Tag Archives: Russia

Watching the Sochi Olympics makes me wish that I got to grow up during the Cold War

I feel like I’ve been cheated out of the Cold War. With the Sochi Olympics dominating the news and the Internet, pictures of athletes kicking their way through broken bathroom doors, stubborn Olympic rings that refuse to function properly during the opening ceremony, and of course that spirited performance of “Get Lucky” by the Russian men’s police choir, I’ve realized that this is the closest that I’ll get to experiencing a taste of what it must have been like twenty or thirty years ago, when the US and Russia had a real thing going.


Now it’s just a big joke. It’s like I’m really bored on a Friday night, so I grab a bunch of snacks, turn on the TV, and lay down on the couch. Everything is nice for the first couple of hours or so, but as the late night lineup starts, I can’t find the remote, I’m stuck watching a channel that’s no longer playing any programming that I’m even remotely interested in. But I’ve already eaten too many snacks, and I haven’t moved in quite a while, so getting up is out of the question. I’m left watching a reunion show for a sitcom that went off the air way before I was watching sitcoms on TV, like Murphy Brown or Cheers, and I’m seeing best-of clips, all out of context, everything’s dated and none of the references make any sense.

But whatever, everybody says “Norm!” when that fat guy walks in, so I can’t help but laugh. And that’s kind of what watching the Sochi Olympics is like, from a Cold War perspective. Like the men’s police choir, all of those guys are dressed up in these olive green military uniforms, the kinds of costumes I’d expect an army of villains to be wearing in a James Bond movie from the 1990s. But instead of making sinister threats or trying to steal a bunch of nuclear launch codes, they’re all dancing around and singing an operatic Daft Punk cover.


And I don’t know, maybe everything just seems cooler in retrospect, maybe living through the ever-present threat of a nuclear standoff with a foreign superpower wasn’t the action/adventure movie I’m picturing in my mind, but the news that we are getting right now from Russia makes me jealous that I didn’t get to experience that national mindset, a whole era where Americans defined themselves not just by their Americanness, but also by their non-Russianness.

The games are barely underway, and most of the headlines coming out of Sochi have thus far been centered around how silly everything is. Look at the Russians as they scramble to install shower curtain rods and cable boxes at the hastily constructed hotels. Did anybody hear about the snow leopard cub that attacked the reporters after having finished a snuggle session with President Putin?

And what about that malfunctioning Olympic ring during the opening ceremony? That was almost too easy, like I kind of felt bad as everybody pointed and laughed at such an easy symbol of technical incompetence. It’s like watching a little kid score on his own net at a Sunday morning soccer game. Yeah, everybody laughs, and then everybody feels guilty about laughing, and then when you think about it later, it wasn’t really that big of a deal anyway, just poor timing, an unfortunate mistake.

But then I started reading all of these headlines on my Facebook feed, stuff like, “Man in charge of Olympic ring malfunction is found dead; Russian police rule out foul play.” And who knows if this is even true? None of the major newspapers are reporting it. So far it just seems like another crazy Internet rumor.

But it’s this type of news that makes me jealous that I missed out on the Cold War. Some guy messes up a robotic ring so the state orchestrates his murder. Wow, that’s cold. Good thing we live in America. If you mess up here, at least you get a participation trophy. It must have been awesome growing up back then, regardless of how poorly life is going, at least you could imagine how much worse things could be, if only you had been born on the other side of the iron curtain.

America won the Cold War. We stand unrivaled in our supremacy. If we had the Olympics in the USA, not only would that fifth ring have operated like it was supposed to, but I guarantee you there would have been extra rings also, six, seven, eight Olympic circles, all of them red white and blue. But without a rival superpower to rub in their face how awesome we are, what does it mean? It’s all kind of empty.

If things aren’t going great now, we can’t point to Russia anymore and make ourselves feel better. I mean, we can, right now, because it’s the Olympics, but the Olympics are going to be over soon and then we’ll forget about Russia and, who knows when it’s going to enter the national consciousness again? If I have a bad day at work tonight, I can laugh it off when I come home, at least the cops aren’t planning to cover up my murder. But three weeks from now I won’t have that luxury. It’s no solace imagining bread lines or gulags in 1980s red Russia. Whenever I complain, it’s just like, hey asshole, get back to work, what the hell are you whining about? Your parents’ generation won the Cold War and all you do is sit around and bellyache.

I’m just saying, I wish I had my own Cold War to help keep things in perspective.

My cousin spent some time in a Russian prison

One of my cousins got into some trouble years ago while he was backpacking overseas. I’m not too close with him, that is, he was never really too close with the family, once every couple of years he’d show up for Thanksgiving, but besides that, nothing, I didn’t have his cell phone number, he wasn’t on Facebook. Anyway I was in high school when my mom announced at the dinner table that Chris “fucked up really bad, got himself sent to some Russian prison.”

And everybody at the table was like, “What do you mean? Russia? When did Chris go to Russia?” but maybe we were all a little too enthusiastic, bombarding my mom with a bunch of questions she wasn’t really ready to answer, “I don’t know,” was all she would say, “Well what do you mean you don’t know? He’s in Russia?” and she’d say, “That’s what I said, Russia.”

