SOCHI, Russia — The scowling security guy in the camouflage outfit pointed at the reporter’s gray bag and demanded to know what it contained.
A laptop, the reporter said, and started to unzip the pocket.
“Don’t worry,” the man said, placing a hand on the zipper. “I believe you.”
Say what? After all, this was a train station in Sochi, just three days before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games, and just a few feet from the barrier of the massive security zone that is supposed to shield thousands of Olympians, their guests, and their spectators from the threat of terror.
The casual approach to the search of that bag came as a shock, given the solemn and frequent assurances from Russian officials, facing threats from Islamic militants, that these Olympics would be terror-proof. And in the course of a day of travel around Sochi, there were other encounters that seemed to contradict Vladimir Putin’s vow of an impenetrable “ring of steel.”
Russia is walking a fine line between ensuring a safe Olympics but not spoiling the spirit of the Games by turning Sochi into an armed encampment. Russian officials have suggested that the number of security personnel would top 40,000, or maybe even reach 70,000, and the US State Department has warned Americans to expect frequent document checks and encounters with security personnel.
But Sochi Olympic organizers have made a clear effort to give the security force, at least the one visible Monday, a friendly face. Instead of wearing urban camouflage and toting assault rifles, as Russian police on patrol do in many cities of the restive North Caucasus, security officers in Sochi are wearing purposefully unimposing plum-colored uniforms, their sidearms tucked away in holsters.
The Russian security effort got a vote of support Monday from Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who said at a briefing that “we have confidence with the Russian authorities.”
But the question most often asked has been whether Russia will be able to make Sochi secure enough, not whether the people providing security will be vigilant enough.
The guard who did not open the bag was manning the entrance to a lounge at the train station, one door over from the gateway to a stop on the railway built to funnel Olympic athletes and visitors from site to site. That entrance was heavily guarded by security police who smiled and spoke courteously in English as they conducted the kind of thorough search one might expect at an international airport.
Most of them seemed vigilant, too, except for one particular crew at the station in central Sochi. There, a young man and young woman sat at a table in their plum-colored uniforms, laughing at something showing on what looked like a smartphone, and at one point, exchanging a kiss. Though the bags were thoroughly searched, no one asked to see a ticket. The reporter and a companion inadvertently boarded the train without one, rode to their destination, and weren’t challenged until they tried to exit the turnstiles.
None of the security personnel at the station would answer questions about the incident, except one, who told the reporter to look for the official in the yellow jacket who hands out free tickets to media with Olympic credentials. The companion, who lacked Olympic accreditation, was told to go buy a ticket.
The understated police presence was felt elsewhere in Sochi on a sunny Monday afternoon. The amiable guards at the checkpoints at entrances to the hotels that house thousands of media members seemed to let in any driver who asked nicely. On Lenin Street, the heavily traveled main route to central Sochi, each bus stop was watched over by a police officer armed with a pistol and a billy club.
There were none of the heavily armed troops manning checkpoints that clog traffic circles in cities throughout Russia, though this could change before the opening ceremonies on Friday.
On Monday, traffic police in Sochi prevented cars without the badge marked with an infinity sign — the all access pass for Olympic traffic — from entering restricted areas. One officer stopped a vehicle that did not carry a lesser credential that allows the use of the high-speed lanes designated for Olympic traffic, but let the driver go after a brief chat. A couple of mounted police on loan from Moscow amiably posed for pictures outside the towering, unfinished amusement park nicknamed “Russian Disneyland.” A pair of Cossacks in traditional wool hats and knee-high boots politely refused to be photographed.
And a traffic cop shooed an unaccredited car away from the driveway into the massive media center, and instead gestured to the driver to park by the side of the road — only a couple hundred feet from the heavily guarded entrance, a proximity that brought a gasp of surprise from a reporter who had attended the Olympics in Vancouver, London, and Beijing.
Sochi residents, incidentally, seemed unsurprised by the relatively relaxed mood on the peripheries of the ring of steel.
“Which ring?,” was the reaction of Dmitry Kolos, a driver who said he had never heard the term.
What locals are familiar with is the door-to-door security checks that police carried out in the months before the Games.
“They asked for information on who lives there, which cars they drive, what kind of property they own, which relatives they have,” said Alexander Popkov, a human rights lawyer in Sochi. “There’s no law that allows going house-to-house asking questions like that.”
Popkov and other rights activists say they are worried that the real security crackdown will come after the Olympics, and will be directed at whistle-blowers who have accused authorities of wrongfully deporting the migrant workers who built many of the Olympic venues, or drew attention to environmental neglect resulting from the construction for the Games. One of Popkov’s clients, environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko, already serving a three-year suspended sentence for spray-painting an insult on the regional governor’s fence, was sentenced to 15 days of detention Monday for swearing at a bus stop.