi.
Our best meal by any measure was at the Dycha restaurant in Krasnodar Polyana, a second-floor dining room that was decorated as a Russian Tea Room. The walls were a collage of ripped and torn layers of wallpaper. The seating was somewhat communal in long, plush sofas for six to eight people a side.

What was most striking was a textured wall mural of former Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing Erich Honecker of East Germany. It was derived from a 1979 photo that also inspired German artist to paint a version of it on the Berlin wall titled, “My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love.” Why it was re-created here in this restaurant is not something we could figure out. Given the homophobic comments of Russian leaders prior to the Olympics made the sight of this mural even more evocative.

The Brezhnev Kiss

Yet I was glad I was not facing Brezhnev over dinner. I had beef stroganov, which was served over mashed potatoes, instead of the usual “Joy of Cooking” recipe that calls for egg noodles. Nancy had a roasted chicken, called Chicken Tabac, a Georgian style roasted chicken.

In the city of Sochi, there were few restaurants and just a small number of food stands. Salads were limited. We ate more pizza than we wanted to. Highlights included blini with sour cream and caviar as well as crepe-like pancakes with condensed milk over it for breakfast. We later saw the same pancakes made at a concession stand in the Olympic Park, with a variety of meat and cheese fillings. Russian cabbage pies, or pirozhkis, were also available in most places, including Olympic Park, although they were doughy and not very savory.

Hotel Breakfast

Our best surprise was finding a Georgian bakery where the baker was cooking in a large white pit oven. He leaned over into the oven to place the dough against the sides. A woman who was buying bread and who spoke English explained what the baker was doing and encouraged us to buy some Georgian bread. We did and it tasted like pizza dough (bread sticks) and so nice and wonderfully warm. We wished we had made more discoveries like that one.

Coffee and Tea

The coffee and tea were ordinary. The hotel coffee was instant from a machine. We saw a only few coffee shops in Sochi, and they were not busy.

Tea is grown in the Krasnodar region, the northernmost area in the world where tea is grown. We wanted to visit the Dagomys Tea Plantation but its location two hours north of Sochi was difficult to get to without a car. We were puzzled that the tea was not offered on menus in Sochi. We would ask if the tea listed on the menu was Russian and the server would nod in agreement, but not really understanding us. (TIP: Always distrust the quick “yes” when asking a question of someone who only partially understands you.) On our last day we found some of the tea in a mini market. It was up so high that the clerk from her footstool vantage point could not determine how much they had, even though we could see the boxes. The clerk thought we wanted the Lipton tea, which was on a lower shelf. We bought several boxes of tea, only to find when we got home that they had an expiration date of 2013.

Even at the Olympics, which had a pavilion celebrating the different federal districts of Russia, including Krasnodar, there was no mention of its tea.

Alcohol

There is wine made in Krasnodar from grapes grown in the region. We learned about it from a man named Mikhail who offered us wine to taste at the Krasnodar pavilion. His wine bottles were wrapped in brown paper bags, not a good association for premium wines. Also some wine had been decanted into ceramic bottles. Mikhail explained that while they were asked to pour their wines at the Olympics and promote Russia as a wine region, the Olympics would not allow them to show their labels. Thus, the paper bags and ceramic bottles. It was considered too commercial. Of course, the Olympic Park is blanketed with commercial sponsors, most notably Coca Cola who brands all the concessions.

Like the Krasnodar tea, we had difficulty finding the Russian wine on menus until the last night at the restaurant in Adler. The bottle of Pinot Noir we ordered had a bad cork and that was their last bottle. We settled on red blend from Chateua Le Grand Vostock.

Beer was cheap, even at the Olympic venues. I paid 150 rubles or $4.50 for a 16 oz beer at the concession stand. At the hotel bar, two beers were 210 rubles but they only took cash. No running a tab, no servers and not much atmosphere if you disregard the Norwegians, who may have been the country having the most fun at the Winter Olympics.

