Sochi Schadenfreude 'Ha Ha, The Russians Screwed It Up Again!'
People in the West are crowing over every possible problem associated with the Sochi Olympics. But the schadenfreude is an affront to many Russians. We shouldn't forget that Russia is hosting a party and we are their guests.
I had only myself to blame. After waiting too long to finally book a hotel in Sochi, here's what I got: A bathroom that smelled like a sewer. The cold air traveled right through the window. The furniture was straight out of the 1970s. If you had tried to sell all of it at a flea market, it is unlikely anyone would have paid more than the $200 a night I paid each night to stay there. The place looked like it was bug-ridden -- and by that I do not mean eavesdropping efforts by the FSB intelligence service.
Even though Sochi has been booked out for weeks now, I still managed to change hotels. An acquaintance had a pal who called a friend who happens to work in another hotel. What would Russia be without these Russians, their relationships and their inimitable spontaneity? I'm now staying at the Marins Park Hotel for $140 a night, with a view of the sea from my window, gorgeous weather and no twin toilet of the sort that has been the subject of social media mockery in recent weeks. The hotel I'm now staying in has even hired a pianist to play during breakfast. The trains to Sochi are free. Indeed, this city is making a real effort for its visitors and you'd pretty much have to close both eyes not to see that the Russians here are doing their best to welcome the world.
Unfortunately, the world is too busy posting its images of dread from Russia. Indeed, the criticism has lost any measure of proportionality. It is true that the Olympics are Vladimir Putin's pet project. This modern day czar wanted the games, and he ordered a massive, $50 billion effort to make sure they happened in Sochi. Corruption and poor planning drove costs to dizzying heights. Considerable environmental damage has been caused and construction workers have been exploited. Putin has also done his best to stir up sentiment against gays.
'There Are No Gays Here'
But Russia has not earned the schadenfreude that bubbles up each time another broken door knob or damaged park bench is discovered. Whatever doesn't fit into the narrative is forced in nonetheless.
My sympathies for guys like the mayor of Sochi are generally pretty limited. Anatoly Pakhomov is a member of the United Russia party that dominates the Kremlin -- the same political grouping that is ill-reputed among the general public as the "party of crooks and thieves." Shortly before the Olympics, Pakhomov gave an interview. "There are no gays here," is the quote that was quoted in the media around the world.
If Pakhomov did indeed say that, then he needs help, because it would be clear that he is suffering from an undiagnosed dementia that strikes only sporadically. How else could the mayor forget that he himself had spoken with the operator of a gay bar shortly before the interview took place? He had asked for the briefing as part of his preparations for an interview with a BBC journalist.
At city hall in Sochi, few believe there's a medical explanation for what happened. They claim Pakhomov's statements were taken out of context. The actual words used by Pakhomov were, "We don't have them in our city." The mayor now claims that what he actually meant were gay activists. Without trying to play down the extremely difficult situation for gays and lesbians in Russia, there is a significant difference.
Social Media Debate
Journalist Simon Rosner writes for Vienna's Wiener Zeitung newspaper. On his Twitter profile, he states that he uses the service "primarily to annoy myself." It would be fair to say that interest in his annoyance hasn't been that great. He has 636 followers, any retweet is likely more than welcome.
Yet without ever even leaving Vienna, Rosner managed to land himself right in the middle of a heated social media debate. He took photos of streets in disrepair in the Austrian capital and posted them together with the hashtag #SochiProblems. A webeditor at CNN got in touch with him, saying they would like to use the image for a photo gallery of things gone wrong in Sochi.
Rosner's photo has been retweeted 505 times. Subsequent postings he made noting that he had intended the image as irony were hardly retweeted at all. Rosner also made another important point. If the Russians had dared to use buses as old as some of those used to transport people at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver, people probably would have dismissed them as "relics from the Soviet Union."
An Affront to All Russians
Even if most Sochi bashing is directed at Putin, it still hits all Russians. Olympic fever is rampant in Russia and 69 percent of those surveyed are pleased about the games, with two out of three following the events on television. Even Russians who protested two years ago against Putin's return to the Kremlin feel the criticism is excessive. They are very aware of corruption and environmental damage. What they are sensitive about right now, though, is the constant and unfair barrage of ridicule from the West.
The Russians are perplexed by the world, and it's not their fault. They're celebrating a party in Sochi. But we're the party poopers waiting for any chance we can find to say: "Haha, the Russians have screwed up again!"
Marat Gelman, Moscow's best known art gallery owner, once claimed that things are only right in the world for the West if bad news is coming out of Russia.
I hope Gelman is wrong.