On Sochi and the Olympics (#1)

I have had many friends writing about the Olympics this year. I have read many things and even seen some videos. I feel that since I have a special connection to this place – without actually being from there – perhaps I should share what I know. My opinions will no doubt differ from everyone else’s, but they are mine and come from a place of thought and introspection.

Being married to someone from a different culture is not always easy. There are enough differences in the way we do things and in what we expect that it can get frustrating. There is also a lot of fun in it. I always have something new to learn about my hubby or his family – like an onion – peeling back the layers. When you learn about other cultures, especially when you become immersed in them, it changes your way of thinking. It gives you the gift of new perspective and allows you to look at the beauty inside of the things you see as negatives. It allows you to realize that you are lucky and highlights that not everyone lives like you do.

This is what I know about Sochi:

Sochi is beautiful. The city, the surroundings, the Black Sea, the Caucasus mountains jutting straight up from the sea, the rocky pebble beach, the forest and the historical buildings – it’s all just so lovely. It has lovely gardens to walk through and beautiful places to dine and shop during the summer tourist season. The culture I personally experienced for the most part is a mix of Armenian and Russian. The population is over 20% people of Armenian descent and my husband’s family and friends mostly fall into that category. They have lived in the area for generations, but they have kept much of their Armenian tradition and still speak a local Armenian dialect in the homes for the most part. Almost everyone I know from Sochi speaks both Armenian and Russian. They have noticeable accents that differ from the Russian accents in the area. Just like in the US different parts of Russia have different accents.

Sochi is the place my husband’s family fled to when the war in their home of Georgia took all they had. It is just across the border from where they spent his early childhood. Some of the stories I have heard are enough to break my heart. Thinking of my husband as a small boy suffering under war conditions, and his parents just trying to keep him and his brother safe and fed, it hurts to hear some of it. He honestly hasn’t told me a lot himself. He is a proud private man and he doesn’t want to talk of the past. When I ask a question that I don’t even think of as related, it is then that I see how different our childhoods were. I have heard some stories from his friends, and parts of his family. His mother, since living here, has shared a few very poignant stories that just break my heart for all of them. Georgia is the place his great grandparents fled to from Armenia during the Turkish Armenian war (or the Armenian Genocide, depending on whom you talk to.) But Sochi itself has been war torn for centuries as well. My husband’s family actually lives in Adler which is a suburb of Sochi. From his backyard and his uncle’s front yard, you can see the new Olympic village by the sea. We visited the ski resort where the snow sports are being held when I was there. It was one of the most beautiful places I have been, and I have been lucky to have seen most of the North American Rockies – including up into the Canadian parts.

This area of the world is not like the area of the world I grew up in. (small town western states in the US) Russia is not an especially safe place. While I felt safe in Sochi, I also knew we were targets being Americans and I tried to keep a “lowish” profile. Staying with his family, in the neighborhood where they know everyone and everyone watches out for each other, I think that was part of my feeling safe. When we went to town and to see the sights, we had an uncle or a brother or a father in law driving us. They were all generally very aware of our surroundings. I took care not to wear flashy clothing or jewelry. We didn’t carry a lot of money. Interestingly, I felt very safe at the beach or in his or his uncle’s home. When we were in Moscow I did not feel safe. I didn’t feel safe in the cab or in our hotel room, and I didn’t feel safe out on the street the next day or at the airport. Before we went to Russia I looked up traveling tips on the US Bureau of Consular Affairs. (travel.state.gov – great resource) They had a warning about traveling to the Caucasus mountains for Americans. Since the proximity to Chechnya is fairly close and Americans have been known to be targets of Chechen terrorists they actually advised against going there, especially alone. It also warned against Americans going to the area in Georgia where my husband grew up and where his Grandma lives. The US does not recognize Abkazhia ** to be a country, so not only were we encouraged not to visit, my son and I could not, in fact, even apply for a visa to go across the border. The Russian Police are able to stop you at any time and ask for documents. Visitors are required to register where they are staying. If they do not, they could be taken to jail. From what I hear, Russian jail is the last place you want to end up. Visitors are encouraged to carry all passports, visas, ID and proof of registration at all times. We were stopped pretty much every time we went somewhere, but mostly in the car. Traffic stopping points are every few miles and you must show proof of ID, car registration and such. I was only asked for documents once or twice, they mostly focused on the driver.

