We thought the big controversies in the Sochi Winter Olympics would be toothpaste terrorism or government-sanctioned homophobia. Then the press tried to check into their hotels and discovered a comical array of foibles that will do nothing to boost the Russian tourism industry. But what shocks the traveling press corps—lost hotel reservations, uncovered manholes, unsafe tap water—is nothing new to those of us who have lived in Russia.
As my friend, the Athens-based writer Robin Whetstone, put it, “Russia is the opposite of a public service announcement.” It is a country where one is mocked, as I was, by a nurse for crying out in pain after coming out of anesthesia before the doctor had finished resetting my broken leg. If you want sympathy from a Russian, you’ll have to do better than a mixed-up hotel room.
I ended up in Russia because I wanted to be a spy, but the Cold War ended before I finished my degree in Russian at Lewis & Clark College. So I did my last semester at a former women’s college called the Moscow State Pedagogical University and stayed on for another year or so in various odd jobs in journalism in 1992 and 1993, that is, the swingin’ Yeltsin era.
Because I spoke Russian, my editor and his buddy dragged me along on a train trip to Nizhny Novgorod, the city formerly known as Gorky. During the Soviet era, Gorky was closed to foreigners, making it a perfect place to exile dissident nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov.
Nizhny Novgorod was very much an open city when our train pulled in late that winter night. Getting a cab was no problem, but finding a hotel room was. Finally, our driver found a floating hotel on the frigid Oka River. But there was just one small problem, our driver told us after he inquired about vacancies. They had rooms for us, he said, but first they had to get the bodies out of the lobby.
This we had to see. So we stepped ever so carefully off the icy sidewalk onto the icy, narrow, rickety wooden gangplank into the lobby where we saw two men, soaked to the bone, lying on the carpeted floor. One was dead. The other lay there in his freezing wet clothes thrashing about and moaning. You didn’t need to be a doctor to diagnose hypothermia. Then the paramedics showed up, which is when things got really weird.
More than 20 years later, it still surprises me that the paramedics did not cut off the moaning man’s freezing clothing and try to save his life right there in the hotel lobby. Instead, they put the dead man on their stretcher and asked my editor and I to help carry it to the ambulance. Only once the corpse was safe and secure did they attend to the man who was not yet dead. I would like to report that I had words of comfort for him, but I was too busy trying to keep my footing on the gangplank while holding the stretcher with one hand and the wobbly handrail with the other.
Other than that, it was a really nice hotel. We had a great time in Nizhny Novgorod. I only got a gun pulled on me once, but I did kind of deserve it. Maybe I had lived in Russia for too long by then, but it never occurred me to complain about the hotel. To me, it was an adventure.
So far, the worst thing anyone has reported seeing on the floor of a Sochi hotel lobby was the lack of a floor. The reporters whining about tap water should consider themselves lucky. If you go to a remote city in Russia in the winter expecting world-class hospitality, then you only have yourself to blame. You don’t go to Russia expecting everything to go right. You go expecting things to go wrong and to end up having an unforgettable adventure.