Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sochi: Beyond Politics

I will be looking for my Russian neighbor in the eyes and faces of the crowd during the Sochi Olympics



Before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, begin, let me just way that I’m looking forward not only to an awesome festival of international sport, but to learning something—beyond typical, shallow, divisive political rhetoric—of the heart, soul, and wonder of Russia and it’s people.

I read what the American mainstream news media is saying, I know their storylines and the predicable trajectories of their storylines. Yes, we’re all cynically primed to filter and discount Vladimir Putin’s propaganda. Yes, we know there is always wool that is attempted to be pulled over the viewing world’s eyes. Yes, we are aware of persistent obfuscations and justifications and rationalizations. Give us some credit and give us a break.

In the face of this, NBC and other news media sources have the opportunity--and responsibility, it seems to me—to go beyond the Olympic Village perimeter, to drill beneath the propaganda--their own and Russia’s--to explore further than what is expected in order to give the world a fresh insight into the lives of Russians and into a land much of the world has been conditioned to suspect and disregard.

Many of us were raised to despise and fear the Soviet Union. We are children of the Cold War and the constant specter of nuclear holocaust. We readily recall fallout shelter drills, Bay of Pigs brinksmanship, and President Ronald Reagan calling the USSR the “evil empire.” Reagan ramped up an arms race with the USSR, sending our federal budget into deficit with massive defense spending on falsely hyped-up fears.

It was during Reagan’s rhetoric on the Soviet Union that I had something of a mystical experience that changed my perspective on the USSR and what has since become Russia and the cluster of nations in its orbit.

A married young adult with small children, one day in contemplation after one of Reagan’s tough-guy speeches, had a palpable sense that there was in the Soviet Union a young father just like me—a young man who cared for his family and this country and who wondered about the truthfulness of what his leaders were saying about America, just as I wondered about my leaders’ truthfulness about the Soviet Union.

Without seeing him or having a name, I instantly recognized his reality. He was not evil, no more than I was evil. He did not desire my obliteration any more than I desired his. He loved his family as I loved mine. He suspected his government’s version of the story just as I did mine. He was human as I was human. While I knew then—and know now—that I will never meet this man, whom I have come to refer to as my Russian neighbor, his reality changed forever how I regard Russians—and people of any culture outside my own.

Two decades since the breathtaking breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of fledgling democratic-style leadership in numerous nation states in the East, it seems that old patterns are being reasserted. Putin’s reign is widely considered little more than a dictatorship—with the Sochi Winter Olympics a choreographed grandstand for his desire to be regarded as legitimate. Predictably, cynicism and stereotyping now prevail in the West’s perspectives about Russia.

But, as I watch the Winter Olympics, I won't be analyzing Putin and the politics of it. I will be looking for my Russian neighbor. Maybe he is in the crowd at an Olympic venue. Maybe her child is an Olympian. Perhaps he is in a village on which NBC will shine its light for a human interest story. She may be in the Olympic protest zone, or far away in Moscow or St. Petersburg. I will be scanning the eyes and faces of the Russians the news media choose to show us, looking for him--trying to see, to understand, to connect, to believe that, despite all who would divide us, we really are one.

I hope you, too, will be making such a search during the weeks ahead.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA 
www.indybikehiker.com 
www.twitter.com/indybikehiker 
indybikehiker@gmail.com

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