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On #sochiproblems as I see them

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 howruslive001-9from “Let Me Stay Overnight

When I was eighteen, my dad finally took me back to Russia. I had been begging to go since I was nine because I had been having dreams in where my grandmother and my aunt spoke to me in Russian and reminded me that it was my obligation never to forget the Volga. These dreams were intense and immense, looming over my childhood and saturating it with guilt.

Immigrants always wear an aura of survivor guilt that they’ve abandoned their countries, and even though I was only five when I left, it was imprinted into me with everything my family did.  I was taken away from what was the worst country on Earth so I could live in America. I survived, and because of that, I needed to feel guilty the rest of my life that others had not been so lucky.

When the plane touched down at Domodedovo, I was overwhelmed.  “That’s your birthland,” my father said quietly through the window. Russian doesn’t have an exact word for homeland, only birthland, which means the country and the language keep you umbilically close, almost hostage, even if you leave.

All of the emotion I had been feeling my entire life, about my Russian roots, about Russia itself came together and apart inside of me and I felt like I could burst. I sat, looking at the runway and the grass on the sides of it. It seemed so much more Russian, somehow.  Everything seemed more inexplicably Slavic: the sky, the buildings, and me. “You need to get off the plane,” the Aeroflot stewardess said icily, not looking at me as she passed by in spiked heels.

That first night, I lay in my aunt’s apartment in Yaroslavl. I had played here as a toddler for countless hours, and everything was as I remembered it, but much smaller. I had only remembered it in my dreams for the past fifteen years, and I had to keep touching the couch to remember it was real.  The apartment, one bedroom where my grandmother slept with my aunt and one living room, seemed smaller. The kitchen was just a stove, a fridge, and a tiny table where my dad listened to Soviet news broadcasts as he ate breakfast over 20 years ago. Everything had shrunk.

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But the crickets outside seemed much larger. There was no air conditioning, so the windows were open to the stillness of the summer night and the distinct Russian summer darkness came in like ink through a sieve. Downstairs, in the stairwell that smelled like piss and thirty years of crumbling damp concrete, someone clanged up the stairs, and my heart raced for a second until I remembered the thick black door with two bolts that had survived the lawless nineties. I’m back, I thought, this is Russia, with a sense of anticipation and fear. This is mine, mine, this is who I am,  me, me, me, my mind echoed into the darkness of my dreams.

Two or three days after we came, my aunt, my dad and I took a walk, across from the cluster of Khruschevki project buildings where my aunt lived, to the place where my dad grew up in the 1960s, in a set of barracks. On the way, a wild pack of dogs ran by in the distance of the field we were crossing. “Stay away from them,” my aunt said, furrowing her brow. “They’ve been known to bite. We heard about it on the news.” The two-story barracks in their old neighborhood were made completely of thick strips of wet, rotting wood. “There was no real electricity or bathrooms when we were growing up,” my dad said, deep in his past.

“We were all so close. We had 2 meters of space per person, in a room for four people, but we knew all our neighbors. Everyone knew each other, all the kids were out here, always yelling, always playing with each other. Then we finally got that apartment, after years in line. ” There were still clothes hung out to dry on the lower floors of the building, and a deflated ball laying near the sidewalk. The barracks were still inhabited.

We walked further, past a school that looked like it should be in a bombed-out third-world country. The brick was sweating, the windows were pale and lifeless, unwashed from the 70s, and the playground was sad and dilapidated. I thought it was abandoned, but the bright pastel drawings and cutouts of leaves and stars in the windows told me otherwise. We walked past a closed-down disco called The Clockwork Orange. There were broken bottles and cigarettes everywhere. The building smelled of the same cinderblock piss odor as my aunt’s stairwell, like every stairwell in Russia.

For the first three days I was simply in deep shock. I grew up in America, and I had never been anywhere this dirty, this depressing, this-I didn’t even have a word for it in English. But there’s one that exists in Russian: toska, a combination of anguish, anxiety, and melancholy, and finally, acceptance that most things won’t ever change.

It shouldn’t be like this, I thought. It can’t be like this. How is it possible that the country that has produced the greatest literary cannon of the 19th century still has people using outhouses? We had beaten the French, the Germans, and sent the first man into space. (Later, I heard the wry Russian observation, “We beat Germany but they’re still living better than us. Maybe we should let them beat us this time.”)

