The finest book on Russia I’ve ever read is Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, in which Frazier explains, and then indulges in, what he refers to several times as his “dread Russia-love.” Frazier penned a profile of an artist who had left the Soviet Union for the States, and writer and subject — along with their wives — spent a few inevitable evenings of drinking together. The couples became close. When the USSR collapsed and his friends decided to travel to Moscow, Frazier tagged along with them.
Here’s Frazier, describing his first interaction in Russia:
The passport officer gestured for me to take off my baseball cap. Later I would learn of the remarkable ability possessed by all Russians, even the sweetest and gentlest, to make their faces rock hard instantly when they want them to be. The young officer used the rock face on me, and it had its effect. When he looked down to examine my passport and visa, I noticed my reflection in the glass between us. My face had an expression of deep seriousness and fear that the moment did not, in reality, call for.
I thought about this Sunday evening during an oceanic-themed portion of the closing ceremony of the Sochi Games, in which performers in disco-ball suits that glittered like the nearby Black Sea arrayed themselves in gorgeous ebbs and swells. Finally, they came together to form a human version of the Olympic rings. In the opening ceremony a few weeks ago, the last ring had infamously failed to open. The all-too-easy wisecrack was that whoever was responsible for the malfunction would probably find himself in exile.
But Russians have a sense of humor, too, which is why the dancers who made up the final Olympic ring Sunday night remained huddled in a tight knot. You had to laugh at the self-deprecation and admire the comedic timing: The pose was held just long enough so that when the last ring finally blossomed, it felt like we were all in it together, sharing an inside joke.1 I watched from the main press center, and a group of volunteers behind the help desk all gasped and clapped and beamed with pride. It was a charming wink — as if the host country was reminding everyone that there’s more to this place than initially meets the eye.
At the 2010 Vancouver Games, the closing ceremony contained a similar nod to their first-night screwup, but I don’t want to talk about it, because just the thought of sweaty Gretzky fills me with near-lethal levels of secondhand embarrassment.
Back to Frazier’s book, and Moscow passport control. Here’s what happens next:
When he looked up again to give me back my documents, he saw that I had relaxed, and he let a sly smile show through the rock. It was a kid’s grin, suggested that we had only been playing a game, and I was now a point down.
We all began the 2014 Winter Olympics a point down, let’s be honest. But eventually we stepped back, and let the athletes be the ones to play the games.
The main plaza felt deserted on the final day of the Olympics, as if the Rapture had happened overnight. Only those with tickets to the closing ceremony or the gold-medal men’s hockey game were granted entry, and the rest stood at barriers looking forlorn or trying, as if they’d learned nothing over these past few weeks, to argue their way inside.
In front of Bolshoy Ice Dome, those who had made it past security stood waiting to take photos in front of the Olympic rings one last time. Framed correctly, these snapshots would also feature the checkered blues of the Iceberg Skating Palace, the almost suspiciously cloudless sky, and the rocky, snowcapped Caucasus Mountains that loomed far in the distance yet appeared to be just down the street.
Some Canadians were hogging the pedestal: The group included Bryan Toews and Andrée Gilbert; Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s parents; and a woman in a Getzlaf jersey who I assume was Ryan’s mom. They held a maple leaf flag decorated with Sharpied good-luck wishes. A TV camera crew was on hand shooting footage as they posed first with the mountains in the backdrop, then turned around to catch the bald dome of Bolshoy. “Thanks, everyone, and sorry!” Gilbert finally sang out to the waiting civilians, and the Team Canada moms and dads hopped down and headed into Bolshoy to watch their boys win Olympic gold.
Canada’s semifinal game against the United States had taken place less than 48 hours earlier, but it felt more like weeks. In a matchup so fast you’d miss about a dozen things if you so much as sneezed, the Americans were overwhelmed by the Canadians’ relentlessness, and were underwhelming when it came to getting the puck on net. Canada’s defensive corps, led by Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, rarely let Team USA shoot on goalie Carey Price anywhere other than squarely in the chest. On the other hand, the play that led to Jamie Benn’s deflection goal early in the second period had all the choreography of a Princeton basketball backdoor pass.
The 1-0 score would stand, and would also describe the eventual Canada-U.S. men’s hockey medal count. Successful teams in short tournaments tend to get better and better with every game, peaking at the most important times rather than early on, and that was the case for Canada. It may have enjoyed too-close-for-comfort wins over lesser teams like Latvia and Norway, but as the competition progressed, the team did, too.
