Alpine venues have popped up in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, on the hope that after the Olympics, this remote cluster will be an established, elite destination to rival the Alps. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP)
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 traversed nine time zones, a Siberian winter and a trip to the International Space Station. The trip has been punctuated by mishaps, both small (the chronic problems with keeping the flame lit) and severe (several runners have found themselves on fire from malfunctioning torches).
In Moscow, I asked former Detroit Red Wing and a member of the Russian senate Slava Fetisov about those troubles. He smiled and gave a shrug and said, “S--- happens.” He meant it as a joke, of course, but with only hours remaining before the giant torch is lit in Sochi to open the Games, there’s profound concern that the next bit of misfortune will be nothing to laugh off. Incidents have occurred in Volgograd, and the fear is terrorists are on their own kind of torch run into Sochi.
Will there be trouble? I don’t know. This is my third visit, and the truth is Russia stumps me.
How does a 1,000-year-old nation seem like a tenderfoot? How can you see 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?
At a Costa Coffee on a snowy night in Moscow, members of the Moscow English Speakers Club practice the language they believe will help them get ahead in the world. They’re all young and brimming with ambition and optimism. That they’re meeting in a Starbucks-style coffeehouse, 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 asked how they feel about the fact that Russia is spending $50 billion on the Sochi 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 said, as if talking about what’s left of a lottery jackpot after accounting for taxes.
Two days later, I get my first look at Sochi, the strangely temperate host of the Games. While I’ve covered several Winter Olympiads, and this is the first with palm trees. No matter. Organizers have been stockpiling snow beneath thermal blankets on the mountainsides for more than a year.
The $50 billion price tag is seen 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. There are the alpine venues of Krasnaya Polyana and new hotels, apartments and condominiums, all built with seeming blind faith that after the Games end this remote cluster in the Caucuses along the Black Sea will be an established, elite destination to rival the Alps.
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 visit over the last 15 years, I’ve come away believing the operative word to describe Russia is “mercantile.” It’s as evident as ever now that Moscow lays claim to having more billionaires than any other city, eclipsing New York. 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 me and photographer Tim Pamplin: $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 lived in the path of progress. Some reportedly were 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 makes 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 fall from 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 vilified for his support of laws that enshrine homophobia in Russian life and culture. (He is also believed to be the world’s richest man.)
The paradoxes may simply be the disconnect that 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 sat with Vladimir Pozner, the journalist who for many Americans was the accessible face and voice of the USSR during the Cold War through his many appearances on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” and with TV talk show host Phil Donahue.
“The thing that most people don’t understand is that this is still a Soviet country,” Pozner said. “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. Nice Guy routine of pre-Olympic pardons, I suspect we’ll see the real Putin if, as Pozner fears, terrorism erupts. Putin has staked his legacy on this Olympiad. Sochi is lovely, but it’s in a rough area with its proximity to Chechnya and Dagestan. It was hard not to feel a certain skepticism when Russian citizens said they couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to disrupt this great international moment.
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. 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 in China a few years ago. An American businessman described China as like “a 12-year old kid — he’s in that ugly stage.” That’s something to keep in mind asthe new Russia unfolds over the coming weeks. It’s big, loud and announcing its intentions rather garishly. We are seeing an unfinished product. We may need to let the acne clear before we can make sense of this new Russia.
Devin Scillian is WDIV-TV anchor and host of “Flashpoint.”