Russia fell hard two decades ago. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by political chaos, economic collapse and war. Even as things gradually got better, Russians as a nation seemed reticent – maybe nervous – to celebrate. This is not a country used to clapping.
But on a Friday night in Sochi, a crowd of perhaps 1,500 people gathered on a seafront square in this Black Sea port to watch the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics on a big-screen television. When the home country's athletes marched into the newly finished Fisht Olympic Stadium, they erupted with an emotion that's rare in these parts: national pride. And a chant: "Rossiya! Rossiya!"
"I feel united with all these people here. We're proud of Russia," 22-year-old Ekaterina Petrova shouted above the noise. A finance professional who had travelled a day and a half by train from the central city of Nizhny Novgorod, arriving in Sochi just before the opening ceremony, she had a white-blue-and-red Russian flag draped over her shoulders and matching Russian flag antennae bobbing from the top of her head.
A friend leaned in to praise the man many credit for bringing the Olympics to Sochi – and for Russia's general resurgence. "We're here because of [President Vladimir] Putin's efforts. He will be remembered because of this," said Igor Vozmin, a 38-year-old sales director.
These were not the anti-Kremlin protesters and human-rights activists who get much of the attention in Western media. Nor were they rich and connected enough to secure a seat in Fisht stadium for the big show. The crowd at Sochi's port was middle Russia, the people whose lives have steadily gotten better during Mr. Putin's 15 years as either president or prime minister – the people who keep voting him into office in elections that much of the world views as pre-arranged.
Oleg Vasilyevsky stood a few metres away from Ms. Petrova, wearing the CCCP hockey jersey of the Soviet Union and waving the flag of his Volga River hometown, Samara, which is also a two-day train ride from Sochi. His eyes welled up with tears as he explained why Friday meant so much to Russians.
"We are a nation that always overcomes difficult situations," the 50-year-old beer distributor said, repeating a theme that ran through the 21/2-hour opening ceremony. "In fact, it seems like we create the difficulties, then take pleasure from overcoming them."
The crowd at Sochi port was aware of the security worries raised by holding the Winter Games in this city only a day's drive from more violent parts of the volatile North Caucasus region. Spectators had to battle through an occasionally rowdy hour-long lineup to get through airport-style security checkpoints erected around the square. They'd also heard many of the jokes circulating online about how underprepared Sochi's stadiums and hotels were for the arrival of the world's athletes, spectators and media.
Some in Sochi – bitter at how the Games have affected their lives – stayed home and left their televisions off on Friday, saying they plan to avoid the Olympics altogether.
Irina Brovkina and her family were forcibly evicted from their apartment near the centre of Sochi in 2010 to make way for a new railway connecting the city to the Olympic sites to the south. Ms. Brovkina says the family was given only 2.5 million rubles (about $80,000) in compensation for an apartment they had bought two years earlier for 5.5 million rubles ($175,000). Improbably – given the reported $51-billion cost of the Games and the allegations of massive corruption – she was told the family couldn't be given fairer compensation because of the need to keep Olympic costs down.
She tried to organize a protest with other residents who had been forced from their homes – and wound up in jail for three days. "I never thought this festival of sports could be so terrible," she said angrily. "Most people in Sochi are not happy about the Olympics, they're just waiting for it to end."
But some skeptics found themselves converted into Olympic boosters on Friday night. "We never thought the Olympics would come here," said Elena Cherlik, a 34-year-old accountant who grew up in Sochi and who came to the port with her two young children.
"In fact, I lost a box of Heinekens betting against the IOC decision in 2007. I knew we weren't ready, that we had no facilities. But we went to the freestyle moguls last night and we were impressed by what we saw. I'm really, really proud."