I had a feeling I didn’t know how to reconcile. It was the feeling of simultaneously feeling proud of Russia, of loving Russia to pieces, but also one of complete helplessness. How to even begin fixing something like this, a country where people still live in barracks that weren’t meant to outlast Khruschev? A country where it’s reasonable to expect to to get bitten by rabies-carrying dogs?

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And a third, uneasy feeling swept through me, and I recognized it right away: American smugness. Everything is so terrible here. It would never happen this way in America. How can people just take it? People would never be this okay with broken roads, heinous public toilets, and men staggering-drunk in the middle of the day where I was from.

And yet it seemed my aunt was proud of her city, of the fact that Yaroslav was part of the Golden Ring, the historic heart of original Russian Christendom. She was proud that The Scorpions, of Winds of Change fame,  were rumored to come perform in Yaroslavl.  How was this possible?

I had this feeling again when the hot water went off the second week we were there. Hot water always goes off in Russia for a month in the summer for “maintenance”.  What, I thought as I my aunt calmly poured a cup of boiled tea water over my hair into the bathtub.  How is this Russia, and how it it ok?

“I hate it here,” I told my dad after several days. “Yes,” my dad said. Despite having spent the first half of his life in Russia, it was beginning to weigh on him, as well. Russia weighs on you psychologically, like a heavy, wet blanket. “But don’t you dare say anything to your aunt. Mind your manners. Be good.”

“But why not,” I said. I was eighteen and stupid.

“You’ll hurt her feelings,” my dad looked at me, incredulous that I would even ask.

“Why can’t we talk about how we can fix the country?”

“Because you don’t understand anything about Russia. You’re an American. And if you say anything to your aunt I will be very angry with you.”

When we finally got back from that trip, and I entered America again, it felt like breaking through a tightly-sealed plastic container that was full of inky blackness at the bottom and ice cream and whipped cream and sprinkles at the top. I hadn’t realized how depressed I’d become in two weeks.

“How was Russia,” all my friends from high school asked eagerly.

“It was so gross,” I said, laughing. “Like they didn’t even have public bathrooms or hot water there, how gross is that?”

“Ewww,” they said, which was exactly the emotion I was hoping for. Shock at how bad things were, and admiration at me for bravely having gone through them.

But inside I was burning up with embarrassment for criticizing something I didn’t understand.

***

This duplicity of emotions is something the Western journalists teeming into Sochi and taking pictures of broken door handles and faucet water that looks like someone pissed out apple juice will never understand or be able to explain.

It’s not their fault, but they don’t understand that they’re missing the first two emotions: an overwhelming sense of love and obligation to the country, and a nuanced, detailed intuition about how things can be made better. Hence, when they process the unfinished hotel rooms and the unspeakable amount of public money that’s been stolen to build the world’s most expensive but worst-looking games, all they can come up with is, “Haha, this menu says ass on it.” (Ass. is the abbreviation for assortment in Russian.)

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Added to this perfect storm is this feeling of exhibitionism, that they want to show the West how bad it really is in Sochi, without context, which is why they’re busy taking pictures of broken hotel rooms and writing sympathy pieces about how all of the stray dogs in Sochi are going to be rounded up and killed.

As opposed to…what? There are no shelters in Russia, and there is no system or culture of volunteerism due to the forced volunteerism everyone was made to do in the Soviet Union, so it’s a false dichotomy, a ploy from Americans, who are born pet-lovers, to hate those Evil Russians.

The more incredible and backwards-seeming the news from Russia, the more retweets journalists get, and there’s nothing journalists love more than being the center of attention. If they’re in it, it means they’re doing their job correctly.  It’s, as Julia Yoffe said zlaradstvo, an evil glee, a kind of schadenfreude.

Within hours of arriving in Moscow yesterday, Russian friends, even the Westernized ones, those who are openly, viciously critical of the Kremlin, have expressed their hurt at the Western blooper coverage of Sochi. A whole lot of their tax money has been spent on something they may not have wanted and in ways they find criminally wasteful, and, yes, their government has not done much to endear itself to the West of late, but they’re puzzled by why the Americans and the British are so very happy that the details are a little screwy, the way they generally are in Russia.

The word they use is zloradstvo, literally: evil-reveling.

I’m more than thrilled that attention is finally being called to how fucked up Russia is; it’s only something I’ve been talking about for years.  And it’s fine to make fun of something, but when that something is not your own, not something you understand, babies, goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind as Kurt Vonnegut would say. And kindness from journalists means adding context and not being sensationalist. Not playing the Ugly American Broadcaster.

