Not Exactly the Land of Smiles

As they gear up for the 2014 Winter Olympics, young Russians find themselves exercising some little-used facial muscles.

Mikhail Mordasov
Mikhail Mordasov

SOCHI, Russia — The quiet classroom slowly filled with young but gloomy faces. These young Russians had traveled from all across their country to attend a training course in Sochi, the resort city on the Black Sea that’s set to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. They had all volunteered to work as greeters, guides, and helpers for the visitors attending the games.

Girls critically examined each other’s outfits, while the boys exchanged a few remarks in low voices. Some seemed spaced out, others a bit shy. Nobody smiled. As they walked into the classroom, some of the girls showed interest in the big video camera on my colleague’s shoulder. Their sidelong glances at us seemed to suggest that they regarded us, the reporters, as aliens.

We were received by Sergei Cheremshanov, a serious man in a gray suit and a tie who’s in charge of preparing 2,000 Olympic volunteers at the training center at Sochi State University, one of 26 centers opened in seven Russian cities by the organizers of the games. Sergei made sure that every newcomer got registered at the front desk. The volunteers’ agenda on the first day, he told me, was to learn about the various jobs they might be doing during the two weeks of winter games. (There are, as yet, no firm assignments for any of the helpers.) The course instructors aimed to teach their young charges how to offer help to their guests, which included rehearsing some polite phrases in English. "And, by the way, try to smile," Cheremshanov urged the students. But that, it turned out, was easier said than done.

Tall, handsome, and naturally friendly, my colleagues from Australian television felt lost as soon as they arrived in the country. (One of them, a TV sports reporter from Melbourne named Brad McEwan, worked as a commentator during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.) When the Australians and I met in the Moscow airport before heading off to Sochi, the first question they asked me was, "Why doesn’t anybody smile in Russia?" It had clearly dawned on them that they were now half a world away from sunny Australia. It’s true: most Russians don’t smile randomly, and they tend to avoid eye contact with strangers. Why? Struggling to answer the Australians’ question, I found myself referring back to one of those old Russian proverbs: "Laughter without a reason is a sign of foolishness."

I asked some of the Sochi volunteers what they have to be happy about. Lo and behold, the biggest celebrity in the crowd, a dark-haired beauty named Vlada Krupkina, produced a lovely smile. She told me how happy she felt earlier this month when she was among a small group of volunteers selected to accompany Russian president Vladimir Putin during the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony on Red Square. "Clearly it was Vlada’s beautiful smile that helped her to meet with Putin," McEwan told me. "Without showing your personality, without smiling to people, you’re not going to get far in 2014."

McEwan didn’t only do a story about the volunteers; he also made a presentation to them in which he described the key elements that made the Olympics in Sydney such an unforgettable success: "There were thousands of happy volunteers everywhere with big smiles on their faces," he told the young Russians. To warm up the crowd, he gave them a little lesson on Australian English pronunciation: "Repeat after me: ‘G’day, mate!’" McEwan’s sally immediately broke the ice: the entire audience burst out laughing.

Today’s Sochi is far removed from the paradise it used to be before the Olympic construction boom. Bulldozers, cranes and excavators raise clouds of dust all over down town. Traffic jams choke the city day and night. Not everyone has shared in the bounty. Olga Samarina, an intelligent-looking volunteer with thick golden hair, told me about the challenges young people face when they come to study or work in Olympic Sochi: "Sochi is an aggressive city, spoilt with big money," she said. "It’s a real struggle for anyone who comes from other cities to study and work here."

The athletes and guests who will be arriving in Sochi in a little over 100 days from now expect to feel comfortable, and to many, "comfort" also means a welcoming atmosphere. It took almost two years for the organizers of the Sochi Games to select 25,000 volunteers from 200,000 applicants. Apparently, though, there wasn’t enough time to train all of them how to smile. "The idea of constantly smiling isn’t really a part of our traditional mentality," Viktor Teplyakov, a leading official from the ruling United Russia Party, told me. "We have a lot of troubles and burdens weighing us down all the time." Teplyakov is responsible for coordinating the army of volunteers during the Olympics; so one can presume that he knows what he’s talking about. "Don’t expect the Sydney scenario in Russia," he said. "Our volunteers will look more like  Chinese. Even I can’t relax at home if I need to rest and feel happy. I prefer to travel in Europe."

Let’s face it: Russian history has more than its share of depressing topics. Many young people haven’t seen their parents smile a lot. Sadness is ingrained in their DNA. But I suspect that the Olympics could prove an exception. The volunteers will meet people from all over the world, and they’ll spend the rest of their lives carrying photos of themselves with the foreign friends they’ll make during the two weeks in February.

Back at the training center, volunteers were making wishes. Some of them walked over to the brightly lit plastic heart mounted on a stand in the training center and touched it for good luck. The pedestal bore an inscription: "Sochi.ru 2014 Volunteer Heart." Olga Samarina told me that she wants to travel to Ireland one day, while Vlada Krupkina wished that the Sochi games will be the best in Olympic history. But that’s just her latest big dream. The earlier one had already come true: She had seen Putin.

 Twitter: @annanemtsova

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