SOCHI, Russia -- A Russian man shouted into his phone from inside a gondola coming down the mountain. "Lena, what?" he asked in Russian. "You weren't paying attention? You don't care? We won gold. A gold medal, Lena!" Team Russia had just won the men's biathlon relay, one of the final competitions of the Sochi Olympics. The penultimate night of these Games had darkened the valley, though it sparkled with light.
Now that the Olympics were coming to a close, I asked my fellow gondola passenger to share his impressions of the experience. The Russian, who said he worked in the food and beverage business in Krasnaya Polyana and was from Rostov-on-Don, an eight-hour drive north of here, beamed. "People who have been to many Olympics told us they never would have expected this," he said. "They said everything was of the highest quality. We are very proud." Then he asked, "What was your impression of the Olympics here?"
The gondola craned over a ridge. His face appeared now and again in the lights of the lift stanchions as we passed by them. I thought about expectations and conclusions. What had we all expected from the Sochi Olympics? What had Russia wanted them to be? The Sochi Olympics were Russia's chance to educate an ignorant world about itself, its capabilities, and its political and social system. In the end, what was the lesson?
Hands-down, Russia succeeded in proving to a skeptical world that it could execute a monumental undertaking such as this one. A trip to the biathlon final was enough to reveal this. Everything was well organized. Everything was where it should have been. Helpful volunteers were posted at every junction, guiding visitors across the landscape. The biathlon tribune and shooting gallery was lit up like a bright afternoon, the various components of the exacting course aligned in perfect detail. Surely, this was simply biathlon's international standard for competition, but it was remarkable to see this here in Russia, where details often suffer neglect. When I asked a young volunteer if there was to be any action following the men's relay, she smiled. "Yeah!" she said. "Big party!"
Biathlon was on the TV at the party held at Krasnaya Polyana's Winehouse restaurant. In super-slow motion, a bullet ejected from a biathlete's rifle tumbled through the air. This made sense. Those gathered at Winehouse were part of the team that had produced the international TV feeds from the skiing events. They were mostly American and Canadian, ski bums mostly from the Rockies range. This was a wrap party, and the crowd was getting rowdy. Over the past few weeks, they had bought owner Igor Zubkov out of his 2012 vintage merlot. They were filling their glasses now from a huge wine barrel perched on the bar. They were taking stock of their Russian experience.
Pierce Williams, an American producer, arrived in Sochi 10 days before the start of the Olympics and watched workers put the finishing touches to many Olympics structures. He discussed Gorky Gorod, a marquee housing and shopping development in Krasnaya Polyana. "Gorky was a mud pile when I got here," he said. "There was no roof. A couple days later, they had a beach up there on the roof. A beach. With a pool. Sand. Water slides. I mean, a beach. They did more in a couple days than many other countries could ever do."
Bo, a cameraman from Denver, was taking a pull from the wine barrel. "You really saw the Russian people open up," he said. "The first week, it was hard to get them to smile, but then they got to know us. I think that was a real unexpected benefit that they got from us, from having all these foreign people around them." Little by little, even in this Olympics bubble, the foreigners also got to know Russia.
Most everyone had expected protests at these Olympics. In the end, protests were limited. The greatest titillation came from our old friends, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the two members of Pussy Riot, the protest collective, whom Russian authorities released from prison in December. As the rain came down Tuesday, the two women stepped out of the Adler police station, a couple of miles from Olympic Park, and donned their colorful balaclavas.
They appeared to be taking attention away from cases that could benefit from increased international scrutiny. Evgeny Vitishko, a Sochi environmentalist, is about to be shipped off to a prison colony for three years. He had revealed environmental violations connected to Sochi's Olympics development.
But then Pussy Riot was involved in an incident that revealed why an international audience continues to follow their moves, waiting for something to happen. On Wednesday, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, joined by other members of their group, gathered for an impromptu performance in downtown Sochi. Members of the Cossacks, Russia's revived territorial militia, appeared on the scene, and with ill intent. One of the Cossacks approached the women. He produced a riding crop. He struck several of them with it. The women stopped singing, in shock. This was hardly in keeping with the "Olympic spirit." It was cruel. It revealed the enduring Vladimir Putin belief, that the state must squash political dissent, however trivial -- and especially during the Olympics -- lest it gather and spread chaos.
In Russia during these Olympics, they say, just look at our neighbor, Ukraine, and the chaos there. In Kiev, they are ransacking the presidential palace. They say the president, Viktor Yanukovich, has fled. Russia fears chaos, as any country would. But unlike many other European countries, Russia has recent acquaintance with the phenomenon. So even though the Russian system that these Olympics were designed to promote isn't viable for the world, those in charge cling to it. They fear a Kiev on their own territory.
But is anyone here in Putin's Sochi playland seriously watching? Saturday, the BBC broadcasted a dramatic speech by Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister just released from prison. At the same time, Russia Today, the Kremlin's global propaganda TV network, was airing a documentary on guns in America. With relations continuing to heat up, the most fitting place to eat in Sochi was Zharko, on the road between the mountain and coastal Olympics venues. Zharko means "hot" in Russian, and it so happened that the owner of the restaurant was Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today's chief ideologue. Simonyan wasn't there when I dined, but an Olympic torch hung on the wall, and on the TV, Russia Today spewed its usual farcical anti-Americanisms.
Walking out of Zharko, I thought of my friend, Alexei, who served as a manager on the grand highway project that the Russian state had undertaken as part of its plan to modernize Sochi's infrastructure in time for the Olympics. Alexei is a Circassian, part of the ethnic group indigenous to this area, which was subdued by the tsarist army in the 19th century.
Alexei is a bridge engineer, and I joined him last week beneath Kururotnova Prospekt, the elevated highway that he had helped build. We walked along the underpinnings of the new roadway, through the halogen lights that lit up the street. Alexei worked for the Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris, childhood friends of Putin. As a Circassian, a group that has been in general opposition to the power structure, this placed Alexei in a difficult position. "Ten percent of Circassians are here and 90 percent are outside the country," Alexei said. "They're all against the Olympics, but how can I be against the city getting better?" Alexei had a point, and wasn't that the question we were all trying to answer about these Olympics?
In the gondola descending to the valley of Krasnaya Polyana, I looked out at the many constructions of the mountains. The ski runs were like highways coursing down the hills. The bobsled track was a lasso of light. Years ago, I was here and saw the models of what this area might become. Here it all was now. They had managed it in the end.
No one likes to be seen at his worst. That's how we saw Sochi for several years, a big construction zone. But even though we knew it was a construction zone, we couldn't help passing judgment on it from time to time. For the past couple of decades, we have seen Russia at her worst. And even though we may understand the historical realities that have produced its current system, its current leader, we still can't help ourselves from passing judgment when we may feel the urge.
The events and issues of the Sochi Olympics coalesced as a referendum on Russia itself, where the country is, and where it's going. Can Russia persist like it is? What does it stand for? What philosophy is it upholding? Now that the Olympics are over, could this be the right time to pass judgment?
With the achievements of the mountains arrayed before me, all the questions wore me down. As we rode the gondola down the mountain, the Russian man asked me what I thought of these Olympics. I looked at him and said, "I was impressed."