Hosting the Olympic Games is a daunting task for any nation, but Russia appears to be having more than its share of troubles. While threats of a terrorist attack and the country’s anti-homosexuality laws have gotten most of the world’s attention, there are other worrisome reports from Sochi — from hotels not ready to accommodate an expected 11,000 journalists to unintentionally colorful tap water, corruption, environmental abuse, and legions of stray dogs.
With the possible exception of the stray dog stories, none of this surprises me. I spent almost three years in the Soviet Union and Russia over the past few decades, much of it supervising the installation of traveling cultural-exchange exhibits. The exhibits — paid for and designed by the US government — were large and complex affairs running to 10,000 square feet. But they were a shovelful of gravel compared to the mountainous work of preparing an Olympic venue.
Still, the problems I hear about now have a disturbingly familiar ring: Sochi’s present, it seems, is shadowed by Russia’s past. Primarily a summer resort, the city sits near good beaches, with lush green hills close behind it, and behind the hills, the craggy mountains on the slopes of which many of the Olympic competitions will be held. It’s an area blessed with great natural beauty, but it lies in a part of the world cursed by a bloody and tyrannical history.
In the Communist era there was no enforcement of environmental regulations, no incentive to work well, no competition, and such an abundance of corruption that my American colleagues and I often had to resort to offering whiskey or cigarettes in order to get the show set up on time. In venues that stretched from Kiev to Novosibirsk and from Leningrad to Tashkent, we encountered white, brown, and gray tap water in our hotel rooms, or an absence of water altogether. Phones were unreliable, buses ridiculously overcrowded. Fire inspectors advised us to use asbestos beneath our coffeemakers.
I’m not intending to mock the Russians here. Despite Soviet society’s utter lack of monetary incentive, we inevitably found men and women willing to do high-quality work. And despite KGB harassment, we were often shown a level of hospitality that would warm the coldest anti-Communist heart.
But it’s a fact that 60 years of Marxism-Leninism sucked a great deal of psychic energy out of the labor force. On a visit in 2010 I was pleased to see the positive changes wrought by Russia’s nascent free market. Restaurant service, construction quality, and the availability of goods were all vastly improved, and there was the sense, despite ubiquitous corruption, that innovative, hardworking people might actually be rewarded for their efforts.
But that was truer in Moscow than in the smaller cities and country towns, where life had changed some, but not much. It seemed clear that the psychological legacy of the Communist years would prove even harder to shed than their economic legacy.
Still, things might go well in Sochi. The Soviets we worked with were famous for saving projects from disaster at the absolute last minute. In the Russian equivalent of NASA’s Houston control center, a cosmonaut proudly told us how he and his colleagues had jury rigged malfunctioning spacecraft equipment and saved the mission. We saw the same pattern time and again: automobile engines fixed with coathangers; vacation disasters averted, 11th hour, by a kindly bureaucrat; customs officials, softened with a bottle of vodka, easing an onerous restriction so the show could go on.
My hope, for Sochi and the Russians, is that this show does go on, with no logistical disasters or loss of life. I have a less realistic hope, too: that, in opening their nation to the eyes of the world, Putin and his gang will be moved to finally abandon the old, merciless, inefficient ways, and let the Russian water run clean.