They wear smiles on their faces and bright multi-colored uniforms that will be memories for me for a long time from the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In many ways, the Olympics are about exporting national pride and hope for what the future holds for the host country. In Sochi, the backbone for that message is the young volunteers.
Luke McCarthy of Durham, N.H., is a private English teacher in St. Petersburg. He thinks the games are a major monumental shift in the Russian youth culture that is volunteering here in Sochi.
McCarthy studied international relations and Russian studies at Purdue University, and has traveled around the world, including a 40-day hitch-hiking trip from Turkey and eastern Europe. After the Olympics, he is heading to India for a year to help the poor.
“These games have been a cultural revolution, and you can see it in the restaurants, the information centers, and the ticket lines. The Russian volunteers are smiling and saying hello in English – verses the older construction workers guys and the security guards are grunting and grimacing,” McCarthy said.
At any of the Olympic venues, one thing you always notice are the volunteers. They are the front-line staff and the face of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. My experience is they are really trying hard, and in many cases are more friendly and sincere than the youth of America in similar roles at McDonalds and rock concerts.
The average age of a volunteer at Sochi 2014 is 23, and around 82 percent of the 25,000 volunteers at Sochi are between 18 and 30. In reality, this Olympics is more like a youth convention and a pep rally for the young adults of Russia.
The volunteering program here in Sochi has provided one of the youngest volunteer workforces at an Olympic Games. It also introduced the barely known concept to Russia of volunteerism, organizers said. Only 7 percent of the volunteer workforce is international, and they come from 66 countries, including Canada, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
The Russian word for hospitality is “gostepriimstvo,” which means “welcome guest.”
“The everyday Russian is a great host in their home only," McCarthy said. “Out on the street, they are a lot less polite. But somehow the Olympics have changed that and here in Sochi, these volunteers are treating people like Russia is their home.”
The hope and expectation for Russian organizers for these volunteers is that this experience will remain with the volunteers and be carried back to small villages, towns, and cities all through out this Russia.
"Only 3 percent of people were engaged in volunteer work in Russia when we started this project six years ago," Sochi 2014 head of volunteers Marina Pochinok said at a press conference. “Sochi's 2014 volunteer program has educated Russians about what volunteers are capable of and what skills they offer and to educate our people and to create a culture of volunteering.”
The Olympics is most significant event that has taken place in Russia since the fall of communism. Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is from St. Petersburg, has made national pride a major policy of his leadership. This generation knows four things about Russia: 1.) life was hard for their parents; 2.) life is good now; 3.) the future looks bright; and 4.) Putin provides economic opportunity.
"These volunteers have changed the way the world sees Russia,” McCarthy said, "and maybe more importantly changed the way Russian young adults sees themselves in the world.”
From the Tzars to Stalin and now Putin, Russian rulers have summered in Sochi.
“Sochi is the Russian Miami. Putin realizes that an old-style Soviet summer won’t work. So all of this new infrastructure looks and feels like Europe, so the investment has been worth it,” said Jim Brooke, the Russian Bureau Chief for Voice of America.
Regardless of the environmental and economic themes of corruption that will forever accompany these games, the feeling here is of “Russian Pride” that will go forward with the volunteers of this country.
“Yes there are many problems and limitations here in Russia," McCarthy said. "But there is a Russian saying that can be applied to almost any situation in this country that goes like this: 'We live in a closet here in Russia, but its a big roomy comfortable closet. so don’t push to hard against the door to get out'."
So with all of these young adults chanting “Russia, Russia" at all of the Olympic events, Putin may have achieved his Olympic dreams of an unified, proud Russian landscape, happy here in the closet.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect translation of the Russian word "gostepriimstvo."