I always thought of Russia as a dark and brooding place filled with dour people and gray cities, smog-belching cars and gold-toothed gangsters. And while I’ve only really seen a tiny sliver of this massive country, which admittedly has been sterilized for the world’s arrival, I’ve been struck not by Putin’s $50 billion pet project of gleaming buildings, blasted four-lane tunnels and murdered dogs, but by the ordinary Russian people I’ve met. I’ve heard a lot of doom and gloom about the Games — warnings about a lack of security, finger-wagging about the cost and politics — but if I had stayed away from Sochi I would have missed out on all the smiling locals volunteering at the venues, the cheerful Russian fans proudly waving their flags at the bottom of the moguls hill and the poor waitress trying her best to bridge the language gap while I sat speechless and sheepish with my non-existent Russian tongue.
In two days’ time, the efficiency of my travel and all the events has been solidly proven. A TSA delay at JFK had our Aeroflot flight set back an hour, jeopardizing our connection in Moscow for the Sochi flight. Upon landing, we were met by helpful volunteers with signs, guiding us to security and immigration and directly onto our next flight, which miraculously left on time. Airports, buses and cable cars have all been seamlessly linked, and transfers downright pleasant. The Olympic Park is clean and well laid out and venues are magnificent.
Before I’m dismissed as a Pollyanna, I have heard stories from some others here about hotel rooms lacking shower curtains and hot water, the alpine venues have involved very long walks with hundreds of stairs and icy descents and the cemetery hidden amidst newly planted trees in the middle of the Olympic Village is a bit disturbing. I’ve never been to an Olympics, but these Games seem oddly under-attended. Parts of the Village feel almost like a ghost town, with ominous piped dirge-like music echoing off of the cavernous buildings and empty passageways. Is the lack of attendance thanks to some conspiratorial CIA propaganda campaign to retaliate for Snowden, or is it just because Sochi is such a remote place? Regardless, I’m glad I ignored the doom and gloom reports and decided to come.
Last night at dinner, I sat across the table from two old Cold Warriors who went on to become ambassadors of peace. Alexei Leonov and Thomas Stafford were astronauts, Russian and American respectively, who met hundreds of miles above the Earth in the historic Apollo-Soyuz space mission in 1975. Old men today, they remain close friends, with Stafford having gone on to learn Russian and adopt two Russian children (Leonov was character witness at his adoption trial in Moscow). To see them sitting at dinner, arms around each other in a friendly embrace that would probably make Putin cringe, seemed strangely symbolic of what can be when we put away our preconceptions and go into things with open eyes and open minds. This is not to say I’ve become a fan of figure skating though. Yet.