Russia is not “enlightened” in the way we Americans think is enlightened. There is a lot of racism there. In fact, when I went just 5 years ago I only saw two people of African descent the whole month I was there, even in Moscow. I saw them on the boardwalk in Sochi where there were people selling tourist souvenirs. You could pay to take your picture with a parrot or a monkey, there were special treats being sold like ice cream. The Africans (who my husband said were there as university students) were dressed up in what I felt was supposed to be traditional African attire and you could pay to take your picture with them as well. I was of course appalled, but my husband assured me they make amazing money to help them pay for school.  I am told this absence of people of color is changing in the Moscow area. I was told it isn’t generally safe for people of color in the larger cities, I hope that is changing. My husband, being Armenian, has seen a lot of prejudice against friends and family. We know someone who legally changed their kids’ last names so at school they would be treated better. Good paying, not back breaking work is difficult for them to find, public and police treatment of Armenians is poor, racial violence in certain parts of Russia happens a lot. My husband has a friend who experienced public beatings more than once at school in a larger city by their “brand of neonazis” often referred to as Cossacks. Once at a restaurant the waitress asked my husband if our son was “mulatto” – which is the same word you think it is – a word for mixed race children. My husband just said yes. I couldn’t tell that there was any animosity in the question – just curiosity. There were disabled men, mostly, in the city. They were dirty, obviously homeless or close to it, begging. Or not begging and pushing themselves around on a makeshift sort of cart that they pushed with their hands. I could tell there are not services for them there. If you don’t have family to take care of you when you are sick or injured, you are lost. There was a drunk man in long underwear who lived in the small area where there were large garbage containers for the neighborhood to dump some of their trash at. Or if he didn’t live there he found his food and other necessities there. There are also “gypsies” there who beg on the street. They wear amazingly colorful clothing and many necklaces and bracelets. They are not dirty, they look different than the other people who beg. They are treated very badly by pretty much everyone. Seen as a nuisance. One of the reasons my husband stayed here in America was the opportunities he didn’t have back home because of his skin color. Women are not treated well, in my opinion. (my husband would disagree) I don’t believe they have equal opportunities to do as they please in the business world or in school. They are expected to get married and have children – if you do not, there must be something wrong with you. Most women I know do all the work at home and for the children, even if they work as much and as hard as their husbands outside of the home. Many women stay in the cooking/secretary/teaching/retail fields. If there is domestic abuse there is no one to call to help you, except possibly a male family member. It’s just part of life for some women there. Homophobia is rampant and violent. I know many people have seen the shocking videos lately. I can barely stomach them. These are the same “Cossacks” who are violent toward people of color and women. Another place of extreme violence is the armed forces. Young men are required to do a certain amount of service in the military and many die in training. Not from the difficult conditions but from the violence visited upon them by higher ranking soldiers. Mafia is pervasive and everywhere.

But these things do not describe the people I encountered. Most people don’t socialize with any random person at the store or on the street. They find small talk with strangers to be unnecessary. So the people I encountered in general were my husband’s family and friends. They were all lovely. Generous, kind, giving, loyal, protective, funny, happy even in the face of bad circumstances and very social. People got together every day there. The neighborhood ladies would have tea or coffee every day and the norm was to have people come by for dinner once or twice a week. When we were there people came to almost every lunch and dinner to see my husband and his new family. The women were beautiful and kind, the men were loud and laughing. The children were expected to have fun and run around like wild monkeys, which was really very nice. It really was a very beautiful place to visit. The neighbors all know each other and help each other out and watch out for each other and each other’s kids. It’s expected that moms get together with the other moms in the area and let the kids play. Every day. They find it very strange and sad that we don’t do that.

