As I mentioned in my last post, the people of Sochi are remarkably unmoved by the rapid development springing up around them. They’re a bit like figures in a snow globe, watching with indifference as the dust from constant construction swirls around them.
The Games belong to Sochi in name only. They are, in reality, the pride and joy of Moscow. That isn’t to say that the Russians I met in Sochi aren’t proud. They are extremely proud of Russia’s perceived place in the world, and proud that their city will be home to the Games. But they are proud in a removed sort of way. It’s as though a distant cousin has achieved greatness. It’s wonderful for the family, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with them, personally.
And because the residents of Sochi haven’t taken ownership of the Games, they really aren’t empowered to make any decisions pertaining to 2014. But I’d go even farther, and venture to say that Russians are reluctant to make decisions, period.
Sochi 2014 Headquarters
Let me give you an example. A bit simplistic but perhaps telling.
On one of my visits to Sochi, I stopped by a pizza restaurant for something to eat. I spotted pepperoni pizza, and, further down the page saw they offered a dish with pineapple. Through my interpreter I asked the waiter for pepperoni pizza, with pineapple.
The interpreter and waiter exchanged a glance. Their brows were furrowed. They looked worried. A serious discussion ensued. This is a routine I would come to know well. There’s an old saying that a horse is a camel by committee. And it turns out Russia is crawling with camels.
So I waited until the discussion ended.
“There is a problem,” my interpreter informed me. “Is not possible.”
It was explained that while yes, there was pizza with pepperoni, and yes, there was pineapple, there was no way to know the cost of a pizza with pepperoni and pineapple. The system did not allow for this diversion.
I knew the waiter and the interpreter and the cook were not trying to be difficult. They simply couldn’t see their way around the dilemma. They were not empowered to make decisions.
This isn’t a story about an unfulfilled hankering for a fancy piece of Italian pie. Rather, it is a telling example of the endemic indecisiveness rampant in Sochi. It extends from front line staff, like the waiter I described, to hotel mangers, civic officials and beyond. I would soon learn that everywhere I turned, I was stymied by the inability to elicit a firm decision about myriad things – from day to day minutia to critical queries essential for my clients to move forward with their business.
It’s as though the population is still walking around with a hangover from earlier days when one misstep could invoke dire consequences. They will not risk an answer, a comment, or even go so far as to express an opinion, for fear they may be overheard and suffer recriminations. The FSB is perceived to be everywhere, and as the federal police force, exert tremendous power. Should an individual “fall out of favor” they risk losing business or the wealth that may trickle down from the top.
People cannot be expected to have an intrinsic knowledge of how to make decisions. Without nurturing, independent thought withers on the vine. Getting things done in the face of this reality poses a serious challenge. (More on that to come.)
As I ate my pepperoni pizza, I couldn’t help but think that many of those yet to arrive in Russia to operate the Games and expecting the same set of parameters will soon discover they may have bitten off more than they can chew.
Even without the pineapple.