Questions that had lingered leading up to the Olympics — who would be in goal? Is Sidney Crosby actually a challenging guy to play with? Why was Chris Kunitz on the team? — grew antiquated by the time the gold-medal game was under way. Price may have had the best defensemen in the world in front of him, sure, but he still only gave up three goals in his five starts. Crosby, goalless until the final but indisputably someone who elevated the level of play whenever he was on the ice, beat Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway to make the score 2-0.2 (Jonathan Toews had netted the first Canada goal, as he did in the 2010 gold-medal game.) And Kunitz, much-maligned Kunitz, scored on a ripper of a shot to give Canada a 3-0 lead over Sweden and seal the game and the gold.
“you know, that was just an example of how hard it is to play with crosby,” tweeted J.R. Lind, tongue in cheek. “not another player in sight.”
“Not quite as dramatic as the other one,” said Crosby, who scored the OT gold-medal winner against the Americans in Vancouver. “Just real solid all the way through. … With each game, we seemed to build more and more confidence.”
The Swedes were playing without center Nicklas Backstrom, who had been logging huge minutes in the tournament. After he arrived at Bolshoy for warm-ups earlier that day, Backstrom was pulled aside and told he’d tested positive for a banned substance. The culprit: Zyrtec-D, an allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine, which is on the no-no list in certain quantities. It’s the responsibility of athletes and team doctors to know this stuff, but you still can’t help but feel bad for Backstrom and Sweden. The test was taken Wednesday, and no one was notified until hours before the game. “We are all very upset,” Swedish GM Tommy Boustedt said at a press conference afterward. “Our feeling is the IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history.”
The win gave Canada gold medals in men’s and women’s hockey, as well as men’s and women’s curling, a fearsome frozen foursome indeed. I guess the Canadians might have had a point with that whole “We Are Winter” thing, though in Sochi, “winter” was a stretch. When Sunday’s game ended, I walked outside just in time to catch a coral sunset over the Black Sea. Palm trees cut silhouettes in the orange and pink, the air was warm, and it was a fitting ending to these summery Winter Games.
The U.S. team followed up its semifinal loss with a horrific 5-0 unraveling against Finland in the bronze-medal game. More than 40 percent of the Finnish population was tuned in to watch as national hero Teemu Selanne scored twice. (He was chosen to carry Finland’s flag in the closing ceremony, but had to miss it to catch the team charter flight.) It was Finland’s fifth hockey medal in the last six Olympics, an utterly impressive record for a country of just more than five million people. On the flip side, the loss was an utter disaster for USA Hockey and its loud gold-medal ambitions. Canada picked up steam throughout the tournament; the Americans slammed hard on the brakes.
“We had a really good team,” said Patrick Kane, who missed on a pair of penalty shots against Finland. “We had a good round-robin. And then we had a good game against the Czechs. And then everything kind of turned. We had a one-goal loss, and today was just a really, really weird game.”
I didn’t see the U.S. meltdown, thankfully, because that night, I took the train up to the mountains to watch the biathlon, one of Russia’s most popular sports. Unfortunately, neither Russia’s biathlon team nor its hockey squad had fared well at these Games. Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, & Co. had been eliminated in the quarterfinals, making the hundreds of Coca-Cola vending machines around the venues, with their giant photos of Alex Ovechkin’s gap-toothed face, conspicuous and painful reminders of what never came to pass.
The Russian biathletes had also thus far failed to medal, all falling short of the podium after Mikhail Prokhorov — who in addition to owning the Brooklyn Nets is also the president of the Russian Biathlon Union — said he’d resign if the team didn’t earn at least two golds. One biathlete, Ekaterina Glazyrina, was kicked off the team after denigrating the union on the Russian version of Facebook, VKontakte. Apparently a joke was making the rounds that the hockey players were sentenced to be shot by the biathletes as punishment for not medaling — no one ended up hurt.
The trip was a nice escape from Olympic Park, which was starting to feel like being in Groundhog Day, and also a reminder of the world around and outside the Games. I’d taken the media shuttle on my past trips north, but this time I opted for the public train, which was part of a project that reportedly cost billions and hummed smoothly alongside the similarly expensive road.