And it’s very easy to be unkind in the face of unmitigated public attention.

Which is why the best people covering the Olympics are not any of the reporters that have been retweeted millions of times. Some of the best coverage so far has been by my perennial favorite, ViceTV, who first went to the sprawling Olympic complex, and then to the people displaced by its creation, who now live seven in a room and use an outhouse very much like the one nearly every family member I know did until at least the early 1960s. They also did a six-part piece on being gay in today’s Russia which I could only watch the first part of because of how cruel it is.

Unfortunately, in a mass public media event, being stupid and sensationalist is the only thing that will get you noticed, which is why the symbol of Sochi is now the toilet, instead of the people actually still going to the bathroom outside, instead of the hundreds of state officials paid to take bribes, instead of the underpaid laborers of the Olympic village, instead of the fact that the president of Russia owns a $200,000 watch while parts of Siberia have intermittent heating in the winter.

It’s hard to encapsulate context in a tweet,though, which is why this is the news we get.

Yes, there are Sochi Problems at Sochi, but they’re not the ones you see on the surface, and hopefully I did a good enough job explaining why.

Let the games begin.

28 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. it’s not American smugness, just normal reaction. If I come to Philly* and see that it’s a shithole, I don’t care about historical context and socioeconomic reasons that caused this condition. I will be sure to take a picture and slap it on my blog. Soviet Union used to have shows about America where they filmed nothing but unemployment lines, projects and homeless people. This tradition is alive in Russia. No one implores these people to look across the street, or report that unemployed people are actually getting money in these lines. It is what it is, for 99% of people it doesn’t go deeper than taking a photo and moving along. And no one deserves this crap more than Russia – they stole people’s land, money and didn’t pay the builders. Now they have to eat all this.
    *I have never been to Philly, it’s probably an oasis.

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    • not if you were a journalist, you wouldn’t. the job of a journalist is to collect the silly images and put them in context. a hashtag is not context.

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      • Journalists apparently separate their twitter stream from publications. Plenty of people do that, post a ton of pictures on Twitter/Instagram, then write up the report which may or may not include all the material. The fact that these pictures ended up in print or on TV is a different story.

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    • Trust me, Philly is every bit as bad as the worst parts of Sochi. An oasis, definitely not. We have mile upon mile of urban slums that look like the aftermath of the Dresden bombings. I would welcome international journalists to visit here and mock this urban blight. The citizens responsible for this need to be shamed into submission for their piggish behavior. Government cannot be blamed for everything. I witness repeatedly people throwing trash on the ground when there are trash bins within reach. It is done with contempt. I call Philly the “City paved in broken glass. Windshield glass.”

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  2. Thank you for this. For those of us without context, it fills in a lot of the blanks.

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  3. Beautifully written! Although I found the stories coming out of Sochi very funny at first, I also felt really bad for all of the Sochi workers dealing with the guests and the media. They’re not responsible for the mess but they’re on the front-lines dealing with the fallout. And, when it’s all over in 2 weeks, the guests & media can move on, but the residents will still be stuck there. And, Putin and his minions and the ones who padded their pockets with Olympic funds will still not care.

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  4. The learned helplessness that you describe is indicative of why you can’t actually get people to protest in large enough numbers to effect change. in the Ukraine, somehow people are capable of overcoming some sort of alleged psychological heaviness to actually try to change their circumstances, for which they have my undying respect and support. russia? it’s run by the world’s “best” kleptocrat, in that he’s stolen the most money in history. it’s allowed the abramovichs and such ilk to steal the rest, without anything seemingly going to making ordinary people’s everyday lives better. and the russian orthodox church has piled on to all of this. so your average russian friend (whom, i’m guessing, is a well-off 30 something liberal) is hurt because of photos of fucked up toilets, but perhaps that person might consider that they live in a criminal state run by a psychopath who is enabled by a horrid religious nut-bag to hate on those who are most vulnerable to satisfy the needs of a populace that in the main lives in sub-standards shitholes.

    so yeah, world’s smallest violin. the olympics are good: they are exposing what a vicious and shitty place russia is. maybe good russians should take that into account next time they are sitting in their nice apt in moscow bemoaning their fate.

