Sochi 2014: They Also Serve Who Stand and Wait

In my last post, I may have given you the impression of a society where the average Russian feels uneasy expressing an opinion because the walls may have ears. The fear of incurring the displeasure of Moscow is real.

Rulers

Oversight

While there is certainly a linguistic barrier, I don’t think it would matter if the Russians I encountered could speak English, German, French or Korean. They are reluctant to offer definitive answers to the simplest questions. Whether seeking directions, dinner recommendations, rates for hotel rooms, or venue rentals, you are left in limbo.

From an unwillingness to deviate from the menu to a weary acceptance of gridlock, Russians seem to be used to this.

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Cossacks

They accept line-ups, traffic jams and electrical brownouts. Furthermore, the police presence on every corner, and pervasive presence of traffic cops, attests to the casual encroachment of the state on daily life. Check out “Cossacks take on Beggars, Drunks” an Associated Press article, which appeared in November of 2012.

These ongoing inconveniences, which Americans and Europeans might find difficult to accept, are met with a resigned complacency.

On my third trip to Sochi, Putin happened to be arriving in the region for a ski trip. Sochi specifically, and Russians, generally, do not seem to have a lot of experience in traffic management. Their solution to Putin’s eminent arrival? Shut down the roads. Literally.

All the main roads, from the airport, to the mountains, and beyond, were closed. The police were positioned every 100 meters. All the major routes completely barred to traffic, just in case Putin had wanted to visit Sochi or the surrounding mountain resorts – and this, simply a precautionary measure.

I sat in the back of a Toyota pick up for five hours waiting for Putin to choose his destination. Can you imagine the backlash in North America?

In the same way Russians accept the inconvenience of gridlock, they also accept the tedium of line-ups. And not just where you might expect them. There are line-ups at airports, of course, but also grocery stores and shopping malls. Virtually every facet of daily life begins at the end of a long line.

A word to the wise: if you want to reach the front, don’t be afraid to get your elbows up, just a little. Russians are motivated by a belief (misguided or not) that if they don’t reach the front of the line first, the bread (or tickets, or ham or whatever) will no longer be available.

And certainly, whoever gets to the front first is the undisputed winner. Then again, maybe that’s just the Russians of Sochi embracing the competitive spirit of the Games. But somehow, I don’t think so.