Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

The US State Department recently issued a travel advisory to American citizens planning to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia in February and March.  Often the media ignores or fails to publish the Department’s Travel Advisories.  This one’s circulation, however, has received relatively widespread coverage – from Fox News to the New York Times almost as soon as it hit the web.  

State’s Advisory contains practical information for first time vistors to Russia and reminders to more seasoned ones particularly those traveling to the troubled Northern Caucasus where Sochi is located.

My advice: if this is a trip you plan to undertake, print the advisory out before you head off, take a copy with you, heed its contents, and watch the website for updates.  The information will have been coordinated with the US Embassy Consular Section in Moscow. And a special unit from the US Consular Section (tough but likely busy duty?) will be at the Games to help American citizens in distress. 

Russia has changed greatly since it became the successor state to the Soviet Union in 1991 and certainly since the Moscow Olympics in 1980 – but still not all is sweetness and light.  

Laying out the welcome mat

Putting aside politics – and whatever one thinks of President (for life?) Vladimir Putin – the country, for the most part, will lay out the welcome mat to Olympic athletes and guests:  Much international prestige rides on the conduct of successful games.  Besides the Russians are proud of their own athletic prowess especially in winter sports and want to come off as winners (who can blame them) in the international spotlight:  sports and international politics intermingle in the Russian psyche.

Furthermore, Sochi itself is a long time domestic Black Sea tourist destination for Russians seeking refuge in a less harsh climate – namely the chance to bask in the sun – dating back to the days of the Czars and the country wants to develop it into a popular international resort. 

If there’s one thing that Russia will do to make the Games go off without a hitch is impose tight security.  American counter-terrorism experts may grouse that they have not been involved – at least that’s what Fox News reported – but expect the Russian Federation’s police-state security experts to do everything they can to keep the sites protected from potential terrorist acts.  That doesn’t mean they won’t happen:  remember Atlanta, Munich and for that matter the 2013 Boston Marathon (which if US counter terrorism experts had been in closer contact with their Russian counterparts perhaps could have been avoided).

Inevitable politics

The dilemma is that the Olympics, regardless of location, are natural attractions to groups and individuals intent upon making political statements before an international audience of millions.  This stage doesn’t come their way all that often. Such statements have been made through peaceful demonstrations or occasionally premeditated acts of murder.  Those who make them are looking for front page headlines and top of the news coverage.

The Russian government is fighting jut the latest round of the Chechen rebellion since the Soviet Union collapsed.  Sochi is very much a piece of the troubled North Caucasus.

The Russian authorities succeeded in regaining power in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, only to have the conflict spread to neighboring regions like Dagistan and among other ethnic Caucasian minorities – like a vial of mercury dropped on the floor. 

Two suicide attacks in Volgograd – Russia’s transportation hub into the North Caucasus – in December followed by the accidental traffic death in Moscow of a major Chechen leader just show how acts of domestic terrorism are not far away.  The Boston Marathon murders last April by two radicalized Chechen young men just show how far the troubles can reach.

The Russian cat versus the Chechen mouse

In essence this is a game of the physically strong Russian cat versus wily Chechen mice.  It is all about power and control of a territory that the Russian Czars annexed in the nineteenth century and that they and their successors have often brutally mishandled ever since.  The introduction of radical Islam and Islamist fighters entered the picture recently.  The Chechens are basically nationalists but the conflict has attracted Islamic “holy warriors” from elsewhere coming to their aid.

Putting terrorism aside       

But the more likely problems for Americans traveling to Sochi relate to financial and health.   State’s travel advisory is clear that Olympic visitors should come with Visa cards and plenty of cash because no other credit cards are accepted and many things can only be paid for with cash.  It’s also very hard to look, dress and act like a native without speaking fluent Russian, wearing Russian clothes, or sporting a Russian haircut which is the single best way I know to blend in in a foreign country and hence become less conspicuous and less attractive to thieves.     

The Cash Catch-22

The Catch-22, of course, is that the Advisory’s advice of the necessity to carry cash makes one vulnerable to pick-pockets.  To use hotel safes or scatter cash throughout one’s belongings in small packets is not exactly a convenient or worry-free way to travel. In any event, some lodgings will be safer than others.

Presumably, Putin’s police state will endeavor to keep the petty criminals at bay as well as terrorists but my guess is that the latter will be easier for the KGB to control than the former.

Finally, a note on health:   I don’t see any warnings in the Advisory or elsewhere about Sochi being the location of giardiasis – a nasty water borne intestinal disease that infests drinking water in various parts of Russia and Central Asia (as well as places in the US like Aspen), but the rule of thumb is to drink boiled water or bottled drinks when not sure.  The advisory does mention St. Petersburg as infested with giardia.  It doesn’t mention Moscow, but I know it was in the water system in the 1990s and once in, giardia is very hard to eliminate.  As for the stricken – it takes two weeks for giardia’s symptoms to appear.  They ressemble a severe case of traveler’s diarrhea.  The good news is that there is a cure – but lab testing is necessary for a doctor to diagnose the desease and prescribe the right medicine (hint:  Cypro is not effective).

Meanwhile enjoy, take care – and may the best athletes win!