We’ve all seen the pictures of the apparently disastrous conditions of the Sochi Olympics, and if we’re honest, many of us Westerners have laughed in glee at the “peach juice” that is actually contaminated water, unfinished hotel rooms and (heaven forbid!) separate bins for used toilet paper. The 320,000 person following of the Twitter account @SochiProblems, which, according to Sarah Kaufman is 100,000 more than the number of followers of the official Sochi Olympics account, highlights the fact that for some reason, Americans find it really amusing to make fun of the land of vodka, snow, and the gulag, as stereotypes would have it.
I in no way claim to be innocent of poking fun at the quirks of living in Russia. In fact, until I read this excellent article by Sarah Kaufman, titled “#SochiProblems is More of An Embarrassment For America Than It Is For Russia,” I hadn’t felt any contrition for the way I complained about not having a toilet seat in my dorm or using the line, “when I was in Russia,” as a transition to one-upping a friend’s horrific travel story. Kaufman makes the case that Americans’ gleeful reaction to less than ideal conditions in Sochi springs from “cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance,” which was a great starting point for discussion with my 5th year students. Since I discovered #SochiProblems, I have been curious to hear what Russians think about Americans’ snarky Sochi commentary as well as their broader perspective on the Olympics, so for газета (newspaper) class today, we discussed Kaufman’s article. Here’s what they had to say:
What do you think of Americans’ reactions to the conditions in Sochi?
One girl expressed surprise that Americans would make fun of their conditions; she had spent a summer in the US and had heard only positivity from an American gymnastics coach about the upcoming event. Her friend, who had also been in America, showed no surprise, expressing that it made sense journalists would find the place unsuitable; after all, they were used to better conditions. In fact, many students voiced understanding of visitors’ qualms at Russian conditions. The general sentiment of the class was gracious, essentially, “we are used to these conditions, but that doesn’t mean we think less of others if they are not.”
Are you offended?
Again, students were very gracious to the whining Americans, while still expressing some offense at their homeland being mocked by outsiders. They could all be diplomats! One girl loosely quoted Pushkin as saying “a man hates his Motherland, but he is offended if someone else says something bad about it.” Many students echoed this idea, and the same girl who quoted Pushkin told me, “you see, we can complain to each other about our terrible conditions, but if you start complaining to me about how horrible your dormitory is, then I will be a little offended.”
Another student added to this thought, expressing that Russians themselves perpetuate negative stereotypes about their country by constantly complaining about conditions and the government. On the other hand, she said, even Americans who rail on Barack Obama still tend to be patriotic. “As for us,” she continued, “we see the best route as a ticket out of here!” (Baba Olya, anyone?) The class laughed when she said this, but she made a great point: if Russians don’t talk well of their country, why should they expect others to?
Why do you think Americans are reacting like this?
One young man posited that Americans might view Russia as a threat, and as a class we discussed the possibility of lingering Cold War sentiments tainting Americans’ view of Russia. Embarrassingly for Americans, ignorance also may play a role. One student visited the United States, and when she told someone that she was from Russia, the American echoed heartily, “Oh, the U.S.S.R.!” I guess it’s hard to escape a Cold War mindset when you think it’s still going on.
Another girl came up with a metaphor that encapsulates what I think many of my fellow American -born Russophiles can attest to: “I think the journalists see it like a scavenger hunt. They look for what is bad, and then they write about it.”
“Why do you think they do this?” I asked.
“For amusement,” she answered.
I loved this metaphor, because I think it perfectly describes what many Western adventurers to Russia aim to get out of the experience. The first few times I went to Russia I was intrigued by the “wildness” of it, and things that would be inconvenient in the long run turned into exciting stories I could tell my friends. Part of the fuel that fed my fire for Russia, was the romanticizing of these conditions as somehow adventurous, definitely more interesting than life home in America. And it’s easier to sensationalize or make fun of conditions when you can pack your bags after being there for a week. So for all this talk about schadenfreude sparked by remnants of Cold War sentiment, I think that something simpler and more universally human might be involved as well: the longing for adventure and story.
Are the Olympics a good thing for your country?
Most students felt torn when answering this question. On one hand, as a student said, the Olympics are reviving sports in Russia, which since the fall of the U.S.S.R., have been comparatively weak. In Soviet times, she said, Russian athletics were much more competitive, but that recently, “sport has almost died in Russia.”
Many agreed that the Olympics were an important historic event for Russia, but that the costs might outweigh the benefits. Over $51 billion dollars was spent on the games, and one student quoted an estimate that if that money were divided equally among Russia’s 143 million, each person could buy his own apartment. I’ve quickly learned that when talking with Russian students, if you say the word government, a conversation about corruption is not far behind, and many voiced frustration with the financial corruption that permeates their society. Even if a gigantic sum of money was supposed to be distributed to the Russian people, one student argued, it wouldn’t get there, because pockets of corruption are not limited to big endeavors like the Olympics, but are everywhere.
One major thing I took away from our conversation is the need for Americans to stop basing their opinion of the Russian people on the actions of its government. I was impressed by the positive attitude my students had towards Americans in spite of the snide Twitter account. To be honest, if I were them , I would be doing my best to sarcastically shut down the opponent, but they didn’t seem to see America as an opponent. Rather, they were gracious towards journalists’ reactions to their homeland, that, as the poet Tyutchev wrote, “can’t be understood with the mind.”
Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать —
В Россию можно только верить
Ф. И. Тютчев