I tried ordering a beer at the Ice Dancing event and I learned that they only sold non-alcoholic beer at the game venues. At the time, I thought it was funny that a crowd might get out of control at a figure skating event but then I heard the Russians erupt for their own skaters and I thought a riot was at least a possibility if the judges failed to give the Russians high enough marks.

Hospitality

According to a tour-operator I spoke to, there is not much of a service industry in Sochi, not one that is used to dealing with international tourists. It is impossible to build up this capacity in a short period of time, he said. You also had volunteers in roles that required people with more experience. Other tour operators were calling him looking for rooms because hotels that had promised rooms did not have them ready. Building this capacity proved too much to put in place in time for the Olympics. It is not just having an adequate number of hotels; it was a lack of restaurants and cafes, especially near the venues.

Don’t get me wrong. The Russians were hospitable; they were friendly. The lack of a mature service industry was the problem. It was perhaps why they did not seem to think the lack of international tourists reflected badly on the Russian Olympics.

English

Most Russians do not speak English, just as most Americans don’t speak Russian. It makes it difficult to have casual interactions and learn about each other.

Yet the few that do speak English were young, with more of them learning English in school. They are awkward and shy, wanting to try speaking while also being embarrassed to do so, a conflict that most of us have experienced.

I recall standing in a long line for tickets with all Russians, judging from their cell phone conversations. There was pop music playing loudly nearby and when an American song came on, the Russians effortlessly sang along. Pop music is a powerful ambassador for the English-speaking world. I can’t think that Americans know a single Russian song.
The Cyrillic alphabet is a challenge, not so much in recognizing the letters but in learning how to pronounce them. “H” is pronounced “N” for instance. On most trips, I am able to figure out a basic vocabulary including coffee, milk, water, beer and such. While I had no trouble getting those items, I had problems getting familiar with the words for them.

McDonald’s in Cyrillic

There were plenty of signs in English in all the Olympic venues. We had no problem finding menus in English. Amusingly, you learn to recognize signs that spell “McDonalds” letter for letter in Cyrillic.

Sport

“You are such a sports fan,” Nancy said to me, as though she just noticed it after 30+ years. I do love and hate being a sports fan. I’m conflicted. I’m not always sure why I like to watch sports — and it is as a spectator that I’m most intensely involved.

The conflict for me is that I really don’t care anymore who wins or loses. This is true in the Super Bowl, World Series and the Olympics. I don’t have a team I’m rooting for. I’m looking for something else and I think I realized what it is at the Russian Olympics.

It’s hard to watch the Olympics on TV in America because of the way they package it for Americans, trying to develop a sense that we are rooting for our country and making a connection to American athletes. So much is fabricated, and I wanted to see beyond that. I didn’t come to root for TeamUSA, although I do care what Americans are doing and how American athletes are competing. But it is not why I came to Sochi.

What I found special occurred surprisingly not at any of the events we went to, which included ski jumping, ice hockey and ice dancing, but took place two different times before a big screen TV inside the Adler transportation hub. We had just gotten off the train and there was a crowd of people looking up at the TV. All of them had stopped. The Russians were playing the US in curling, and the Americans had their last turn in a tie contest, as the stone went across the ice. It wasn’t clear who won until one member of the Russian team raised his hands in celebration. Another day, the US was playing against Russia in hockey, and in the third period, the Russians scored a goal to tie the game. Both times, the crowd erupted in cheers, and a swelling of emotion that led to chanting “RUS-SI-YA”, “RUS-SI-YA.”

http://youtu.be/zLvEtT2HcZM

Something extraordinary was happening, and I realized that I shared their emotion, not because I rooted for the same team or same country, but I could ride the lifting emotion and energy, and its sudden appearance was something we all could enjoy. That was it, I thought at the time. That’s what I came for.

A spectator of sport looks to share in this kind of exuberance with others. It is not something a person can create by or for himself. It depends completely on a ritualistic event that invites our participation. It may or may not happen and its unpredictability only enhances the payoff. It is a raw experience of energy, like a fountain of youth. It is rare but this kind of experience is revitalizing.

