One thing I enjoy doing is drawing people’s attention to ideas, points of view and ways of thinking they weren’t aware of before (in addition to books and movies, but that’s another story). I came across this article by Sarah Kaufman about the Sochi Olympics and the Twitter account @SochiProblems, which “collects complaints in the form of photos or microblogs of Westerners traveling in Sochi, and churns them out in meme-like tweets, with the written voice of a Russian who speaks poor English.” I can’t help but agree with Kaufman’s assessment of the situation, that “#SochiProblems Is More of An Embarrassment For America Than It Is For Russia.” We have western journalists, media and public complaining and mocking Russian and Sochi’s lack of what we would consider basic amenities (or their standard), while forgetting that those conditions *and worse) are daily reality for the residents of Sochi.
I am sure that Sochi is only representative of probably many Russian communities, and then representative of many many places around the world that feature living conditions lower than thosein our comfortable first world countries.
Oops – isn’t Russia a first world country? I suppose that is partial reason for the mockery – we wouldn’t mock sub-Saharan Africa, which we (I, anyway) enjoyed watching in Michael Palin’s Sahara. Instead, we saw an interesting look at the ‘quaint’ of those in what we might view as a backwards part of the world. And that’s comfortable because it distances their experience from being directly compared to ours (and thus we don’t have to be sympathetic to the ‘other’). When we see Russia in the limelight with Sochi, and other parts of eastern Europe (in Palin’s record of his travels there – ‘New Europe’), the experience isn’t so comfortable, because we directly compare ourselves to them (the old superpower rivalry). Through the international presence reporting on the Olympics and their stay in Sochi we are placed within that experience, with the expectation of ‘normal’ western, first world circumstances. As these appear to have not been met to the standards that were anticipated, we are forced to deal with this not as some distant country, but as one we might place in the same class as our own, having cast them as significant threat to be competed with in various arenas (military and space technology; the ability to topple, replace and control other countries; the Olympics), and now being disappointed. So much of the west’s (and America’s in particular) view of the Cold War and Russia as a threat, and implicitly, as a potential equal, relied on them actually being up to the task of competing with the United States (and NATO) – justifying investment and spending on projects to compete, match and surpass them in every way. The Cuban missile crisis and the latter half of the space race are examples where this perception of Russia’s ability to trump America’s achievements was seriously flawed, but that’s another story.
This is why we see Sochi mocked in ways that we wouldn’t see Ethiopia or other African countries, to whom we send pity and aid.
Maybe rather than mocking we should respond to Sochi’s issues by realising that there are many in the world that do not live like us, or in the conditions that we are privileged to enjoy (I sometimes feel that way living here in the US, compared to Australia, which was unexpected). We might be temped to pity, but after seeing Sahara and particularly New Europe, it is hard to exactly pity people who are happy and working hard towards education and development in many areas. Instead, we might desire to engage with them, to help and work with them.
Surely education and economic development of less prosperous and technologically disadvantaged regions of the world can only benefit all of us, economically yes, but also culturally, as we encounter and engage with other peoples, cultures and ideas, and ourselves enriched by the them.