Winston Churchill famously called Russia "a riddle wrapped in a
mystery inside an enigma", and the country's contradictions and
incongruities were on full view in Sochi.
Take the opening ceremony, where scenes of lyrical beauty, like a
glittering ball where hundreds of dancers recreated a famous passage
from Tolstoy's "War and Peace", were interspersed with ludicrous
Whose idea was it to get a choir of policemen to perform Daft Punk's
"Get Lucky", with a couple of soloists grooving on down while their
ranks of colleagues stood stiffly in peaked caps, ties, and
olive-green uniforms with yellow brocade?
True, one cannot psychoanalyze a whole country based on a sporting
event, but there were moments at the Olympics that illustrated an
age-old tension in Russia: on the one hand an intense Slav pride and
belief in the country's unique destiny, on the other a desire to
imitate the West and out-dazzle it.
Not so much faster, higher, stronger; more like costlier, shinier,
The old Russia vied with the new. Enthusiastic crowds flocked to the
venues, many clad in the bright, trendy and expensive clothing of
Bosco, the fashion chain that dressed the Russian team and provided
the garish technicolor outfits of the 18,500 Olympic volunteers.
Some wore huge letters across their chests and sat in groups to
spell out the word ROSSIYA. Others painted their faces, like sports
fans the world over, to display the national flag in white, blue and
Yet in some ways they were quaintly old-fashioned, throwing bouquets
on to the ice to show their appreciation for the figure skaters, or
joining in chants of MO-LOD-TSY ('Good lads') to salute a fine
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Part of the challenge of understanding Russia stems from the
language barrier, a tricky issue for the overwhelming majority of
the foreign athletes and visitors to the Games.
Asked which items in her shop were proving most popular, a souvenir
seller replied: "February 7th to March 23rd."
Invariably, though, the obstacles were overcome with willingness and
"Our cleaner's been great. We've had Google Translate on our phone
to try and talk to her. 'What were you looking for in the bathroom?' — that was the one for today," said British bobsleigh athlete
Rebekah Wilson. "It took a few goes. I was looking for soap... We
did find it in the end."
Bathroom issues were something of a running theme, as it were, for
many visitors to the Games.
"We had yellow water in our bath yesterday and so we called the
front desk to say: 'We have yellow water in our bath,'" said U.S.
spectator Sara Resnick. "They said 'Don't worry, it's not poison.
But just don't put it in your mouth.'"
Mindful of the security problems in Russia's North Caucasus, which
overshadowed the build-up to the Olympics, Resnick's friend Karen
Kammerer from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was disconcerted by a
cross-cultural encounter on a bus.
"There's a guy sitting behind me and he wanted my hat and I didn't
want to give it, but he wanted to know where to buy USA stuff. So he
says, 'You're from the USA, right?' I said, 'Yes, where are you from?
He said, 'Chechnya'."
Kammerer pronounces the word "Chechnya" in doom-laden tones, as if
it were "Mordor", but fortunately the incident passed off calmly.
"I said: 'Am I safe?' He goes: 'Just because I have a beard doesn't
mean I'm going to do something.' Of course I'm thinking: 'Oh
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Transport — by elevator, bus or cable car — provided a rich seam of
observations and anecdotes in Sochi.
Should one recoil or marvel at the sight of a Russian bus driver
negotiating a series of mountain hairpin bends one-handed, while
using the other to hold his mobile phone?
At the foot of the cable car to the 'Extreme Park' ski venue,
opposite the vast and apparently deserted Ethnographical Museum,
should one take the staircase or risk a journey in the elevator,
which displays the following sign?
"NOTICE! In case if elevator stops for period of more than 3-5
minutes, please call: 1. Dispatcher (number supplied). 2.
Responsible person — I. A. Belko."
So many unanswered questions, large and small.
Why, after paying for a basic canteen-style meal at the bobsleigh
press centre, are you presented with a receipt marked "Sanki VIP
Why were some journalists evacuated from their apartment late one
evening, with fire warnings in four languages, only to be left
shivering in the street with no further information?
Why are Russian road builders so allergic to the idea of left turns — an aversion that means you sometimes have to travel several miles
to find an underpass to double back, and leaves you constantly
paranoid that you've caught the wrong bus?
For a visitor who first came to Russia a few weeks after the Moscow
Olympics in 1980, the contrast with the drab Soviet past, just a
generation ago, is little short of surreal.
Where once they queued for cabbage and bread, they now stand in line
for pricy Bosco gear, or to have their photo taken with a two-meter
high polar bear, leopard and hare, the mascots of the Olympics.
At night, in the Rosa Khutor mountain village, pop star MakSim belts
out songs from a stage guarded by Cossacks in black woolly hats,
baggy pants and high boots, while swaying Russian spectators take
photos with their tablets and Iphones.
But beware: these are glimpses of a country transformed, but this is
"It's like some country inside Russia itself, it's not comparable to
the rest of Russia. You barely have any local people living here,"
said Swiss tourist Christian Kasermann.
"Everybody is some kind of foreigner, even though they come from
The curtain will fall at the closing ceremony, the athletes will
head home and the analysts will assess how the Games affect Putin's
legacy. But after the two-week chimera that is Sochi, the real
Russia will remain as vast and impenetrable as before.
(Additional reporting by Phillip O'Connor;
editing by Ed Osmond)
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