Vancouver woman blogs on growing up in Sochi

Russian city is hosting Winter Olympics

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Galina Burley, a local leader in Clark County’s Russian-speaking community, grew up in Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Her Columbian blog, Exploring Sochi, looks at the culture, issues and her personal memories of growing up in the city, which sometimes reminds her of Vancouver.

Check it out at http://blogs.columbian.com/exploring-sochi. Here are some edited highlights:

photoGalina Burley, as a child in 1982 in Sochi, Russia.

Feb. 3: This is me back in 1982.

I was in first grade, Sochi School No. 4. We were required to wear uniforms and a little Lenin star, which basically meant that we were “little Communists.”

Clearly, as a child, I didn’t understand the Communist connection, but I do recall that losing my star was problematic.

By the time I was in fourth grade, I learned that our entire history was made up to make Communists look good. Our country was changing. Our government was changing. Our lives were impacted significantly by these developments.

I remember waiting in bread lines, getting government coupons for sugar, mandatory electricity shutoffs and much more. While I do remember the difficulties of living in Russia at that time, my memories are actually very fun and positive. Why?

I don’t think that children truly understand their environment. I don’t believe that I did. I remember living in a resort city of Sochi — beautiful, green, diverse, exotic, warm. I had a loving family, lots of friends, went to the beach, played music and lived what appeared to be a good life. We had food, shelter, and we had each other.

By the time I was in high school, everything I learned about my country was turned on its head. Our history teacher told us to throw away our books because WE were rewriting our true history.

I wish I remembered more. We moved to the U.S.A. in 1991. I was 15. The move was difficult, and my early memories have been impacted by the stress of adjusting to our new lives here in America — new language, new culture, new everything.

Feb. 8: I don’t know if many of you noticed that the Russian delegation came out to the sounds of t.A.T.u, a Russian music group known around the world for openly supporting gay rights (check out one of their videos at http://youtu.be/8mGBaXPlri8). I don’t know what to make of it. Was it ironic? Was it a statement? Personally, I was proud that t.A.T.u was selected to perform at the Olympics, simply because they rock!

Sochi is an amazing melting pot of cultures.

Our seaport, circus venue, Riviera Park — I remember all of those clearly. Riviera Park was a tourist destination. Beautiful and green, it offered everything — amusement, a summer palace, a concert hall and a Ferris wheel my friends and I braved on summer nights. The park is in the heart of the city next to the largest tourist beach and close to movie theaters and shopping. As kids, we would go to Riviera Park to play tennis, people watch and have fun.

The city’s landscape also includes many types of palm trees. During the winter months, the trees were covered with plastic to keep them warm. I should add that our winters were mild, and just like in Vancouver, our schools would close at any sign of snow.

It rains a lot in Sochi, sometimes nine months out of 12, much like Vancouver.

My husband asked if I am going to cheer for Russians or Americans. I quickly responded, “both.”

“Why both?” he asked. “You are an American.”

He is correct. I moved to the U.S. in 1991 and became an American citizen shortly thereafter.

I am also Russian. Born and raised in Soviet Russia, I am who I am today because I lived there and lived through what an announcer yesterday during the Opening Ceremony referred to as the biggest “social experiment” in our history.

Experiment or not, it was a social experience that shaped not only entire generations of Russian citizens, it shaped our world.

The same announcer referred to the games as “Putin’s games.”

What a jerk. These games are our games — the people’s games.

It’s a way for us to recognize our collective history, celebrate our humanity, our sports and our way of changing the world.

I hope you enjoy the games and look beyond the propaganda and politics. I am.

Feb. 10: Freezing rain and snow didn’t stop us from watching the Olympic Games.

After it snowed all day in Vancouver on Friday and Saturday, I finally decided to get out of the house and go visit with my parents down the street.

I could smell borscht as we were walking. There is something about the smell of cooked cabbage, beets and garlic that’s truly Russian.

The door opened to a big room and Russian music. My parents watch all of their shows on Russian TV. My aunt, my father’s sister, was over. Dad and Aunt Luda were both born in the part of Sochi that is now covered by concrete and new infrastructure built for the games.

“Did you know that my school was located around the same area where the Fischt Stadium now stands?” my father asked.

He told me that the Imeretinsky Valley, a one-time declining suburb of Sochi, was completely revamped.

My Aunt Luda just came back to America from Sochi a few months ago.

She added that the changes back at home are hard for the residents, but are glorious.

“Galya (my nickname),” she said, “That’s where we are from, Honey. I hope you are proud.”

I am very proud. I love seeing images of my city on TV.

Finally, I don’t have to explain to people that Russia can be warm.

Sochi is a vacation resort. A beautiful diamond surrounded by mountains and water.

Believe it or not, I never ever skied or went to the mountains as a kid. I enjoyed the beach. My friends and I would start the season in March, braving the freezing water.

The images of Sochi bring back memories of my childhood. I am reminded again and again that nothing can stop us.