Ski Jumping

Getting to the Ski Jumping venue was the challenge. After we got off a bus, which took us from the train station to the venue, we climbed over two thousand steps, not that I was counting while I gasped for air. It was cold for the first time at the Winter Olympics.

Ski Jumping might be the quintessential winter sport, the risky takeoff and landing of a skier against a large hill. What might happen if things go wrong became the iconic feature associated with “the agony of defeat” in the Wide World of Sports.

Ski jumping

The Ski Jumping hill, actually two hills, one called normal and one considered large, is an impressive sight, especially with all the lights on the snow on a dark night. Yet Ski Jumping is a sport that is better seen on TV because the individual skiers are so small as seen from the stands. We watched the jumps on the big screen, switching to “live” once the landing had been struck. On this night, there was not a huge difference in the length of the jumps.

A Russian Spectator

Ski Jumping is a great passion of Norway and the Norwegians came wrapped in flags and wearing helmuts. The Norweigian jumper finished fifth in the standings to their disappointment but he received the most vocal support from the crowd. A Pole, Kamil Stoch, won the Gold Medal.

Norweigians turned out for ski jumping.

Ice Hockey

We were late to our hockey game, misjudging the time it would take to get from our hotel to the train station and then to the Olympic Park and then walk all the way to Shabya Ice Arena. We were told to allow three hours and we tried to do it in two. By the time, we sat in our seats, USA was leading Slovenia 2-0.

Shabya Ice Hockey Arena
Scanning the spectator pass

When we entered the venue, we had to get both our spectator pass and ticket scanned. The spectator pass brought up one’s picture on a video monitor. Volunteers managed this process, and they didn’t seem to look at the monitors, partially because the scanning equipment was slow, and people needed their help.

There was not much excitement in the hockey game, as the young Slovenia team was overmatched going up against NHL professionals. Honestly, the one moment of exuberance was a last-minute consolation goal by the Slovenia teams, giving their fans a chance to cheer.

US beat Slovenia 5-1.

The 7,000 seat Shabya Arena was small and intimate with loud organ music. It was not full by any means, although there was a much greater presence of Americans than at any other event we attended.

Perhaps the most exciting moment in hockey at this Olympics, unless you were Canadian, was the overtime shootout between the US and Russia, which took place the night before. We watched a replay of that exciting game in the hotel bar, but I could only wish I had seen it live.

Ice Dancing

Our last event was the free dance program for Ice Dancing held at the Iceberg Skating Palace. There were 20 pairs of skaters, and the last pair would be Meryl Davis and Charlie White of USA who were expected to win.

Iceberg Skating Palace
Face painting outside the Ice Palace

We were at the top level of the arena, and the skaters did look small. Once again, we probably watched most of the event on the large screen TVs. There was a lot of action in the stands, however, that one would never see on TV.

In the row in front of us sat a group wearing the colors of Lithuania. The thing we couldn’t figure out is that they all spoke American English. We wondered about them but we eventually learned their story. The second pair to skate was from Lithuania and the group in front of us was understandably excited and anxious. Skaters Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunas took the ice and performed. They would finish 17th in the standings, but after several other pairs had gone, Isabella had come up into the stands to sit with her family. On the TV screen, she looked large with fierce eyes. Here in front of us she looked like a normal 5'3" twenty-one year old in loose clothing. We learned that Isabella is a New Yorker, living in Michigan, who began skating with Stagniunas. She applied for and was granted citizenship in Lithuania so they could compete together. Her family was there on her side.

I also happened to be seated next to a couple from Ann Arbor, Michigan who teach ballroom dancing and had worked with a number of the skaters in the competition. I learned that many of the teams, regardless of country, train in Michigan because the two top trainers are located there. One of them is Igor Shpilband, a Russian defector.

The crowd came alive for two pairs of Russian skaters. It really was incredible how quiet the arena had been and then it was transformed during these performances. Flags were waving, and the chant of “Rus-si-ya” was repeated. They were hugely disappointed when these skaters did not get a high enough score. One pair got a bronze medal but if the award had been based on the number of flowers tossed on to the ice, they would have won gold.

