Smiling volunteers show new face of Russia
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - As a volunteer at the Sochi Olympics, Anna Kostareva's main role is to marshal journalists at the foot of the Rosa Khutor ski slope, but she finds it hard to stop herself dancing on the job.
The infectious cheer of the 29-year-old from St Petersburg, swaying to the music blaring from loudspeakers, typifies the image that Russia wants to show the world at the Winter Olympics: open, warm, friendly, and far-removed from the hatchet-faced stereotype of the Soviet Union.
"St Petersburg is such an overcast city and I go around all serious; here I want to smile all the time, be happy, dance, have fun and fool around, even though I'm nearly 30," said the marketing specialist, who took four weeks' leave from her job to join the 18,500 Olympic volunteers at the Sochi Games.
In their crazy-quilt technicolor jackets, with kaleidoscopic patterns in blue, pink, orange and a few more colors besides, the volunteers present a vivid spectacle - "like jolly little parrots", as Kostareva puts it.
Some 200,000 people applied for the role of 'volontyor' - a recent coinage in Russia, as the older word for volunteer, 'dobrovolets', has more Communist and military connotations.
The job spec called for people who "share the Olympic values", have teamwork, communication and leadership skills, and "readiness to help and solve the most unexpected and difficult tasks".
"We had to do verbal tests, a maths test and an interview partly in Russian and partly in English," said Kostareva, who applied in 2012 and endured a long wait to find out whether she had been successful.
Of those who made the cut, seven percent were foreigners and
93 percent Russian. They are overwhelmingly young, with more than four in five aged between 18 and 30.
After a build-up overshadowed by security worries and criticism of Russia over human rights, especially the treatment of gays, the role of the volunteers in brightening the country's image has become more important than ever. And there are signs their enthusiasm is winning people over.
"Oh my gosh they're fabulous, they're so welcoming and nice. And they've all practiced their English, they say hello and goodbye - fantastic!" enthused Frances Tourtelot from Denver, Colorado, who said her preconception of Russians had been "very dour and serious".
Julien Lavallee, a visitor from Montreal, Canada, said: "They're starting to be better and better, it's obvious every single day. At first they were a bit confused, they didn't know where to send you and stuff, but now it seems like they have it down. I thought they were cold people before, and now I don't feel that way whatsoever."
In Soviet times, the task of presenting a vital, youthful image of the country would have fallen to members of the Komsomol - the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth, which practically all Soviet youngsters joined, and which served as a platform to become a party member.
"This is different," said Aleksei, a 44-year-old volunteer from Irkutsk in Siberia, who remembers the slogan 'komsomolsky enthusiasm' with ironic disdain.
"The only enthusiasm then was to do something with your friends - not for the party," he said.
Kostareva is too young to have belonged to the Komsomol, as the Soviet Union broke up when she was still a child. But she does remember joining the Oktyabryata or "Little Octobrists" - a children's movement, named in honor of the 1917 October Revolution, which was the first stepping stone towards the Pioneers, the Komsomol and the party.
"They gave us badges of Lenin. I have this childhood memory, I remember we were standing in our school uniform in white aprons, we had this nice uniform for special occasions with white cuffs and a collar.
"Some kind of triumphant music was playing, we were all little, and they put these badges on us and said we were inducted to the Oktyabryata," she said.
"It's part of history. It wasn't really that long ago, but somehow it seems a long time."
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Clare Lovell)