ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Behind the shimmering $50 billion facade of the Winter Olympics, beneath the shiny wrapping of Vladimir Putin’s gargantuan gift to the world, lie traces of a Russia that never changes: sometimes frustrating, often bizarre and always strange and exciting.
Winston Churchill famously called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, and the country’s contradictions and incongruities were on full view in Sochi.
Take the opening ceremony, where scenes of lyrical beauty, like a glittering ball where hundreds of dancers recreated a famous passage from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, were interspersed with ludicrous cheesy moments.
Whose idea was it to get a choir of policemen to perform Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, with a couple of soloists grooving on down while their ranks of colleagues stood stiffly in peaked caps, ties, and olive-green uniforms with yellow brocade?
True, one cannot psychoanalyze a whole country based on a sporting event, but there were moments at the Olympics that illustrated an age-old tension in Russia: on the one hand an intense Slav pride and belief in the country’s unique destiny, on the other a desire to imitate the West and out-dazzle it.
Not so much faster, higher, stronger; more like costlier, shinier, bling-ier.
The old Russia vied with the new. Enthusiastic crowds flocked to the venues, many clad in the bright, trendy and expensive clothing of Bosco, the fashion chain that dressed the Russian team and provided the garish technicolor outfits of the 18,500 Olympic volunteers.
Some wore huge letters across their chests and sat in groups to spell out the word ROSSIYA. Others painted their faces, like sports fans the world over, to display the national flag in white, blue and red.
Yet in some ways they were quaintly old-fashioned, throwing bouquets on to the ice to show their appreciation for the figure skaters, or joining in chants of MO-LOD-TSY (‘Good lads’) to salute a fine performance.
Part of the challenge of understanding Russia stems from the language barrier, a tricky issue for the overwhelming majority of the foreign athletes and visitors to the Games.
Asked which items in her shop were proving most popular, a souvenir seller replied: “February 7th to March 23rd.”
Invariably, though, the obstacles were overcome with willingness and smiles.
“Our cleaner’s been great. We’ve had Google Translate on our phone to try and talk to her. ‘What were you looking for in the bathroom?’ - that was the one for today,” said British bobsleigh athlete Rebekah Wilson. “It took a few goes. I was looking for soap... We did find it in the end.”
Bathroom issues were something of a running theme, as it were, for many visitors to the Games.
“We had yellow water in our bath yesterday and so we called the front desk to say: ‘We have yellow water in our bath,'” said U.S. spectator Sara Resnick. “They said ‘Don’t worry, it’s not poison. But just don’t put it in your mouth.'”
Mindful of the security problems in Russia’s North Caucasus, which overshadowed the build-up to the Olympics, Resnick’s friend Karen Kammerer from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was disconcerted by a cross-cultural encounter on a bus.
“There’s a guy sitting behind me and he wanted my hat and I didn’t want to give it, but he wanted to know where to buy USA stuff. So he says ‘You’re from the USA, right?’ I said ‘Yes, where are you from? He said ‘Chechnya’.”
Kammerer pronounces the word ‘Chechnya’ in doom-laden tones, as if it were ‘Mordor’, but fortunately the incident passed off calmly.
“I said: ‘Am I safe?’ He goes: ‘Just because I have a beard doesn’t mean I‘m going to do something.’ Of course I‘m thinking: ‘Oh boy...'”
Transport - by elevator, bus or cable car - provided a rich seam of observations and anecdotes in Sochi.
Should one recoil or marvel at the sight of a Russian bus driver negotiating a series of mountain hairpin bends one-handed, while using the other to hold his mobile phone?
At the foot of the cable car to the ‘Extreme Park’ ski venue, opposite the vast and apparently deserted Ethnographical Museum, should one take the staircase or risk a journey in the elevator, which displays the following sign?
“NOTICE! In case if elevator stops for period of more than 3-5 minutes, please call: 1. Dispatcher (number supplied). 2. Responsible person - I. A. Belko.”
So many unanswered questions, large and small.
Why, after paying for a basic canteen-style meal at the bobsleigh press centre, are you presented with a receipt marked “Sanki VIP lounge”?
Why were some journalists evacuated from their apartment late one evening, with fire warnings in four languages, only to be left shivering in the street with no further information?
Why are Russian road builders so allergic to the idea of left turns - an aversion that means you sometimes have to travel several miles to find an underpass to double back, and leaves you constantly paranoid that you’ve caught the wrong bus?
For a visitor who first came to Russia a few weeks after the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the contrast with the drab Soviet past, just a generation ago, is little short of surreal.
Where once they queued for cabbage and bread, they now stand in line for pricy Bosco gear, or to have their photo taken with a two-meter high polar bear, leopard and hare, the mascots of the Olympics.
At night, in the Rosa Khutor mountain village, pop star MakSim belts out songs from a stage guarded by Cossacks in black woolly hats, baggy pants and high boots, while swaying Russian spectators take photos with their tablets and Iphones.
But beware: these are glimpses of a country transformed, but this is Olympic-land.
“It’s like some country inside Russia itself, it’s not comparable to the rest of Russia. You barely have any local people living here,” said Swiss tourist Christian Kasermann.
“Everybody is some kind of foreigner, even though they come from Russia.”
The curtain will fall at the closing ceremony, the athletes will head home and the analysts will assess how the Games affect Putin’s legacy. But after the two-week chimera that is Sochi, the real Russia will remain as vast and impenetrable as before.
Additional reporting by Phillip O'Connor, Editing by Ed Osmond