SOCHI, Russia -- Unfinished hotels, packs of stray dogs with a price on their heads, warnings not to drink the strange-colored water. Westerners coming to Sochi for the Winter Olympics seemed surprised by all this. Their widely reported comments have been somewhere between sardonic and suffering, as if they'd ended up in a real-life Fawlty Towers.
But for a Westerner who's lived in Russia for 15 years, there's a flip-side surprise: Vivid problems aside, the Olympics and ancillary development show some promising signs for the country.
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When the dead hand of communism that had weighed down Russia for seven decades was lifted in 1991, optimists believed the country would spring up and busily reconstitute itself along the lines of its European neighbors. Instead, Communism proved to be like an isotope with a long half-life, debilitating the country long after. Inefficiency, obstinacy and surliness lost their grip only gradually.
Viewed in that light, Sochi 2014 looks like progress. Many Russians, who long endured shabby Soviet construction and slow-moving workers, are heartened.
"We thought it would never be finished," says Vadimir Havartian, who lives on the edge of the coastal Olympic developments. But now, he says, "You can't recognize this place ... very pretty."
Some of Sochi's standouts:
The volunteer corps at the Olympics and staff at hotels have proved to be not just competent but friendly, even occasionally asking if someone needs help. In individual doses, it's a small thing; collectively, it's huge. Although Russians tend to be welcoming and generous in their homes, in public they are often dour and abrupt -- if they even recognize your existence. Catching the attention of a store clerk can be a challenge, a smile on the sidewalk almost unseen.
Communism did much to discourage personal expression and contact with strangers, and it gave people little to smile about on the street. So the Sochi workers' friendliness indicates more than just good training; it suggests that they feel secure enough in their own lives to drop their protective shells and engage with the world. Although Sochi is just a minuscule corner of a gargantuan land, the volunteers will be taking their attitudes home and perhaps spreading the sunshine.
The signature building of the Soviet Union was the giant dull tower block fronting on a blank expanse of land. After the Soviet collapse, Russia built even more of them, seemingly unable to adapt to the idea of aesthetic appeal and scaling buildings to not make humans feel like ants. Public buildings were mostly just as bad, only larger.
Much of the new construction in Sochi, however, is pleasant and even inspiring.
The speedskating arena could have been little more than a box, but it's elaborated with fairings that mimic the skaters' speed and intense leans into the curve. The main hockey rink reflects Russian's almost cultish devotion to the sport -- a graceful elliptical dome sitting on a hillock, approached by a sweeping staircase like a temple. The figure skating arena, with its jolly facade of aqua and blue panels, is as light and decorative as the sport itself.
The Rosa Khutor resort village, below the slopes for the Alpine skiing events, has a strong "new urbanism" aspect: mostly buildings of five or six stories arrayed along narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets and interspersed with small piazzas. The architecture's mix of Austrian and Italian elements may seem anomalous in the Russian Caucasus, but it's easy to picture people actually living here, not just coming for a holiday.
Even some of the widely dissed media hotels have their upside. Instead of being monoliths, they are small settlements of lowish buildings arrayed around human-scale public spaces. If people actually use them once the games are over, they could be agreeable holiday villages for middle-income people.
Interurban trains in Russia can be a daily misery -- grimy and noisy, with hard seats. The new lines built for the Olympics, smooth and comfortable, give hope to commuters throughout the country.
Russian Railways appears eager to capitalize on its experience in Sochi. The initial pieces of rolling stock for the Sochi lines was built in Germany by Siemens, but some later ones were built in Russia under a joint venture deal. More are to be produced under that arrangement, with the amount of Russian content eventually rising to 80 percent, for use elsewhere in the country.
A Russian folk saying has it that the country's two woes are "fools and roads," so the highway developed to lead into the jagged mountains for snow sports is also raising some Russians' spirits.
"It's accessible, transport is good, the roads are good, it's a great atmosphere," says Igor Negubailo, a spectator from the regional capital of Krasnodar.
Perhaps the hardest blow to Russia's image in the Olympics has been reports of a wide program to exterminate the stray dogs who wander the city. Especially painful is that these dogs are generally an agreeable bunch, rather ragged but generally polite.
In a heartening offshoot to a heart-rending situation, some people in the area mobilized to rescue as many dogs as possible. Although a small initiative compared to the number of animals in danger, it is a notable example of spontaneous charity, a quality still relatively rare in Russia.
If it proves to be more than a brief burst of action and if it spreads to other cities where strays proliferate, including Moscow, that could show that Russia is finally developing a genuine civil society.