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  5. A nice column. I was in Sochi during the summer. Didn’t like it much since it was filled with the rich of Russia and my students, who also were rich. I didn’t like Bob Costas’s building up of Putin on NBC. But journalists always complain about where they stay unless it’s a Four Seasons or a Holiday Inn. Thanks for insight!

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  6. More than”psychological heaviness” there seems to be the greater challenge of physical distance. As I understand it, the country is very large, roads are very bad. I can feel the “toska” just reading about it.

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  7. If you haven’t yet seen the story that HBO Sports did from Sochi, it’s really important and very well done. I was stunned to see the living conditions of the people and even more to learn how much money was spent on storing snow in a part of the country where no one has any business skiing. It’s very well-tempered, good reporting.

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  8. Being half-Polish (my mother lived in Poland until she was 30 and I have spent about half my life there), I’ve visited post-Soviet countries and am well-aware that things are different there from the West, and likewise, I don’t think this makes the countries worse in anyway. I have never made a comparison like “Nothing like this would ever happen in the United States.” The countries are different and their histories have been radically different.

    That being said, your post comes off as overly sensitive and personal. People are commenting on the horrible conditions in Sochi precisely because Putin is corrupt and wasted government money on something ridiculous like the Olympics. It’s shameful that the committee that voted for the Olympics gave them to Russia, knowing fully well how many other problems there are in Russia. Most people are actually very aware of how many problems there are in Russia, which is why it’s outrageous that Putin wanted to host the Olympics instead of fixing other problems. People who are angry at Russia’s anti-gay laws find it ironic that the corrupt government is embarrassing itself by being unable to prepare adequately for the Olympics. I think the glee that you sense in journalists has everything to do with being horrified by Putin’s actions and nothing to do with some kind of perverse, Western joy in trampling on the Other people.

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    • This reply struck me as the most balanced and insightful assessment of the situation–including the original article. Good points that Russia and the US are two different countries with different cultures and history. Admirable that you can appreciate both and not make comparisons or label one better and the other worse.

      I agree—shame on the Olympic committee and shame on Putin. It is the job of journalists to point out corruption (wasted money) and injustice (treatment of gay population.)

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  9. “there is no system or culture of volunteerism”

    Tell that to the guy who drove to Sochi from Moscow to save a car full of dogs. I guess he missed the memo.

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  10. A thoughtful friend of mine commented the other day about how brilliant Putin is. His anti gay rhetoric has totally distracted everyone from the real problems and injustices in Russia. Yes, peoples treatment of homosexuals I. Russia is horrible, but certainly in many ways as horrible than it’s treatment of ordinary citizens. Don’t see people taking to the streets on that one.

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  11. I loved your post, it was personal and reflective and I’m surprised at that most of the comments here didn’t get that. Man, people just need to stop talking for a minute and listen and contemplate someone’s personal point of view. Seriously. To all of the people above who couldn’t wait to get their 2 cents in.. chill OUT. Just listen. Process. Contemplate. Try it as an exercise. That is all.

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  12. We’re in Sochi right now, staying in a middle-class guest house a couple blocks from the sea. Glad to be out of the Western journalist/Olympic Village bubble that’s getting all the press. Your: “The more incredible and backwards-seeming the news from Russia, the more retweets journalists get, and there’s nothing journalists love more than being the center of attention.” says it all.

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  13. What a wonderful piece; I found it through a friend’s Facebook feed. It’s interesting that some of the world’s most downtrodden places have produced the most fabulous art: Russia and its literature, Mississippi and its blues music, Jalisco and the blazing short stories of Juan Rulfo. Thank you for your perspective and for making the effort to communicate it.

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  14. Sounds like North Korea. Sounds like China. Sounds like the future U.S. if people don’t wake up to the evils of totalitarian/socialist government – always implemented by corrupt politicians – made even more dangerous by its ability to monitor our every word and move.

    All my grandparents came from Russia. Between the pogroms, the Orthodox Church, and the prospect of decades-long inscription into the Czar’s army, they probably didn’t have much of a future there, anyway.

    The Russia that was will never be again. In fact, the Russia that is may partly be a result of the Russia that was. The Phoenix will not rise from the ashes. The Phoenix is dead. The U.S. can’t afford another Marshall Plan and the leaders of Russia wouldn’t allow it anyway – they’d have too much corrupt cash to lose. Russia has had more revolutions that it should, but it needs another one. Unfortunately, as the Ukraine is showing, it will cost many peoples’ lives and may still fail to achieve its goal. Today’s governments have too much power and money and weapons to be overthrown, even when necessary.