“But how did he get to Russia? What did he get arrested for? Was it guns? Or drugs? Is he involved in some sort of organized crime? Does Chris speak Russian? What did Uncle Steve say? Is he going to go to Russia to try and bail him out?” And my mom was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t … I don’t … I couldn’t tell you … I … I don’t know! All right? OK? I don’t know! Why don’t you call up your Uncle Steve and ask him?”

That was it, really, everybody got quiet after that. Call up Uncle Steve? That would have been nuts. As it was, we all saw Uncle Steve a little more regularly than we did Chris, but what I mean by that is that Uncle Steve actually showed up to Thanksgiving every single year whereas with Chris it was always, “I don’t know if Chris’ll be here. Ask Uncle Steve,” and Uncle Steve would just be sitting in the corner drinking a Manhattan, so nobody ever went over to ask Uncle Steve.

And that was that, for a while anyway, I went away to college, I graduated, I got a bunch of boring jobs. Every once in a while my dad would say something at the dinner table like, “I wonder how your cousin Chris is holding up in Russia,” and we’d all get a little excited, “Did you hear something about Chris? Did you ever figure out how he wound up in Russia?” but I think my dad must have only brought that up as a way to get under my mom’s skin, like maybe they were fighting or something before dinner and they didn’t get a chance to resolve anything, so they’d both be sitting there, my dad would drop the bomb, “I wonder what Chris is up to …” and my mom would get fed up with everyone, “I don’t know! Stop asking me about Chris! I haven’t heard from your cousin in years!”

A couple of months ago my grandfather died, it wasn’t anything sudden, and he was really old, so it was kind of just like, you know, everyone was sad, but it was more of a lament over humanity, over old age than it was over a tragic death in the family. I called out of work, they were like, “How much time do you think you’ll need?” like even they were thinking, grandfather? That doesn’t sound too devastating, like everybody’s grandparents die, can you be back the day after tomorrow?

So we’re all at the second wake, and like an hour before the funeral home was about to close up shop, guess who walked in? Yeah, it was Chris. And everyone went crazy, “Chris! Oh my God Chris! What’s up man? Where have you been? Were you really in a Russian prison? Jesus Christ, look, mom, Chris is here!”

And it was pretty crazy to see him. For the first time all day, it didn’t feel like that weird death-in-the-family feeling, and it’s like, he was standing there surrounded by everybody, in those first few seconds before he really had a chance to say anything, I was trying to piece it together, how I got from a few minutes ago to where I was right now, and I must have been embellishing it already in my head, but I played it back, it’s like I pictured him leaping through those doors, “Hey guys! I’m back!”

It was unbelievable, Chris, right here, finally, everyone let him catch his breath, gave him a little room to explain himself, “Yeah it’s true,” he told us, “I got sentenced to prison while I was in Russia. I didn’t know I was in Russia exactly, I was backpacking through Eastern Europe with some friends, and then we were on a train, and I couldn’t understand anything, I thought we were in Poland or something, so these guards start getting all up in our business one night, we were just having a good time, they start pushing us around, and here I am, I’m thinking this is Poland, or Prague, I’m thinking, these guys won’t do shit, I’m an American, what a power trip, so I’m laughing and joking and not really cooperating at all, and then finally these guys take their guns out, and you know, I don’t understand a word, nothing, so I just put my hands up, we all get carted off, the next thing I know I’m before a judge, there’s a big bag of cocaine on the table, I swear, I have no idea, but what am I going to do? How can I get in touch with the ambassador? I never figured it out. That night they had us on a train to Siberia. Fucking crazy right?” and my mom shot him a look, like what are you cursing for, you idiot? And he saw it, he said sorry for cursing.

I said, “Chris? How’d you make it out?” “What,” he said, “Out of the prison? I got out. The maximum sentence in any Russian prison is like eight years. Didn’t you ever read Crime and Punishment?” and no, I never read Crime and Punishment, I think I was supposed to one year for school, but I don’t even think that the teacher read Crime and Punishment.

“Did you get beat up or anything like that? I can’t believe you still have all of your teeth. You actually look pretty good.” And he said, “Why wouldn’t I look good? Those Russian prisons have a bad rap. Those guys aren’t so bad. You just have to know how to deal with them, all of those prisoners, criminals, political prisoners, they’re all so used to being pushed around by the state, bullied their entire lives. You know how you deal with someone like that? You stare them down. You hold your ground. No, nobody messed with me over there. I was like an honorary guard. Let me tell you something about Russians …”

“Chris!” it was Uncle Steve. I hadn’t even said hi to him, “Let’s go. Now.” And that was it, they both said goodbye and left, we all hung around until they blinked the lights off and on and kicked us out. Afterward we went back to my parents’, we were all still going crazy about Chris, talking about Chris, “Mom! When did Chris get back? Did you know he was coming? Did Uncle Steve ever tell you anything about any of that prison stuff? Did that really happen? When did he get out? Mom? Mom!” but she wasn’t having it, it was all, “I don’t know. Look. I don’t know. You should’ve asked Uncle Steve, because I don’t know.”

And my dad was finally like, “Enough already, enough, leave your mother alone, she’s got a lot to deal with the funeral tomorrow, her dad just died, enough about Chris!” and everyone got quiet, but after a couple of minutes, my brother Phil breaks the silence, “Is he coming for Thanksgiving?” and I had his back, I said, “Yeah mom, did you ask him about Thanksgiving?”