Russians are a superstitious lot. And no doubt for many of them the Olympic torch relay has seemed a very bad omen.
Let’s allow that this is not the usual Olympic torch run; the thing has had to traverse nine time zones, a Siberian winter, and a trip to the International Space Station. But it’s been punctuated by mishaps, both small (the chronic problems with keeping the flame lit) and severe (several runners have found themselves on fire due to malfunctioning torches).
In Moscow, I asked former Detroit Red Wing and current member of the Russian senate Slava Fetisov about the torch run troubles.
He gave me a smiling shrug and said, “S*** happens.” He meant it as a joke, of course, but with hours until the giant torch is lit in Sochi, the fear is that the next thing that happens won’t be anything to laugh at.
It already has in Volgograd, and the fear is that terrorists are on their own kind of torch run into Sochi, right behind the officially sanctioned one.
Will there be trouble? I don’t know. It’s my third visit to Russia and the truth is Russia stumps me.
How does a 1,000-old nation seem like a tenderfoot? How can you look at the iconic onion domes and spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral one moment and then feel as if you’re looking at a newborn the next?
I’m sitting in a Costa Coffee on a snowy night in Moscow, listening to the members of the Moscow English Speaker’s Club practice the language they believe they need to get ahead in the world.
They’re all young and brimming with ambition and optimism. That they’re meeting in a Starbucks-style coffee house without a tea samovar in sight is a nod to their western leanings and longings.
I’m tempted to believe I’m looking at the new Russia -- and certainly I am. Yet I keep bumping up against the old hammer and sickle.
When I ask how they feel about the fact that Russia is spending an unimaginable $50 billion on Sochi’s games (more than every other Winter Olympics combined), they wave it off.
“It’s only $50 billion because of all of the bribery and corruption,” one tells me, as if we’re talking about what’s left of a lottery jackpot after you account for taxes.
Moments later, when I ask a young woman about the controversy surrounding gay rights in Russia, she laughs and earnestly tells me that she thinks the whole issue is completely overblown.
For a moment I’m hopeful that I’m about to hear from a new, more tolerant Russia, but she dashes that when she says, “Honestly, I don’t know one single person who is gay! They try to tell us that it’s ten percent of the population, but I don’t believe that for a second!”
Perhaps reading skepticism in my face, she ponders for a moment and then offers, “I mean, I do know one or two older men who aren’t married, but...”
Two days later, I’m getting my first look at Sochi, the strangely temperate city about to host the Games.
I’ve covered several Winter Olympiads; rest assured this is the first one that comes with palm trees. No matter. They’ve been stockpiling snow beneath thermal blankets on the mountainsides for more than a year. And whereas I’m often lost in trying to attach real value to eye-popping price tags, in Sochi I feel like I can see that $50 billion everywhere --- roads, rail lines and stations, the airport, and a cluster of sparkling venues in an Olympic park more in keeping with the Olympic promenades of the larger Summer Games.
We move into the alpine venues of Krasnaya Polyana and there are new hotels, apartments and condominiums as far as I can see, all built with seeming blind faith that after the flame is (purposely) extinguished this remote cluster in the Caucuses along the Black Sea will be an established, elite destination to rival those of the Alps.
I’m stunned by what I see but unsure of what exactly I am seeing. Is this the kind of boom that I’ve seen in China, the roar of a serious comer in the world economy, or am I looking at a Hollywood set, built for show without any real structure, logic, or economic reality behind it? Churchill’s riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is ever thus.
After each of my visits over the last 15 years I’ve come away believing the operative word to describe Russia is “mercantile.” I’ll grant that most nations can be reduced to what is bought and what is sold, but in Russia that fiscal calculus always strikes me as particularly acute.
It’s as evident as ever now that Moscow lays claim to having more billionaires than any other city, eclipsing New York by three. Luxury brands are everywhere and it’s easy to find a Rolls Royce or a Maybach on the street. (Arrival night meal of two beers and two burgers and fries at the Moscow Marriott Aurora for photographer Tim Pamplin and I? $125. Pack your rubles.)