Joel Reichenberger: Looking for the real Russia
February 17, 2014
Krasnaya Polyana, Russia — It doesn't feel like we're experiencing Russia.
Of course, we're in Russia, and we get flashes of what the country might actually be like.
There's a tea stand run by Russian women right inside the doors to the Gorki Media Center (the mountain media center that is our base of operation), but I don't drink tea, and they seem to be trying a wee bit too hard, with authentic-looking peasant garb and using ornate dishes and equipment.
We occasionally walk to several convenience stores, over a pedestrian bridge on the other side of the highway. The stores all seem officially to cater to tourists, employing English on their signage, but the reception is lukewarm, at best. We get eyeballed by security guards as if we are trying to steal everything in the entire store when we visit, and that's discomforting.
(It's worth noting they aren't exactly catering to Americans by using English, rather English seems to be the agreed upon meeting place for tourists from around the world.)
There's a grocery store that opened in the shopping mall that's on our walk to the media center, and we have been stopping there to buy the essentials. Some of signage and packaging is in English, but most of it isn't. That was interesting yesterday when we were trying to buy laundry soap — we seem to have succeeded but will only know for sure when we see if our clothes smell — but mostly we buy beer, water and snacks there, and those are somewhat defined by an international language.
Our food mostly consists of the hotel's breakfast buffet, which seems about 25 percent Russian. We eat there every morning, and we eat as much as possible as we don't always get the chance for other meals.
No, our main link to real Russia seems to be Alex, the security guard.
"Seems" may be a key word.
I was running out the door yesterday when Alex pulled me aside and, entirely unprompted, gave me his life story. He was very forward, very open and he provided one of the few windows we've had into the real Russian world.
It's worth noting everything I'm passing along has been filtered through the language barrier, so I could well have misunderstood.
"My family, my country"
Alex is 36 years old and about 6 feet 2 inches tall, or 190 centimeters, as he said.
A regular discussion among journalists centers around what will happen to all the staff here after the Olympics are over. It's important to remember this was all constructed first for the Olympics, but long-term as a resort community. Still, there's no way the resort community will be thriving in, say, March.
Alex will be OK, though. He signed a three-year contract, working three months on before getting a month off to be with his family.
He was a track athlete previously, a sprinter, "Like Usain Bolt," he said, more to ensure I understood his sport than to boast about his abilities.
He never made it to the Olympics but did compete in the Junior Olympics.
Alex is married, and he flipped out his wallet to produce a photo of his wife, pretty with short, dark hair and a stern look that would fit on an American driver's license.
He has two children, a 14-year old boy who is very large and a judo athlete and a 6-month-old daughter.
"She looks like me, no?" he said.
His wife is part of the "economic police," making about $700 a month. (He volunteered that personal information. I didn't ask.)
"Big job, small pay," he said.
Sort of like being a journalist covering the Olympics, I suggested.
He grew up in a "beautiful city" about 600 kilometers away and his mother, 60 years old, still lives there.
His father, a giant man several inches taller than Alex, was killed during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
"He hero," Alex said. "He dead. Six others alive."
Alex has a brother who lives in Golden, Colo., who after five years in the United States only speaks a few words of English.
"'Hello. Goodbye.' then he finished," said Alex, who has been studying English himself for about three weeks.
He wasn't bad at it when we first met him, and he's improved daily, learning from a book. A conversation is absolutely possible, if not efficient.
Alex would be willing to move to the United States. He said he's "50-50" on Vladimir Putin and is specifically upset that foreigners were brought in to fill some of the jobs at the Olympics. Our Turkish housekeeper may fall into the unwanted laborers group for Alex, though he wasn't singled out.
Alex won't be moving, however. His wife loves Russia and wants to stay.
"My family, my country," he said. "I love my family."
Setting skepticism aside
Those are powerful words.
I hesitate at the phrase "seems" above because it's a little difficult to trust anything here. A security guard who poured out his soul and verbalized criticism of his government, knowing I'm a journalist, is not something I was expecting.
I assume he knows I'm a journalist, anyway.
I've wondered if my writing about Alex has caused him trouble, if it led to his worries last week that he may be transferred. That hasn't happened, though, so probably not. I assume everything I do here is monitored, but I have no idea how closely.
Is someone reading these columns and is any relevant information — my thoughts on the Olympics, my interactions with people and my gripes about various things — being relayed to the people who may care?
It seems like the height of arrogance for a reporter to assume as much, especially when I'm only one of thousands here photographing, Facebooking, blogging and tweeting these games. Am I paranoid or are the Russians? There's no telling.
Alex pulled a camera from his jacket pocket and took a photo of us together. As he flashed through his photos — en route to showing me his family — I noticed he'd done the same with other guests, too. It's nuts to think he had ulterior motives, that he’s collecting information for the KGB or something, but I can't help but wonder.
I've read one too many spy novels.
The truth is we really treasure Alex. There's plenty of authenticity to these games. The emotions of the athletes, the joy of the fans, that's all real. The country in general, though, has felt a little like that tea stand at the door to the media center, where tableclothes, unique clothing and a printed backdrop pass for "real."
Alex is more "Russia" than that, no question.