Inside the ice skating arena
Davis and White won the Ice Dancing competition

Meryl Davis and Charlie White gave an awesome gold-medal winning performance but the reception from the crowd was cool — and only two bunches of flowers. We stood and cheered, along with the Lithuanian-Americans but there were few Americans in the arena — and no flags. We felt we should have brought one to roll out.

The Seaport

We spent a day walking downtown, eventually ending up at the beautiful seaport of Sochi. We followed a pedestrian walkway from the train station, lined with palm trees. We saw the two sides of Sochi, an older Sochi in disrepair and a new Sochi with shiny new buildings that appear to be unoccupied.

Pedestrian walkway
Building in disrepair

The walkway ended in a plaza with another “live” stage with traditional music and a park-like setting for the Olympic Rings.

Plaza in downtown Sochi
The Sochi Hand

The harbor was empty of boats, except for one tall ship and several cruise ships that had been brought in for use as hotels. It looked perfectly still, as if posing for the picture. It was not what a harbor should look like.

The Seaport
People on piers along the seafront
Panorama of seaport

Russian Style

Russian culture can seem monochrome and monotone. There is a compulsion to conform — it is expected that you go along. You must have to push awfully hard to get what you want in Russia. You must also have to push back to not do something others expect you to do. There are little signals like the look you get when ordering milk with tea, as if they are saying “we don’t drink tea with milk.”
You tend not to notice how people are dressed because there is little individuality expressed as style. The Russian Olympic gear was new, bright red and white, and yet there was a limited variety. And only one company produced it.

Russian gear

Even the mascots for the Sochi Olympics are generic stuffed animals without personality: a bear, a hare and a tiger.

Stalin’s Dacha

We read in a guidebook about Stalin’s Dacha. A local driver named Sergei drove us up in the mountains, just a few minutes from the main road. When we arrived, the sentry at the gate did not want to let us in. We could not follow the exchange in Russian but it was both forceful and calm. The guard said that the Dacha was not open, that we could come back another day, that the President was coming and they were too busy to allow people to just come in without reservations. Of course, nothing online said anything about needing reservations. The hotel staff even looked surprised when I asked for information about the place as if they didn’t know Stalin’s dacha existed.

Our driver pushed back vigorously, saying we could not come back because we were leaving the next day (not true). The driver explained the conversation to us and said that it was a Russian way to say no first and see if you have a way around it. Fortunately, our driver got us through the gate and we arrived at the fortress-like structure painted in a green so green that it is hard to describe. It made me think of “Herbal Essence” shampoo, which is a pretty awful green.

Perhaps our experience getting in says something about the Russian view of Stalin. He is a ghost. His life can’t be wiped from history and yet it is almost as though he does not exist. Stalin was famous for expunging people and events from history, altering photographs to remove someone who had fallen out of favor.

Finally inside, we were greeted by an older woman who took our tour fee of 600 rubles without saying anything. Perhaps it’s best not to say much to Westerners about Stalin or perhaps it was just her inability to talk about him in English. She would say briefly that Stalin lived there during the summers with his family and a few friends. She pointed out pictures of his family.

The first room we entered was Stalin’s study and he was there — a wax figure, sitting behind a desk, his right hand holding a pipe and twisted in an unnatural way. He was smaller than I expected, given his portraits where he seems rather stocky. Our tour guide assured us that the modest figure was an accurate representation. (In research online, I found some discrepancies; Google said he’s 5'-8" but other sources say as small as 5'3". Putin is only 5'5".) The guide pointed to a small bed beside the desk, showing how Stalin fit within its narrow confines. This is where the monster slept.

Off the study was a room with a billiards table. He liked playing billiards and his billiard balls were arranged just so, on a wall rack. This is where he played games. It is as hard to think of him playing games as it is to image a dictator on vacation.

Sights at Stalin’s Dacha

After touring the building, which almost seemed unfurnished, we sat outside. A Finn with a backpack came up and said hello. He too had been turned away by the sentry who couldn’t give him a reason for not allowing him in. Confused, he started walking back to town when he saw a set of stairs and wondered where they would lead. He followed them and found the dacha. There was a way around the guard.

