Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | #SochiProblems? That's a #FirstWorldProblem

Deep in the Southern reaches of Western Russia, nestled into the side of the Caucasus Mountains, is a town called Akhshtyr. Located near Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics and project of a multi-billion dollar renovation project by the Russian government, one would expect to be able to reach it via the sleek new superhighway or high-speed railway tracks running by it for the games.

Instead, the trek requires a journey across a rickety rope bridge, a dead-end at a highway with no exit, a long, winding road from the Sochi airport, with security checkpoints designed to prevent residents from getting to a bus, at least, according to a New York Times journalist who wrote about the town's plight. Once you arrive, the story isn't much better, as the town is pocketed with rock quarries built for the games, which coat the town with a thick layer of dust. Its wells have been wrecked by a waste dump, water deliveries are sparse, and a promised gas line has yet to appear.

Head over 12 miles to the west, where Western journalists are snapping comical pictures of toilets bisected by drywall, broken doorknobs, and piles of cables on the floor, with snarky comments and a self-obsession with their unjust treatment (these are members of the international media, after all!). Hashtag #SochiProblems.


All right, I get it, Russia bid the Olympics as a first world country when they clearly are not, and putting a bunch of journalists and athletes up in rooms with exposed live electrical wiring, rusty water, and so forth was probably the worst PR disaster the Kremlin has made in recent history. And with the danger of the slopestyle course at Sochi causing American boarder Shaun White to pull out and the half-pipe filled with slush at the bottom causing the same boarder to take a tumble, it's probably safe to say that Sochi was not the best choice for the 2014 Olympics.

But I can't help but feel that the #SochiProblems tag is a bit glib, a bit egotistical, and a bit, well, #firstworldproblems.

These journalists are Westerners, after all, from first world countries with all the perks of a post-industrial society – efficient waste disposal, filtered water, and a generally spoiled-rotten attitude that flips out if YouTube starts buffering for more than 0.2 seconds. Trouble with internet? #SochiProblems. Empty vending machine? #SochiProblems. Badly translated menu? #SochiProblems.

Perhaps, as journalist Sarah Kaufman wrote, #SochiProblems is more embarrassing for us than it is for them.

For the Russians who live there, that's life. As Kaufman reported, only about half of Russians had access to clean water, and Vladimir Putin himself admitted to dirty water running from his sink. And though we style ourselves as critics of the corruption in the Russian government, we've gone a step father. Russia was a second-world country for the back half of the 20th century, after all, and for those who live there, a bunch of journalists tweeting mockery about business as usual is zloradstvo – pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

In the meantime, if you want to find the real story of government corruption and mismanagement, perhaps its best to stop whining about how afflicted you are and take a 12 mile journey to the east.

By Nick Barden

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