Weird toilets and missing doorknobs: my love letter to Russia

Say you have a friend. You and this friend have known each other for a long time, and you know all of each other’s quirks and odd habits. And you know there’s a particular trait this friend of yours has that can be really, really annoying. Sometimes you complain about this annoying trait to others, but it’s not bad enough to be a dealbreaker when it comes to your friendship with this person; at the end of the day, all their positive qualities outweigh the annoying habit. And this is fine: you can complain from time to time, because you’re friends. But if anyone else ever mentions how annoying this friend of yours is, you get incredibly upset and go out of your way to defend their honour.

I don’t know how universal this experience is, but it seems that most people I asked have felt, at one point in time, like they alone had the right to diss something or someone, and got really offended if someone else did it in their presence.

This is the best way to describe my feelings about the trending topic of “Sochi problems.”

This social media phenomenon started last week, when someone from Russia tweeted the infamous picture of two toilets placed beside each other without any dividers. Social media and reporters had a field day cracking jokes about the good old Communist desire to share everything. I had a good laugh as well, only because the idea of a complete lack of privacy in washrooms wasn’t that surreal: back in Russia, I’ve encountered many doorless stalls; and my father, in his university days, was inspired to write a short story about a public washroom where the toilets were placed at the opposite walls, forcing whomever used them to face one another.

As athletes and reporters from all over the world arrived into Sochi this week, the floodgates of social media opened to hundreds of tweets describing the chaos around the Olympic village. Cold rooms with unfinished flooring; suspiciously-coloured water coming out of the taps; doorknobs that fell out of the doors upon the lightest touch; and the infinitely confusing washroom designs. Construction mishaps in Sochi are so notorious that they inspired social media accounts such as SochiProblems, which collect all the appropriately hashtagged tweets into one big embarrassing picture of chaos and disarray.

I, too, find these pictures really funny, and I can see how it would be incredibly frustrating to have an uncomfortable hotel bed at a supposedly world-class event, or have problems with your hotel reservation after a 12-hour flight. Having lived through the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I’m not a stranger to the scrutiny that the host country and city receive from the international community.  A little humour never hurt the Games (remember the somewhat phallic mascots of London 2012?) And sure, I have entertained my friends in Canada with childhood stories about unfinished construction sites for playgrounds, or the anxious waits for the allotted two hours when our apartment block was supposed to have hot water.

But although I have experienced both the inconveniences of life in post-Soviet Russia and the luxuries of life in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, the popularity of #SochiProblems really disturbs me.

Obviously, as a Russian citizen, it’s kind of embarrassing to see your home country hung out to dry because of poor hotel service, but these conditions are not news to anyone who’s ever lived or travelled to Russia. But what surprises me is the traction this topic gained in its short existence. It has gone beyond documenting hilariously unfortunate living conditions, and instead turned into a hunt for more #SochiProblems to share with your Twitter followers.

Unfortunately, just like with your friend’s annoying trait, the construction nightmare in Sochi is an undeniable fact: while being known as the most expensive Olympic games in history, Russia is once again held back by its own poor level of organization, corruption, and the usual inability to own up to any of these problems.  It is pretty devastating to see that Putin’s dream of bringing the spotlight of international attention has turned out in the usual Russian fashion to make the Motherland the laughingstock of the world.

(Not to mention how surprising it is, considering that Russia seemed to have successfully pulled off renovations in the Far East for a major international conference only two years prior to Winter Olympics.)

That is not to say that Russian government officials have exhibited any signs of trying to appease the international community in anticipation of the Olympics. I won’t go into the controversy over the anti-homosexual propaganda legislation, or the decision to grant political asylum to Edward Snowden – this is beyond the scope of this article. These are incredibly serious issues and the extent of global discussions around them has been completely justified. Russia continues to struggle with issues of privacy, human rights violations, and freedom of the press, and these are serious national problems.

But posting a picture of a poorly engineered water fountain is not a way to highlight that.

The majority of the pictures and comments posted on SochiProblems as of February 6, 2014 come from respected public figures, mostly athletes and journalists. As a member of the media, it surprises me that people are using the privilege to share the Olympic experience to tweet about doorknobs. Is it easy clickbait? Are they doing it for the proverbial “eyeballs”? Has it been just a really, really slow news day over in Sochi?

At the end of the day, there are only so many times I can laugh at hilariously mistranslated food labels. I want to hear if the stray dogs are really being killed off in the Rosa Khutor. I want to know how members of the LGBT community feel about competing in this potentially hostile environment. I want to know how prepared the security personnel is for a potential terrorist attack.

Because if you’re going to go off on my annoying friend, you better tell me something I don’t already know.

P.S. I guess I’m not alone in this.

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1 Comment

Filed under Personal/Blog

One response to “Weird toilets and missing doorknobs: my love letter to Russia

  1. A.L.

    That was so well-written and humorous too!

    I must admit, I wouldn’t have known a thing about Sochi (aside from it being a hosting city) and its problems but this was a very sobering piece on Russian politics and how, as first class citizens, that we ‘don’t read the signs’.

    It definitely is an embarassment for international visitors to find that tapped water is unclean, yet this is truly a luxury that we easily take for granted. Much of the world doesn’t have a clean water source, which is why there’s bacterial and viral infections like cholera.

    Given the fact that there was so much time to prepare for this event, the pictures shared by other social media people that uncover Sochi’s problems is no excuse. Corruption definitely at play and there’s no oversight or accountability.

    The problem is, accountability is STILL a major issue in first world countries. We’d be kidding ourselves if we were perfect. Clearly there are lessons to be learned from this and we as citizens are just watching idly by.

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