The living conditions varied widely. In downtown Sochi there were large, lovely, new apartments, and older areas with buildings starting to be run down. There were brand new malls and little stores where you could just buy meat, or bread products, or milk products. We frequented a baby store that just sold diapers and baby food and bottles and such. Out where my husband’s family lives there were large lovely houses with gorgeous gardens and land around them, and there were trailers with outhouses and no plumbing. His uncle who lived just up the street had a gorgeous little fruit garden – cherries, grapes, strawberries, fruits I had never seen before. Just beautiful. They harvested the grapes and made wine. Whenever we went over someone climbed up into the tree (my husband, his cousins, his uncle and father were all like monkeys that way in my mind, they climbed easily and frequently) and got fresh cherries or persimmons to serve with tea and cookies. There were neighborhood children who had extremely nice clothing and who were fat and chubby and healthy. They had expensive toys and everything they needed. There were neighborhood children who came to play with my son’s toys (family had all brought over things for our toddler to play with) and who were so careful and delighted with the shiny new things because they didn’t have any toys themselves. One day when we took a back way around the area to go up the mountain to where the skiing and snowboarding Olympic games will be we drove by gorgeous large mansions, and little hovels I still can’t believe people live in. One home was a metal grain silo cut in half on it’s side. Dirty children were outside, pigs were walking in and out of the home, there didn’t appear to be electricity or water. There were literally first world type areas and third world type areas within minutes of each other. They are proud people who work hard and play hard and love their families and help each other.

They have also come to distrust the government and to try to find ways to either take advantage of the system, or find a way to work around it. This seems as natural as anything else they do. Perhaps when your government is so corrupt you just have to do what you can. Maybe this is why when I mention that some of the Olympic construction was not done in time, they simply shrug about it. They have come to expect government corruption, greed and inefficiency.

When I tell my husband the stories I have read, about people being hurt, about people who worked on the Olympic construction being denied pay and accused of theft and arrested and then abused at the police station, when I tell him about the outrage of the animal rights activists, he gives me a funny sad look and says “that’s what happens every day there.” He has come to expect that from his home.

I am glad that the Olympics has brought into the international focus the human rights issues and I am glad I have had friends who want to hear my take on it. I don’t expect there to be much change any time soon though. When I ask my husband why Putin doesn’t seem to care what the rest of the world is saying about his country and him, he says “Why should he care? He was the president and then the prime minister and then the president. Who will stop him?” and indeed it seems like he is as powerful as one can get in that area of the world and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks or says.

I want my friends to know that while there is danger and sadness and things I think should change, and hope do change for the sake of my family, there is also beauty and wonder and very lovely people. Please realize that every place has it’s problems and this place is no exception. But also that every place has good in it as well. One doesn’t necessarily cancel out the other.

People ask me what my Russian family thinks of the Olympics. I think they feel pride. Part of that pride comes from Russians always acting like Sochi isn’t really “part of Russia” – due in large part to the large community of Armenians. When I tell most Russians here that my husband is from Sochi they say “Oh. You mean he is Armenian.” I think they are proud that not only was their beautiful city chosen to be the site of the olympics, but also that by choosing the somewhat excluded city, it gave them a firmer “we are Russian” foothold. I think they have worked hard and sacrificed to make the Olympics successful. My husband’s aunt was evicted from the the home they owned and moved to a new apartment complex on the other side of the city. They used to have 2 areas to rent out to tourists. Now they just have room for their family. There are many many other stories like this. I think they are excited to see all that comes with the Olympics and want to make it a nice place for the international community to visit.

