Pass the pirozhki! With all eyes turned to Sochi, seems like the ideal time to showcase all things Russian, doesn’t it?
Well, da. But Russia’s officials in Washington, unlike previous host country embassies, have taken the opposite approach to the 2014 Winter Games. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak has invited about 200 guests to a private viewing party at his residence Friday morning, but that event is closed to the media. There were no embassy-sponsored events leading up to the Games, and no other Olympic parties or public celebrations scheduled at this time, according to a spokesman.
It’s a surprising strategy, given that Vladimir Putin has spent a reported $51 billion — the most expensive Winter Games in history — to promote modern Russia.
“Hosting the Olympics is always a very significant event for any country,” Kislyak told the Washington Diplomat last month. “It’s also a kind of festival of friendship. . . . This is an opportunity for people to learn more about our country.”
Most Washington ambassadors, who now do triple duty as business recruiters and tourism boosters as well as diplomats, have used their Olympics spotlight to educate and impress American politicians, corporate executives, philanthropists and the media. So why the paltry party scene this time?
It may have something to do with the president, vice president and other top U.S officials skipping the opening ceremonies, a perceived snub that exacerbated the ongoing tensions between the Obama administration and Putin. Or maybe it’s a reluctance to celebrate until the reported threats of a terrorist attack have been safely averted. Could be the gay-rights protests, the Edward Snowden flap or another reason entirely.
The embassy did not comment on the lack of Olympic-themed events in Washington, but the ambassador gave a broad hint that unflattering media coverage — including reports of numerous issues in Sochi — was a factor. “I understand how the press here works,” Kislyak said in the Diplomat interview. “They need hot issues in order to be read, to have high circulation. This is not only an American phenomenon. But I start every working day reading about Russia from the news clips my staff prepares, and I would say it’s not the most encouraging reading.”
The lack of festivities is a notable departure from the past few Games, when local embassies enthusiastically flew the Olympic flag.
In 2012, British Ambassador Peter Westmacott hosted a number of high-profile events around the London Summer Games: A kickoff 200 days before the competition began, a day-long “Embassy Olympics” with teams from other Washington embassies and the State Department; a “Let’s Move!” pepfest with Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron, wife of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Olympians and local schoolchildren; plus a farewell reception for Team USA a month before the athletes left for London.
The Brits biggest party was held on the night of the opening ceremonies at the ambassador’s residence (co-hosted with NBC) with six giant screens, Olympic-themed food and drinks, a photo booth, an official Olympic torch and 600 guests (mostly Americans) in the mansion and sprawling lawn. The opening and closing ceremonies were designed to be “a celebration of all things British — hip and historic, traditional and multicultural, quirky and cool,” Westmacott said this week. The Washington party, he said, was designed for people “to enjoy the occasion but also to think of Britain as a great place to visit, do business, live and study.”
For Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer threw a launch party 100 days before the Games with an official countdown clock, three Olympic mascots and a Canadian pop star. On opening night, the mantra was, “If you can’t be in Vancouver, the Embassy of Canada is the next best place”; the building was turned into a miniature Olympic village with former Olympians, ice carving and 1,500 guests in Canada’s promotional red mittens, featuring Olympic rings and maple leaves. The ambassador followed up with hockey, inviting D.C. fans to watch the three U.S.-Canada matchups at the embassy.
And in 2006, Italy’s embassy, the National Italian American Foundation and the Sons of Italy threw a giant party focused on Italian food and wine, especially the Piedmont region, site of the Winter Games in Turin. Hundreds of guests were invited to watch the opening ceremonies, drool over Vespas and Maseratis, and enjoy food prepared by chefs from a dozen Italian restaurants in Washington.
But nothing like that from the Russian embassy this year. In the absence of any big Olympic events, two local restaurants are filling the vacuum for Russian expats and Russian-Americans looking for the Sochi experience. Russia House has created three Olympic drink specials (gold, silver and bronze) and will be airing Olympic coverage. Mari Vanna, a Russian eatery that celebrated its first anniversary with a packed party Tuesday night, has a following of local fans thanks primarily to Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals star (and face of the Sochi Olympics — he’s on billboards everywhere) has made the restaurant his home away from home, most recently when he brought in fiancee Maria Kirilenko to celebrate her birthday last month just before leaving to join the Russian Olympic hockey team.
So the restaurant is gearing up out to cheer on Ovechkin and the Olympics, giving out a free shot of Russian vodka and pirozhkis for everyone who shows up to watch Friday’s opening ceremonies and the closing two weeks later, as well as nonstop broadcast of the Games. And there are three new dishes on the menu created for the Olympics and inspired by the spicier Georgian cuisine of Sochi.
“I’m really excited about this,” said Moscow-born manager Sergii Andriushchenko. “It’s a really big deal to capture attention on Russian culture, Russian food and sport. We’re really proud of what we do and how we do it.”
Spoken like . . . well, an ambassador.