SOCHI, Russia — What do you do in Sochi?
I just arrived here, it’s late, I’m exhausted, but I’m going to find out. That is, after I sleep for about a day and a half.
The Winter Olympic Games open later this week, protected by a security cordon called the Ring of Steel. It was nighttime when I arrived, but I’ll soon see whether the Ring of Steel gleams in the Russian sun.
And of course, this Olympics will feature ice skating. My wife and most American women are addicted to the figure skating events, which I once foolishly described as the Cinderella Princess Competition, but I’ve since apologized.
My wife will be watching the Olympics at home while I’m in Sochi, determined to understand the Russian ethos in a few days.
“You’ve got to have a bath,” said a guy who spent years in Russia. “You can’t understand Russia until you’ve taken a bath.”
He explained that the bath business is part of the true Russian culture, where you steam slowly for hours, and pay someone (probably a Russian security agent) to whip you with a tree branch.
Does it hurt?
“Yes, it hurts,” said the Russian expert. “It really hurts.”
So why would I want to be whipped by a Russian wielding a branch of birch?
“Because after they’re hitting you for a while, it begins to feel good,” said the guy. “Incredible, really. Then you plunge yourself into ice water. Then vodka.”
The vodka I can take. And that’s how this columnist will roll in Sochi. I’ll pay some guy to whip me with a tree, have a few snorts, and then tell you how wonderful it was.
Before I got on the plane, I prepared for my Russian adventure. No, I didn’t study a folder of clipped newspaper stories for some quickie background. I did real research.
I rented some movies — “Dr. Zhivago” and “Taras Bulba.”
You know what “Zhivago” is about. Less famous is “Taras Bulba,” the excruciatingly long movie of yesteryear starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis as a Cossack father and son.
Yul has a topknot on his otherwise shaven head, and he and his friends drink vodka, fight with the Poles, wrestle bears and so on. I’m sure there’s some parallel to the Sochi of today.
“Weren’t they Ukrainian?” asked an editor.
Maybe, but Curtis could play anything, even an English squire. And Brynner played a cowboy and a cowboy robot. His range was spectacular.
But I won’t rely on movies to tell me of the Russian soul. Not even “And Quiet Flows the Don,” the novel by Mikhail Sholokhov, given to me years ago by a great writer at this newspaper who has long passed.
This isn’t a time for me to stick my nose in books. I’m in Sochi. It’s a time to have my eyes wide open.
I’d like to visit Russian Orthodox churches, and light a candle and say a prayer, and think of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t be seen in a church in the old days, which weren’t really that long ago. And to think of the churches in Ukraine, where priests put themselves between protesters and cops.
And to stop in at a Russian bar where working people drink and buy a round or four; or get one of those crazy fur hats, maybe watch a hockey game with some of our Blackhawks playing on the U.S. and the Canadian sides; and hear our national anthem in that far country and see our athletes standing proud.
Also, to see athletes of other nations standing proudly as their anthems play, because the Olympics, for all the hype and commerce and nationalism, can’t dilute what the athletes accomplish. I’d like to be in the mountains and see the skiers, especially the biathlon — cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship — an event I’ve never watched but read about as a boy in the pages of the Tribune.
Will I be able to do all these things? We’ll see. You’ve been on trips and had a plan, and suddenly the plan changed and you still learned something amazing, because it was something you didn’t know.
If I learn it, I’ll write it.
About the only problem I can see is ground transportation. You either take taxis or ask strangers to drive you, although getting into a car with strangers in Russia seems rather, what’s the word, stupid.
So I thought I’d ride the Putin way, shirtless, on a wild steed, or bear, depending on how I feel that morning.
You must have seen those photographs of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, bare-chested, riding a horse. And there are a few photos on the Internet of dubious authenticity showing Putin riding a bear.
And naturally, I would like to do the same. Especially the bear part.
“No, you’ll embarrass us!” shrieked my sons when I told them. “No!” shrieked my mom. “No! You’ll ruin the Tribune,” shrieked my wife.
“No!” said Old School, who helps me with the column. “No!” said the fellow who edits the column daily.
But what do they really know about Journalism with a capital J?
So when I ran it by the editor of this newspaper, the very fellow who came up with the idea of me going to Sochi in the first place, an amazing thing happened.
He rather liked the idea of me on a horse, or a bear, and riding shirtless like a wild Cossack through Sochi, or merely shirtless in the Putin style. Either that, or he was bluffing. And he told me to make sure I take a selfie, riding on my bear.
Sochi, I’m here.
(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is email@example.com, and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)