The Sochi Games have put a spotlight on Russia that has been tainted with negative stories in just a matter of days, from the issues of gay rights to unsanitary conditions reported at hotels.
But Russian Americans in the Bay Area remain hopeful that the Olympics will bring more attention to the multitude of cultures that comprise what used to be the Soviet Union.
Natalie Sabelnik manages the Russian Center in San Francisco, which focuses on highlighting Russian history, and preserving language and culture.
For Sabelnik, there’s so much that needs to be cleared up.
“One of the things I feel very strong about is Russophobia. Americans have a complete different picture of us, of Russians,” Sabelnik said. “During the Cold War, everyone thought we were Communists. Now, everyone seems to think Russians are all mafia.”
Holden Stein is also hoping the beauty of the town he called home for two years will translate into an American appreciation for Russia.
“You can truly go from the Black Sea to the mountains in one hour,” said Stein, who lived in Sochi with his wife, who is from Russia, between 2007 and 2009.
Stein is a business attorney in San Francisco. He started a real estate private equity firm and decided to do his next development project in Sochi.
“In Soviet and even Czarist times it was considered a great place to relax and spend vacations,” Stein said. “There’s at least 20 or 25 different nationalities in a very small region there.”
An added concern is the negative press following Russia’s law that went into effect Last June, banning talk of homosexuality around minors.
Americans here believe the games will help turn that tide.
“Russians respect athletic achievement and prowess, and having prominent gay members of the team represent the U.S. will speak volumes,” Stein said.
During the last few days of the Sochi games, the Russian Center in San Francisco will also be celebrating its 75th year with its annual festival.