Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sochi: The Russian Adventure

Family, friends, and colleagues are surprised to learn that I haven't watched any of the Sochi Winter Olympics.  We don't have cable or satellite, just Netflix.  Life is busy enough that I haven't taken the time to go watch it anywhere else.  I'm torn.  Part of me loves to watch the Olympics and part of me would love to see the pieces on Russian culture and history.  Another part of me is just too exhausted to put forth the effort to find a way to watch it.  (It's interesting because during the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I was in Russia watching the coverage each night from my hotel rooms.  The unique Russian take on the Olympics was interesting.  I became a fan of the Russian Women's Curling Team.)

Despite my failure to watch it on television I have followed several stories about Sochi and the Olympics online.  I always love the stories of the athletes, of their struggles, their successes, and their failures.  This year the stories of the host country have held my interest as much as, and possibly more than, the stories of the athletes.

As some of the initial stories came out from the press and athletes of conditions in the Olympic Village and around Sochi, I was amused and gratified.  Their descriptions are so accurate of the conditions I have experienced on so many occasions.  My amusement derived more from their shock and discomfort than from the actual conditions.  It was gratifying to hear about someone else experiencing the adventure that is Russia.

The coverage of the myriad of problems associated with the Olympics is prolific and, in most cases, accurate.  I find the coverage and the reaction to it interesting.  In the West, there seems to be a sense of glee as the shortcomings of the Russians are highlighted.  Among the Russians, there is a feeling of being victimized and criticized unfairly.  Reactions on both sides to the coverage stem from centuries of history, culture, and politics.  Psychology, played out at the national and individual level, also play a large role.  Battling senses of superiority along with a national inferiority complex add fuel to the fire.

All of the negative hype and reaction have overshadowed the greatest part of the location of the Olympics--the adventure.  Russia isn't like the United States.  It isn't like London.  It's not even like Beijing.  It's more like what we should expect in Rio de Janeiro or what thing were like in Seoul. 

Russia, with it's history, culture, and politics, is an adventure, the same as it's been for centuries.  Their standards and expectations are different from ours.  Not all of that is bad.  Much of it simply is the way it is.  The Russian people are amazing and strong.  In many ways they understand the things in life that are truly important--family and friends.  There is so much about their culture, people, and history that is amazing.  Like their geography, their national character is vast in scope and rich in depth.

Those experiencing Russia for the first time should take the time to truly experience it.  Rather than complain and spend time wishing for something better, they would gain so much more by trying to understand why things are the way they are.  They would benefit from thinking about the life that the everyday Russian lives and appreciate them for who they are.

Russia is a place where suffering is part of the national experience.  There is a certain pride in the ability to make it through trial and tribulation.  I can't help but think that they feel incredulous when they hear others complain about conditions in Sochi.  This is a city where billions of dollars were invested to improve the infrastructure to include living facilities for the athletes and hotels for the guests.  Visits to the apartments and homes of the locals would show the discrepancy in conditions.  At the same time, despite the corruption, they feel a sense of national pride at the efforts and success their country has achieved in preparing for these Olympics.

Russians value progress, but it comes so slowly and often with a high cost.  Monumental efforts toward modernization are central to Russia's history--Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin, Yeltsin, and finally Putin.  Epic successes and failures have been part of their history for centuries.

These Olympics are a wonderful opportunity for the world to appreciate their successes, their progress, and even their shortcomings.  It's an opportunity to learn from things that aren't as we expect.  It's an opportunity to learn why some things worked out and others didn't.  It's an opportunity to have an experience, even one that is incomprehensible and frustrating, and simply to enjoy it or at least enjoy telling the story later.

One occasion on my mission comes to mind--in fact it blew my mind when it happened.  Only the telling of the experience is enjoyable because of the reaction it elicits, and because I'm still alive.  My companion and I lived in an apartment building next to the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater.  Just to the north of our building was a large park through which we walked several times a week.  On one end of the park was an outhouse.  Public restrooms are rare in Russia, at least compared to what we have here in the United States.  The first time I saw an outhouse in such a large city I was surprised.

Passing through the park one week I noticed that they were digging a new hole for the outhouse.  I hoped they would do a good job of cleaning up the old hole.  A few days later we were in a hurry to get to another part of the city to play ultimate Frisbee with some other missionaries.  Hurrying through park I passed by the outhouse.  Suddenly I found myself calf deep in what looked like a mud hole.  Then the scent hit me.  Quickly I jumped out and onto dry ground trying to convince myself of what had just happened.  As I stood there in shock and disbelief.  I heard a question being asked repeatedly and with increasing volume.  I looked up.

My companion was standing in the "mud" hole, asking, "What is this?  What is this?!?"

Quietly at first, I said, "Crap.  Human crap."

With a confused look, unwilling to accept what I was saying, he asked, "What?  What did you say?"

"It's crap, HUMAN CRAP!"

"What?  What is it?"

"It's $@#%.  A big pile of it from the outhouse."  I pointed.

He roared and jumped out.  He started to scream about the craziness of the situation that he was unable to comprehend.  The crew who had moved the outhouse had thrown dirt into the full hole, displacing the human waste onto the dry ground.  They had then sprinkled dry dirt and lye over the top of the raw sewage, effectively camouflaging the bio hazard.  I think of the poor people in the park that day who were wise enough to avoid the pit of waste.  They watched and listed to what seemed like two dim-witted and crazy Americans covered in crap.  That day I bathed in bleach, undiluted bleach. 
The Novosibirsk Opera and Theater.

With all of the wonder of adventure, there are legitimate criticisms of Russia, and particularly of it's government and political leaders.  Russia can and should make a number of changes regarding human rights issues, civic life, and basic freedoms.  They can and should change aspects of their relations with their neighbors and other countries. The Russian government should be more comfortable with the criticism that comes from its educated and concerned citizenry.  The Russian government should embrace a free press.  If their cause and methods are just and effective, then they should allow a true and accurate story to be told.  Further progress lies before them.

One of my favorite quotes is from Viktor Chernomyrdin, a former prime minister under President Yeltsin:

"We wanted the best, but it turned out as always."

Russia is an amazing place.  The people, once you get to know them, are amazing and warm.  Friendships formed are deep and lasting.  The history is intriguing.  The politics are Byzantine.  And all of it, people, history, culture, and politics, are shaped by the vast landscape and geography of the country.  The landscape and geography pull in multiple cultures and philosophies.  They have developed a unique perception of the threats and opportunities offered by the external world.

Russia, I don't believe, can truly be experienced through just one visit to one location during one season of the year.  It must be visited in each of the seasons, the deep winter and the beautiful summer.  Perhaps the seasons of rain and mud in between can be skipped.  The far north, the south, the east, the west, and the center should be visited to get a true feel of the expanse of Russia.

As the Russian adventure continues, it can and should turn out better than "always".  Along the way, though, those of us that can should enjoy the Russian adventure.
Some beautiful photos of Sochi:

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