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  15. I don’t care about the toilets or the stray dogs.

    A) It’s rude to disrespect your hosts anywhere at any time.

    B) Russia, as you point out, has suffered insanely compared to what any Americans can understand ( 70 years of the Reds and 20 million dead in WW2 for starters).

    C) I thought the opening show was beautiful. Maybe it feeds a stereotype of the Russian “soul,” but in all that misery and dysfunction, they still can produce beauty.

    D) Being old enough to have watched Olympics starting with Rome in 60′. I can say one thing many Americans have no trouble noticing, is that Russia produces some spectacular looking people.

    E) The last homes in NJ using outhouses just go indoor plumbing 15 or 20 years ago. We are spoiled in our widespread affluence. Our poor people are fat.

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    • America’s poor people are fat because they’re eating grease-ridden burgers off the dollar menu or maybe a $4 TV dinner (on a good night).

      What does Russia’s somewhat “attractive” population have to do with any of this? So what, they look good while they discriminate against LGBT persons and live in substandard conditions?

      It’s rude to disrespect your hosts? Maybe those hosts should have used 50 billion stolen tax dollars to actually create something awe-inspiring. Maybe they should have hired someone (and actually paid them!) to watch out for the details. Maybe they should have put more effort into making the conditions acceptable, at the very least.

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  16. Interesting and thought provoking piece. I agree to a certain extent but I think the whole #sochiproblems encapsulates the ridiculousness of Putin’s nefarious regime. The dictatorship is doing unspeakably evil things – and their pogrom against gay people is the absolute worst example of this evil. But while it appears that we’re trivialising the issue by retweating pictures of toilets and the bad construction work it is, in my opinion, the best – in fact the only – weapon we have to demonstrate our disgust and highlight the contradiction between the image Putin wants to portray to his people and the image the outside world has of his so called all powerful Russia. By poking fun at Russia we are saying that we’re not willing to accept Putin’s propaganda. Don’t underestimate the power of humour. I get angry about the treatment of gay people in Russia but ultimately that anger has nowhere to go. I can only stand back and watch in disgust and ultimately despair. Humour feels like an altogether more empowering and safer emotion to me.

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  17. If you are a Jew and you have a feeling of pride and obligation for Russia, a country that tortured and continues to torture your kind, you need your head cleaned. I say that as somebody from the same background as you.

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  18. I agree with Paul. Putin’s Russia is a Potemkin Village, as is his Sochi Olympics. He needs to be ridiculed and laughed off the stage. He’s so ronery and he needs to be so gone. I wish our president and congressmen had had the guts to say: “Hell, no! We won’t go!” and kept the American athletes home. I’m doing my part by not watching a single minute of the Games.

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  19. “Toska” this word describes all this perfectly. There is not a singe word in the English language that can sum it up as well. Beautiful post!

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  20. What a thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading of your perspective and appreciated getting a more personal, inside picture of the complexity of being/understanding Russia. I hate all the sensational journalism. It is so mean-spirited and can’t really be trusted. This happens all the time with news in America. It’s all about ratings.

    The conditions you describe during your visit sound sad. I could picture it and have seen other places as dirty and depressing and don’t shy away from that. But that is easier for me because I am American and am just passing through. Still, I want to see how people live and get a better understanding of what life is like in other places in the world. I can’t fix their problems, but try to understand them better.

    Perhaps part of the reason that Russia has produced such great writers, artists, and thinkers is because they struggle. I see this in other artists who grow up with alcoholism, abuse, and poverty. Those that overcome have something to say.

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  21. Most Western jornos picked up the rotten facade, but not the rotten foundation because they are shallow. The Vice coverage was the best because they knew what to look for.
    As for Russians loving their misery, shame on them. The shallow coverage only antagonized them, which is why it’s a plus for Putin.
    As much as I love Russian lit, I don’t love Russia. I’m raising my children to be Jews and Americans who happened to have a Russian-speaking mom.
    And Ukraine, another glorious shithole. The east is proud of their commies, the west — of their Nazis. They stage a revolution waiving Nazi flags — Western media talks of brave, freedom-loving Ukrainian people. Chief rabbi of Ukraine calls on Jews to leave Kiev — Western media still talks of brave, freedom-loving Ukrainian people.
    Wait, there are still Jews left in Ukraine?

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