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.)
So it’s little wonder that these Games are (thus far) most noted for their breathtaking expense and the heavy-handedness with which the wealthy oligarchy was expected to partake. (Even if they’re never made whole, they’re better off than some of Sochi’s impoverished homeowners who were unlucky enough to live in the path of progress; some were reportedly chased from their homes without so much as a kopek for their loss.)
With its enormous stores of oil and natural gas and a worldly ambition to match, Russia feels like the new money member at the country club; what it lacks in taste and decorum it will make up in audacity and grandiosity.
But Russia remains a paradox. This nation so built on bureaucratic rules that demand a tight itinerary, visas, and filming permits from visiting journalists also allows stadium builders to walk along sloping sky-high rooftops with nary a harness in sight. After watching a nine-foot shard of iron come flying out of the upper reaches of the Olympic stadium and land like a missile in the infield narrowly missing a group of workers, an audio technician told me he’ll be shocked if construction workers aren’t killed before the opening ceremonies.
The same Vladimir Putin who promises that “nothing will stop Russia on the road to strengthening democracy and ensuring human rights and freedoms” has been roundly and even cartoonishly vilified for his support of laws that enshrine homophobia in Russian life and culture. (This champion of freedom is also believed by some to now be the world’s richest man.)
The paradoxes may simply be the disconnect that still exists between Russia and the Soviet Union, two vastly different political systems that can’t possibly be reconciled in a mere 20 years. In Moscow, I had a chance to sit down with Vladimir Pozner, the journalist who for many Americans was the accessible face and voice of the USSR through his many appearances on Nightline and with Phil Donahue.
“The thing that most people don’t understand is that this is still a Soviet country,” Pozner told me. “The people who run it were born, bred and brought up in the Soviet Union. it’s going to take two maybe three generations before they just are no longer there.”
Despite the Mr. Niceguy routine of pre-Olympic pardons, I suspect we’ll see the real Putin emerge if, as Pozner fears, terrorism arrives with the Games. Putin has staked his legacy on this Olympiad. Sochi is lovely, but it’s in a rough neighborhood with its proximity to Chechnya and Dagestan. The Russian citizens who told me they couldn’t imagine anyone would want to disrupt this great international moment seemed almost quaint in their bright optimism.
As Americans, we’ve long felt like the young bucks at the world table, especially against the amber centuries of history in places like Russia and China. And yet our experience in democracy and capitalism appears ancient against the new editions being tested in Moscow and Beijing. While in Russia, I thought back to a conversation from a trip to China a few years ago.
An American businessman described China to me as “a 12-year old kid --- he’s in that ugly stage.” That’s something to keep in mind as you watch the new Russia unfold in Sochi in the coming weeks. It’s big, it’s loud, and it’s announcing its intentions rather garishly. But we are seeing an unfinished product.
We may need to let the acne clear up before we can make sense of the latest new Russia.