RUSSIA - Tags: SPORT OLYMPICS
Models display Russia's uniform for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics during a presentation in Moscow December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA - Tags: SPORT OLYMPICS) - RTX16UB4 REUTERS
Less than one month remains before the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games, and Muscovites are eager to pose for pictures in front of the Olympic countdown clock just off Red Square.
"I can't wait for the Games to begin," says Lilya, a woman in her 60s, who had brought her granddaughter to see the Olympic clock. "I will be watching closely from home.
"I wish I could go to the Games, but it's very expensive and I can't take time off from work."
Pre-Olympic excitement is tangible these days in the heart of the Russian capital.
Sochi mascots prance around Red Square, grocery stores sell chocolate Olympic medals, and Russians receive their daily dose of state television Olympic coverage often starring Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president recently tested the slopes around Sochi and even played some shinny with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and hockey hall-of-famers Slava Fetisov and Pavel Bure.
But beneath the anticipation and the smug satisfaction of being an Olympic host, the Sochi Games are still largely out of touch with the reality of ordinary Russians.
Putin has lauded Sochi's reasonable ticket prices — the least expensive tickets sell for 500 rubles (roughly $16 Cdn) and half of all the tickets cost less than 3,000 rubles ($96) — and the fact that 15 per cent are being withheld to be sold on site when the Games begin.
In theory at least, Sochi tickets are far more accessible than their equivalents were in Vancouver in 2010, when they were sold through a lottery system.
Yet the Sochi Games remain largely inaccessible to most people here as transportation to the remote Black Sea city is beyond the means of the average Russian.
Much like Canada, Russia is geographically challenged, and distance makes travel expensive.
A round-trip flight to the Olympic city from, say, Kazan, a city of one million located 2,000 kilometres northeast Sochi, would cost only about $460. But that is still over half of the average Russian's monthly salary of $875.
Comparatively, the 1,800-kilometre flights between Winnipeg and Vancouver cost a much smaller proportion of an average Canadian's monthly earnings.
The Sochi Olympics should be more accessible to Muscovites than to the rest of the country, of course.
The average Moscow salary is double that of the country average, and the round-trip flight from the capital to the Olympic city costs a mere $176.
Still, the relative cost of air travel is not the only difference between the Vancouver and Sochi Olympic experiences. Another is that the proliferation of affordable Team Canada red mittens in 2010 has no equivalent in Russia.
Sochi Olympic merchandise is a window-shopping experience for the vast majority of the population.
A cotton made-in-China Olympic T-shirt at the Olympic store on Moscow’s Tverskaya St. was priced at 2,900 rubles ($93), while a polyester winter coat cost 22,500 rubles ($720), which is closing in on a month's pay for your average Russian worker.
The $254 Olympic tracksuit, whose intricate patterns are meant to represent traditional Russian peasant embroidery, is out of reach for many people.
"The prices used to be even higher," said a shop assistant. "The prices were brought down before the Olympics so more people could get some gear."
The store's $400 ski jacket — once $640 — is now a bargain.
A 'Potemkin village'?
In Moscow, the city with the world's largest number of billionaires in 2013, Sochi may well become the social event of the season.
But, "it's not an Olympics for the people," says Sergei Zhivora, a Moscow handyman.
"We see Sochi commercials on television, and then right after they ask us for money to help sick children. I think there are better ways to use those funds."
Despite some obvious pride in hosting such a prestigious event, many Russians have been adversely affected by Putin's $51 billion Games.
There has been considerable controversy surrounding the Games and allegations of corruption. And some residents in the Sochi region have been evicted, their livelihoods compromised, by the construction of facilities that may not be universally accessible afterwards.
After the Paralympics Games in March, the Olympic Village will be converted into a gated residential resort, with apartments starting at $112,500, a hefty sum by Russian standards.
Those who currently live in the city's Olympic hospitality zone face fines for having a "chaotic-looking" balcony, or for refusing to renovate the exterior of their homes.
Russia's south was once dotted with "Potemkin villages," well-kept, fake settlements built to impress Catherine the Great during her visit to the borders of her empire in 1787.
Now, Sochi has become a kind of "Potemkin village," its critics say, intended to impress the world.
The joy of victory
Some of the issues that have surrounded Russia's bid and preparations for Sochi, such as the endowment of dubious construction contracts, have also tempered the excitement of enthusiasts.
"I would not want to be at the Games myself," said Tatyana, a 40-year old Muscovite posing with her two children in front of the countdown clock.
"I just didn't like how things were done, how decisions were made. I don't understand why we always end up where we shouldn't be."
But despite her ambivalence, Tatyana was still taking an active part in the pre-Olympic festivities.
"It's exciting for the children who love sports," she said. "After all, the Olympics are a fun event."
If Team Russia were to lead in the medal standings — and beat Canada in hockey — Russian national pride would undoubtedly assuage much of the pre-Games grumbling.
"When Sochi won the bid seven years ago, it was a national celebration in Russia," Igor Kuperman, the assistant general manager of the Russian hockey team at the Salt Lake City Games, wrote in an email.
"Sport has always been popular among Russians and during the Olympics, the entire country feels united.
“I remember that, in 2002, half the country watched Team Russia's quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic, even if the game was being played in the middle of the night in Russian time. And the joy of victory was enormous."