He had been in Sochi for a month as part of a TV crew to cover the Olympics. He explained to us that the guard at the gate was an example of how corruption is manifested in everyday life in Russia. You need to pay or you need to know someone. Everything is a favor that deserves something in return.

Finns of course have plenty of reasons not to like Russians. This Finn said that the whole Olympic project was Putin’s folly. The Olympic Park was built on a swamp, and the ground was still settling. He wondered what would happen to the buildings in a few years. He was ready to leave Sochi and go home.

We read in an odd pamphlet that our tour guide gave us that in the 1930s the “revolutionaries” were aging and doctors were brought in to help improve their health. Sochi was recommended to Russian leaders for its restorative properties — cool mountain air mixing with warmer coastal air. It was why Stalin built his personal villa here, and where he would spend July through October each year.

Others followed, and a resort for Russians was born, offering coastal vacations with medical clinics. A friend of mine who was born in Kiev said he had been to Sochi as a boy but did not remember it. His mother told him that the Sochi trip had been his father’s fondest vacation, and that he got much needed treatment for an ailing back.

Putin has his dacha in Sochi, too. It’s in the Caucasus Mountains of Krasnodar Polyana, and some cynics say that the mountain road and railway was built for him.

A Russian Reading List

We read several books on Russia before and during the trip. Martin Sixsmith’s “Russia: a 1000 year Chronicle of the Wild East” was a terrific survey of Russian history. Sixsmith, a former Moscow correspondent for the BBC, details the successive autocratic regimes that have controlled Russia. Russia is built around the premise that only a strong central leader with absolute control can keep the nation together. It is a model that was influenced more by Asian governments than the West. Western ideas are occasionally adopted but eventually rejected. One can’t offer a little freedom without losing absolute control.

After reading the history, I concluded that nothing good happens in Russian history. It is a history without heroes. In their place are monsters. The Russian people’s own enormous sense of suffering gives rise to remarkable artists and great writers. Yet even when change comes in Russian history, the people suffer more, through revolutions, famines, wars and new regimes. In some ways, the idea that the Olympics in Sochi signals a positive change for Russia is belied by its history, which offers little hope and provides the worst kind of consolation — that it could have been worse.

I also read “Strongman,” the story of Vladmir Putin’s rise to power after the breakup of the Soviet Union. While Putin stands on a world stage in Sochi, another kind of revolution was taking place in Kiev, undermining Putin’s ambitions to re-assert Russia’s influence on its neighbors. Some think the revolt was timed to intensify during the Olympics when Putin could not respond aggressively to gain control.

Another book, “Darkness at Noon” by Arthur Koestler, is a grim account of the final days of a Stalinist-era Communist Party loyalist who is arrested and tried because he questioned the Party and its inability to live up to its ideals.

The Party can never be mistaken. You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and thousand others like you and I….History knows her way. She makes no mistakes.
The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.

Russians are engineers, mathematicians and geeks. The prisoners who are in solitary confinement and cannot see each other communicate by tapping out code for a “quadratic alphabet.” Each letter of the alphabet can be referenced by two numbers in a 5x5 matrix. Five taps indicates the fifth row and when followed by two taps indicates the second letter in the row, “W”. That is how the prisoners talk to each other against the wishes of their guards.

The Party denied the free will of the individual—and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. … The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced — and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.

Russia — Great, New, Open

A new Russia proclaimed the Russian Federation Pavilion

At Olympic Park, there was a long pavilion filled with exhibits from the various districts of the Russian Federation. The pavilion highlighted each of federal districts, its traditions, products and local peoples. Some of it was absurd, other parts were informative, and all of it offered different facets of an expansive and remote country.

A teapot for Sochi but no Russian tea.
A frozen baby mammoth, traditional arts and crafts.

Perhaps the most unusual exhibit was from Moscow. Bright and modern, it seemed to project pride in its history and confidence for the future, represented by a sign that almost seemed American in its easy and youthful optimism.

