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The International Writers Magazine: Sochi 2014

Vodka With Sochi
• Dean Borok
Conditions for the Sochi games couldn’t be more optional. The snowboarding events televised last night showed dreamy packed snow and cloudless sunshine that would electrify any skiing enthusiast. It’s as though Putin had found a way to even control the weather.


Putin’s exhilaration at developing Sochi as a year-round luxury tourist resort must be akin to that felt by the developers of modern South Beach, or the geniuses who saw the potential of Cancun in 1970 – a gold mine if you could develop it properly. Putin’s main focus is on providing Russians a Russian perspective of modernity, to entice Russian tourists to spend their money in Russia, and to demonstrate to the countries that compose its sphere of influence of the material and cultural advantages of adhesion to the Russian system. With seashore and skiing, all it would lack to rival the French Riviera would be a casino. Russia’s main competition is not the U.S., but the EU, which is aggressively battling Russia in Eastern Europe and is expanding eastward. The EU, which I consider to be the modern instrument of French expansionism, recently announced its plan to build a high-speed train link connecting Paris to Tallinn, Estonia, which will traverse the former eastern bloc countries of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The EU has also been at the heart of the riots in Ukraine, as that country’s citizens battle it out over which trade community it prefers to join.

sochi Putin consecrated $50 billion of Russia’s resources to construct Sochi, the very thought of such extravagance being offensive to other countries, where the rending of clothes and tearing out of hair over cost is already a stock element of Olympic comedy.

“It costs too much”, they scream, “Who’s going to pay for it?” This has been a familiar litany for as long as I can remember. I personally recall all the nagging and caterwauling that served as a Greek chorus accompaniment to the construction of the Montreal Olympics of 1976, which cost all of a billion dollars. The Atlanta Olympics were staged on such a meager shoestring budget and accompanied by such low marketing that visitors complained that the place was hardly more than a fast-food court. When Mitt Romney was called in to oversee the Salt Lake City games, one of his cost-cutting innovations was to sell for 25cents cups of Pepsi that the corporation had donated for free distribution. When Romney visited the site of the London Olympics, he declared that he had looked “out of the backside of 10 Downing Street” and found the site wanting. He intimated that he could have done a better job, which earned him the Fleet Street equivalent of a mosh pit gob shower from the London press.

St. Petersburg was not the result of tens of thousands of years of continual habitation and social evolution like Paris. It was entirely the inspiration of Czar Peter the Great, whose mania for Russian glory and modernism surely informs Putin’s thinking. Like Peter, Putin is not inhibited by meddling boyars or deputies standing in his way, so he has unlimited access to the public treasury, not to mention to the resources of the oligarchs who are beholden to him. Such as Oleg Deripaska who co-funded the Sochi Olympics, although Mr Deripaska disputed the media's claims of overspending: "There is not $51bn for sure - it's around 25, 27 in total". He claimed in a BBC interview 2.10.14

Sochi is Putin’s St. Petersburg and his Potemkin Village, which was a fake town constructed like a movie set façade on the banks of the Dnieper River to fool Catherine the Great into believing in the prosperity of the Crimean region of Russia. Putin’s thinking encompasses all of these elements and more, in a psychology that would be a fitting subject for a thick novel by Dostoyevsky.

Given the extent of his power and resources, it’s no wonder that he is the target of the world’s opprobrium and animosity. Certainly, there is much to loathe about the man, especially given his worldwide reach. Critics drop dead in London from barium poisoning. Oligarchs who defy him get all their wealth confiscated and rot for years in Siberian prisons, just like under the czars. He insists on arming the Syrian dictator who has initiated unspeakable atrocities, in return for access to a Russian military naval base in Tartus, on that country’s Mediterranean shore. Russia is moving ahead on all fronts. They just unveiled the largest, heaviest jet in the world, the Antonov 225, which is 10 meters longer than the Airbus A-380 and capable of carrying an entire 747 jumbo jet in its cargo hold. I don’t know why some airline doesn’t buy a fleet of these monsters, outfit them with a thousand or fifteen hundred seats and serve the New York-Miami route with tickets selling for $29.99. I bet that would increase traffic!

But, all in all, which Olympic host country has not had a nasty national history? When China hosted the games, nobody complained that fully one-third of that country’s national territory, the provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, are under permanent military occupation to suppress their restive liberation movements, with bloody rioting, bombings and self-immolations occurring at any moment.

When, in the weeks leading up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Mexican radical students demonstrated at the facilities, they were met with army gunfire that killed hundreds. Nobody suggested boycotting the games. Every country has nasty rubbish that it would prefer to sweep under the carpet. I’m not excusing suppression of homosexual culture, such as it exists, but the suggestion that it rises to the level of Hitler’s Berlin Olympics is exaggerated and hysterical. Given the huge achievement and lavish expenditures, and the meticulous preparations that Russia has mobilized, the complaints about pillow shortages and unusual plumbing configurations come across as specious and petty. The unbelievable hand-wringing taking place among U.S. politicians about fear of visiting Sochi has reached a crescendo pitch, reflecting the small-minded, provincial prejudices of their constituents, the same expression of envy and xenophobia which led American citizen groups to try to block landing rights at JFK for the French supersonic Concorde jetliner in 1973.

I dig Russians. They’re cool people, on the whole. I spend whole summers hanging out in Brighton Beach, which is Brooklyn’s Russian enclave community, and the extravagant style of the smart Russians just knocks me out. The only problem I have with the Russians is their food, which I can barely get down at all. Let’s just say that they are gastronomically challenged. They don’t use garlic or olive oil, preferring to boil their food or fry it in butter, and they are clueless about the use of seasonings except for dill, which I hate. Eating Russian food is torture, as I’m sure Edward Snowden is finding out right now. When Peter the Great was recruiting the great architectural geniuses of Europe to design his dream city, he was probably too Russian to consider bringing in some Italian or French chefs to update his country’s eating habits. Being Russian, he probably considered a fistful of roast meat, washed down with about 10 liters of vodka, to be a fantastic repast. After being subjected to that the Russians eat, at the insistence of my girlfriend for years now, I will be shocked to hear any positive commentary about the culinary delights of Russia.
© Dean Borok Feb 9th 2014

Dean Borok

People, as a rule, are not interesting. That’s why they need artists, to make them seem fascinating.

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