Thursday, February 13, 2014

Silenced by Paranoia

After several days of recovery, I've decided to continue this story where I left off.  I originally posted my last post in the early afternoon of February 6, shortly before I left to go to the Olympic Park for our final rehearsal before opening night.

I left an important credential in my room, went back to retrieve it, and for the first time since I arrived in Sochi, I was late to work.

Now that I am safely in America, I can be a little more honest about my opinions of my situation in Russia.  It is a difficult place.  Adler reminds me in many ways of a town along the Mexican border.  The infrastructure is quite poor.  Essentially, everything you hear about Sochi is true, however it can be worse than what is leaked in the Western media.  Many of these "horrific" pictures online are of new places, while most of the workforce and volunteer staff stay at old accommodations containing any egregious number of safety concerns. Yes, the water can be colored or heavily bleached. The worst treatment concerns the meals for the workforce and volunteer staff who for days on end receive two or sometimes three meals per day merely of one scoop of noodles or grain and a hot dog.  Tea and mayonnaise are available as well.  Although I cannot empirically prove it, the meals do not exceed more than a couple hundred calories each.  Because of the poor nutrition, a large number of staff and workers were sick for weeks, and are still sick today.  Staff wait for 1.5 to 2 hours and until 1 or 2 am for their dinner.  The culture of standing in line doesn't exist in Adler as hoards of people crash into the cafeteria lines desperate for food.  Some skip the meager dinner out of frustration or exhaustion of waiting and competing for their food.  With that said, the most difficult part of my experience was not the infrastructure, but the general work ethic.  With a nearly impossible public transit system, long commute, a poor diet, poor work organization, and few smiles, it is easy to understand why the general work ethic would not be like it is in other parts of the world.

My now infamous meal of onions, pickled beets, and herring

Spooky amusement park (still operating)

Puppies playing

The new part of town

The walk to work, through an operating construction zone.

Mad rush for food, turns into an hour-long standstill

A good dinner - no processed meat and a rare vegetable (20 peas)
A stroll in the park
Given all of these frustrations, I cannot express how embarrassed I was to be late to work for that first time.

I am lucky in that I had a private driver to take me all the way to my work site.  While others take hours to get work, it only took me 20 minutes.  I ran into the management office, and was asked to sit for 30 minutes while my supervisor finished speaking to another person.  My supervisor, a Russian speaker, needed the help of two translators to give me the following message.  She was incredibly sorry and repeated that several times but her supervisors, all of whom I will not make public, were informed that I was put on "a list".

In this initial conversation, I was told that due to my speaking to the media and due to my blog, I was releasing information that was dangerous or perhaps illegal.  I was completely unaware of this.  Of my two interpreters, one was very helpful and the other was exceedingly condemning of me.  So, when I was escorted to the police headquarters, I took along the nicer interpreter.

I arrived to a small room, no bigger than a bedroom, filled with computers and five agents.  I was not introduced to them.  I didn't know who they were or who they were with or what they do.  Immediately they told my supervisor and interpreter to leave, but I laughed and told my interpreter that if she left then it will be a pretty short interview.  No one thought it was funny.  My interpreter stayed with me and there commenced a very long interrogation.  I was scared to death, shaking even.

The conversation immediately began with talk of my deportation - the day before the ceremony.  Why?  Well, I had the same question.  He told me that I am not allowed to talk to anyone: about Russia, about what I'm doing in Russia, about what I feel like, and I am not allowed to even say that I am not allowed to say anything.  He didn't quote anything specifically, but he just wanted to know if I understood as if I should know better.  The week before I heard rumors that others were signing documents of a sort, but those never reached me.  I felt as if I was being tricked into confessing something.  So, I told him that although I understood the question, I did not understand why I couldn't speak to anyone.

The interrogation continued.

They were very interested in how I gained some of my information including the price tag for the Games, of which I mentioned a Moscow newspaper.  They spoke for awhile about the picture of the warship that I posted (seen below).  They wanted to know every question I was asked in interviews alluding to the western media's fixation on the gay rights issue, security presence, preparation of the venues, eradication of stray dogs, and my response to it.  I of course did not comment on such topics to the media as I valued my safety.  They were trying to read from a screen that had translated my blog and the media articles into Russian, so many of the comments were not translated correctly, especially jokes.  I pretended not to understand their cursing and their "stupid American" comments.  I played it as innocently as possible.

They were upset that I posted this picture

By the end of the interrogation, I was instructed to cancel my last interviews - one of which that evening would be aired live on national TV in Russia - and to delete my blog posts about Russia.  Now, I had no problem deleting my blog as I know that Google cache's every web page, so I could easily retrieve everything again.  I logged on to my account on their police computer knowing that they had complete access to all of my account, deleted my posts, and they told me that I could not talk to anyone again.  Not knowing what would happen in the future, and frankly, concerned for my own well-being, I texted three people a very brief synopsis of what happened.

From then on, my goal was to do my job and then get the heck out of Dodge.

When I returned to my room that night, I immediately packed everything in case I needed to leave in a hurry.  The Opening Ceremony went spectacularly (and I'll have that post soon), and the day following, I went to the airport six hours in advance of my flight to Moscow.  After reaching Moscow, at passport control, a woman was having a nervous breakdown behind me and I was ushered past quickly so the control officer could deal with her.  I was on my way to the USA.

When I landed at JFK airport in New York, wearing my Sochi Olympic gear, the American passport agent asked me why I would be returning if the Olympics just began.  As quickly as I could, I said that I was part of the opening ceremony, coming back to teach but a few days ago I was interrogated by some security forces (still unknown to me), they kept me from communicating with anyone about anything, and I AM SO HAPPY to see you!  He laughed in amazement, said the ceremonies were incredible and gave me a fist bump, and he gave me a very welcome "welcome home".

I love the Olympics, but I missed America!

1 comment:

  1. interesting! look forward to your future blogs. good or bad about russia. thanks

    ReplyDelete