A wall in the Moscow pavilion

Massage

I decided to get a massage at the health clinic. I went there and tried to schedule a massage with two nurses in a small room. Neither nurse spoke hardly any English. One of them walked me down a hall and knocked on a door labelled massage. A short conversation ensued with a man behind the closed door. Then she walked back to the first room, picked up the phone said a few words into it and then handed it to me. A hotel staff member was translating. Each back and forth required translation. “You take 3pm.” “No, I cannot.” “You take 3pm?” “No.” “You cannot take 3pm?” “Not 3pm”

We eventually settled on a time for the next morning.

I showed up and I was met by one of the nurses I met the previous day. She told me the price, 2500 rubles and led me off to a room. I wasn’t sure if she was giving me the massage or not. She began setting up the table. She was putting down a thin light blue mesh fabric that I’ve seen medical personnel wear as an outer garment. I knew it would be scratchy, not soft like cotton.

She gave me a straightforward look and waved her hand, indicating that I was to get undressed. I balked at first with her in the room but she looked at me again and with both hands motioned that I was to take off my clothes. I did so. I hopped on table and she eventually covered up my bottom half before setting to work. What I am used to is what I might call a Northern California massage. It takes place in a dimly lit room, on a massage table with cotton towels, using fancy oils with herbal aromas and with Eastern music playing soothingly at a low level. My Russian massage was in a room lit from above by two bright fluorescent lamps. She used Johnson’s Baby Oil. There was no music. Instead, there were two cell phone calls and two people who knocked on the door and walked in to ask questions. At least I couldn’t seem them with my face buried in the massage table.

She gave me a good basic massage that featured techniques I had seen in movies where a bad guy is getting a massage while smoking a big cigar and his masseur, a beefy man, beats on the man’s back with the sides of his hands, a repetitive chopping and slapping motion that makes some noise. My nurse gave me a similar back massage with chops and slaps. I was feeling that she handled me very firmly.

When I flipped over from my stomach to my back, a movement she again indicated by waving her hands and offering me no modesty of a covering sheet, I noticed that she was now wearing a thick sweatband, something that a tennis star like Chris Evert would have worn and I am sure that Farah Fawcett was once wearing one, too. Seeing that headband completely changed my attitude towards my masseur who was no longer a nurse. Giving a massage was hard work for her, and perhaps she was sweating, although I saw none on her brow. What the headband did was turn her into an athlete, one who was exerting herself for my benefit. I appreciated what she was doing and that she was skilled at doing it. This truly was my Olympic moment, my medal ceremony, naked in a Russian spa and all of my body getting her attention while my skin absorbed the baby oil and bathed in fluorescent light.

Strangers on a Train

On our last night, we took the train from the Olympic Park to Adler. In facing seats, we sat with a Russian family with two teenagers. I asked if they spoke English and the adults smiled at each other; we knew that none of us spoke the same language. Nonetheless, we struck up a limited but warm conversation. They were from Krasnodar, a city about an hour north of Sochi. The young boy, who Nancy thought was endearing, tried out a few simple sentences. Soon we all spoke as if we understood each other. I took out Makey, a 3D printed robot, and gave it to the boy to hold. He held it proudly, smiling, all the while his embarrassed sister looked on.

New friends on a train

A woman sitting across the aisle joined our conversation. I thought that because she had red maple leafs painted on her cheeks, she was Canadian. She spoke English very clearly and was dressed differently than others. She also had a computer open. She said that she was Russian, and she just liked Canada. She thought Makey was cute, too.

A Russian that likes Canada

We saw so many faces in Russia, a few of them were athletes, but most of them were spectators like us and we were curiously watching each other.

We would head back to our home in California, a small rural town named after the Crimean port on the Black Sea, Sebastopol. A week later, after the Ukraine government in Kiev was toppled, the Crimea would become the stage where the whole world was again watching Putin and waiting for his response. Inevitably, the US and Russia find themselves not just very different places but on different sides of history.

Panorama of Olympic Park in Sochi