When people ask what *I* think of the Olympics, it is hard for me to put into words, because I feel so many different things about it. I have been aware of the human rights problems for the last 8 years or more. Long before the anti gay propaganda law and long before the Olympics. I have tried all of those years to point these things out to others. Mostly without anyone noticing because it wasn’t a big deal until the Olympics were scheduled there and the new law was passed. I have tried to bring these horrible conditions to light in my corner of the world. I have also tried to share parts of the culture in hopes that Russia and the US can stop thinking of each other as inherently different and as enemies. I have tried to spread the idea that I think would be best in international dealings – which is that we are all citizens of the world. That borders do not have to divide us and that they certainly don’t define us.

Quite honestly I have never cared much about the Olympics at all. I watched gymnastics and skating as a kid and that was pretty much it. I have a fascination with people who work that hard and dedicate every moment of their lives to this one point in time. But I really haven’t ever cared much or tried to watch the games much.

What I feel about the Sochi 2014 Olympics is this: I feel the people who actually do care about it are being ripped off by Putin. I think he has made this not only a partially unprepared for and unsuccessful Olympics, but also opened them up to criticism from every corner and for every little thing due to his bigoted law and his general attitude to the rest of the world. As my husband says “he just doesn’t give a f**k.” And he doesn’t. I feel sad for that part of it. I feel frustrated that what is supposed to be a coming together to celebrate our differences and to change them from barriers into ways we can connect, has been turned into a bad experience for all by one man and the few people who support him. I feel angry and frustrated that Russia as a whole is being seen as bigoted, violent and homophobic, because I will be honest with you, I think the horrible violent crimes perpetrated against the gays (and the people of color and women and young men in the army and the disabled and more) comes from a small percentage of the population who see themselves as better than the rest. And they are being told they are better than the rest by the government as well. I feel the same when I hear people from other countries think that we are all fat bible thumping gun freaks because I know most of us are not. I feel pride in the beautiful city I came to love in the short time I was there – I feel like they are trying to handle it with dignity and grace. I feel scared that something horrible could happen to athletes or visitors or all of the people there, whether it’s from terrorism or from regular every day bigots. I feel very angry when I read my friends who say “Russia sucks” or “Russians are bigots” or “Those assholes over there deserve all the bad press they get.” Because you know what? Every single person I met over there, and almost every single person I have met here who is from Russia are kind, caring, decent human beings just trying to get through life like the rest of us. I feel sad that they have come through so much oppression and pain and war and indigence to make a decent life for themselves DESPITE their government and oppression, and they still have to fight against more of it. I feel frustrated at all of my confused feelings. I want to watch the Olympics to try and steal glimpses of my husband’s home (even though I really don’t care much about the actual sports or athletes) and I don’t want to watch so I can support my gay friends. Though if I am honest with myself, the best way I feel I can support the LGBT community in Russia is to continue to try to bring light to the things that happen there and keep chipping away at the misconceptions about both sides. If I am honest with myself, I don’t think Putin gives a crap whether we watch or not, the Olympic governing body does not care either, and in the end it really does nothing if the countries themselves have not pulled out of it. But I support those who feel this is the best way they can help and send support to the LGBT community over there who most definitely suffer great atrocities. I love that this Olympics has brought these problems to light to more of the world’s population and I am hopeful that when the cameras leave in 2 weeks that the support and work does not. Because the bigotry won’t leave then either.

In the end, in two weeks, the world will stop looking so closely at Sochi and at Russia. I hope that they will have learned something from all of this instead of it being another passing fad. I am sure there are ways to truly become involved, organizations that are helping, senators to write to about amnesty for the people who desperately need to leave, funds to raise, people to send. I hope in the end it is not the games or the athletes or the image of a serious and proud Putin that we remember. I hope it is not the turning off of a tv that we remember. I hope it is the struggle of people in every corner of a massive country who need freedom, who deserve dignity, who should not have to worry about safety. And I hope that we will have something to do with the transformation of the lives they live.



** Abkazia is a part of Georgia that was the reason for the Civil war when he was young. They have declared themselves to be independent.