My Lunch with One of the World’s Top Human Rights Violators
I don’t ever remember getting a call. I don’t remember what they told us on the way. All I can remember is being hurried through to a back room of some regional Russian airport and waiting.
You’ll have to forgive me, a lot of this story is blurry. See, when a Russian offers you vodka, you must accept. Now, I’m not one to turn down a free drink regardless of international diplomacy, but in early 2007 I wasespecially eager to improve the image of Americans abroad (which, at the time, was “Jabba the Hut wearing a cowboy hat screeching ‘WHY DON’T YOU TALK ENGLISH.’”)
I asked our translator when we’d be arriving in Sochi, and he just smiled and shook his head. He said goodbye, wished me luck and safety, and left. My two lead producers, Eric— a charming little schmoozer whose habit of partying like he was still in college never got in the way of his work, and Debbie— a depressing, oblivious, lump who hyphenated her three syllable long maiden name to her husband’s three syllable long surname even though they fucking rhymed, were called over to a corner to talk with Vlad, our fixer. When shooting a show abroad, it pays to have a local on your team to navigate the sea of con-men wearing official uniforms — and Vlad, an imposing scowl of a man, almost certainly ex-KGB, was as good as you could get. The conversation was in heated whispers; short, angry bursts of air punctuated by flailing arm gestures.
Eric, visibly shaking off the news, approached me.
“The Russians gave away our fucking hotel rooms to the IOC. There’s not a goddamned room left in all of Sochi.”
I stuttered a bit before I could even get out a “Wait— what? Where are we—”
“Oh don’t worry,” he sneered, “they’ve got a plan for us. They’re sending us to Chechnya.”
Now, at this point, my only knowledge of Chechnya was a vague recollection of that Moscow theater hostage crisis— y’know, the one where like 50 Chechen rebels stormed a theater and the Russians unceremoniously gassed the shit out of everyone, killing like 150 people? Yeah, that one. As we made preparations to board the small twin-engine jet, I had no idea what we were getting into. For all I knew, Chechnya was a full-on fucking war-zone. Rumors started swirling that the last American to set in foot in Chechnya was sent home in a body bag, some AP reporter who got herself exploded at a soccer game. This was NOT what I signed up for. We weren’t here to shoot goddamned Restrepo, we were here to produce a fucking beauty pageant.