“Russian railways: the way to win!” said one sign on the train, posted where you’d find a Dr. Zizmor ad on the New York City subway. “The area of high achievement!” “7,000 starts every day!” Outside the window was a river the color of alpine runoff. On my way to the gondola station, I passed vendors selling biathlon-related souvenirs, like mugs decorated with stern-looking pictures of the country’s top athletes.
One of the enormous cable-car systems was not working, so I was directed elsewhere. As we climbed, I turned back and looked down into the valley. Huge complexes — hotels, restaurants, malls with plenty of retail space available for rent, transit hubs, Olympic venues — were glowing below. It was hard not to wonder which lights might eventually flicker out, and when. The wide walkway along the river looked like it had been built to accommodate a crush, but there weren’t too many people in sight.
I ended up on a small shuttle van to the venue, and a man in a fur hat hopped on with a boy no more than 6, who was carrying a little fake ax. The father had the biathlon queued up on his phone, and the two of them watched the proceedings intently during the drive.
The delays meant we missed most of the race, but it didn’t matter: Russia, finally, had won gold. A fan wearing a puffy coat striped like a Russian flag and an impressively ornate headpiece depicting Russia’s double-headed eagle symbol held both hands in the air. Soldiers goose-stepped out with three flags, and the Russian one was flown highest as the national anthem played.3 One night earlier, the Ukrainian women’s relay team had finished first, and amid the shocking violence in Kiev, it was the sort of victory that made the Olympics seem both tiny and big all at once.4
In 2000, Vladimir Putin reverted the anthem to a modified version of the old Soviet one.
One writer, the Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie, was covering extreme sports in Sochi one day and then flew to report on the carnage in Kiev the next — a grim reminder of life outside the bubble.
Before we left for the airport after the Games had ended, I stopped in one last time to the hockey bar in our hotel lobby; the guys there had told us they would be having a farewell party. A lot of people compare the Olympics to summer camp for adults, and they’re right, but I found it more like college: the eye-opening education, the diversity of people and ideas, the all-nighters, and that I’m going to sleep hard as soon as I get home. I’ve always been terrible at good-byes, even in college; I hate leaving places and tend to really, really miss people. I’d also been afflicted by that ol’ “dread Russia-love.”
I knew I would miss the bar operators — Sasha, Igor, and Vlad — the most. Over the last week, they had been exceedingly kind. Sasha had even patiently helped me learn Cyrillic. Reading material was scarce, so my lessons were limited to deciphering the highly technical language of a workplace safety manual, and at one point my only Rosetta Stone was a tube of kid’s sunscreen.5
“Hypoallergenic!” I had exclaimed proudly. The whole thing was like the Shirley Baker/“All the Way” Mae scene in A League of Their Own.
Vlad went in the back and returned with a small, pocket-size book about Polugar, a bread wine that seemed like vodka but wasn’t, exactly. I could make out words like “product” and “spirits.” They signed it “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE XXII OLYMPICS SOCHI” on the front in English. In the back, in careful Cyrillic block letters you’d use to teach children, they wrote:
On the final night, Vlad set out several bottles of the Polugar, and taught everyone how to drink it: First, rub some on your hands, place them over your face, and inhale. Drink, but don’t swallow: Breathe in, breathe out, savor the moment. Like yoga, basically. When one writer from Buffalo entered, Vlad began pouring. “No, no, I can’t,” said the exhausted man.
Beneath his floppy, lush hair, Vlad’s features turned into the granite that Ian Frazier described.
“This is final celebration,” he said. It worked.
Sasha and I talked about the closing ceremony. He made reference to one of the last scenes, when the slightly terrifying bear mascot shed a single tear for the close of the Games. He traced a line from his eye down his cheek with his finger.
“I was like bear,” he said.
I was like bear, too, at that point. Sasha tried to cheer me up with a Russian proverb, but he had trouble translating it into English.
“Basically it means, everything has to end, and that’s just the way,” he said. I told him that was a really Russian thing to say.
He thought again and then told me about a “very nice cartoon” from his childhood. Tiger and Monkey go for a walk on a cloudy day, periodically being joined by new friends along the road — Beaver, Elephant, Hippo, et al. They stroll on and on, having a wonderful time with one another, but at some point, they have to turn around. Each new friend returns home along the way back, until only Tiger is left. When he gets home, he is sad it is over, but happy to have taken the walk.