Sochi Winter Olympics: Games stir pride in Southern California Russian speaking community

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In West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, dozens of men huddle around picnic tables moving chess pieces or dealing cards. They’re mostly over 50 years old, and they all speak Russian.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi are a hot topic here, says Victor Mikhed, one of the few men who speak English.

“It was a grand Opening Ceremony,” Mikehed says. “I think Mr. Putin has done well to show all the world Russia reigns.”

RELATED: Sochi Winter Olympics: Southern California athletes compete

He repeats Russia reigns in Russian. He also smiles, and acknowledges that’s not exactly true. But he likes the spirit – even if he is Belarussian. Mekhed, 56, grew up in Minsk, Belarus when it was part of Soviet Russia. He came to the U.S. three years ago.

More than 500,000 Russian-speaking people live in Southern California. 13 percent of the people in West Hollywood fall into that category, according to the city’s website.

Mekhed is paying particular attention to the biathlon for women – that’s where the athletes ski and shoot. He knows one of the athletes – Darya Domracheva.

“I met her. It was back home in Minsk, in some restaurant,” Mekhed says. “She’s a nice girl.”

He also says he's worried about security in Sochi. He doesn't want "another Boston Marathon."

Mekhed calls over his friend, Victor Michailovich. He says he’ll watch the Sochi Olympics with his wife, especially the hockey. But he criticizes the cost.

“It’s very nice, but very expensive,” he says.

Michailovich, who is also from Belarus, is unhappy President Vladimir Putin spent a reported $50 billion on the games. Why not spend it on the working people, he asks?

The 73-year-old retired plumber recalls Russia’s history of authoritarian leaders who do what they want.

“Russia is such a country that there is no other president than Mr. Putin.”

Outside the Odessa Market on Santa Monica Boulevard, people rush in and out with their Pelmeni – that’s Russian style ravioli. Edward Kesler was born in Ukraine, but grew up in Russia. He says the money spent on the Olympics was a good investment.

“Thousands, thousands, thousands of people have a job,” he says. “And now Sochi becomes a famous cultural and tourist center.”

He laughs, and adds something else: “It's better than somebody stealing the money – that happens in Russia.”

Like a lot of people, Kesler, 66, will pay close attention to the hockey. But he’s been in the United States for 21 years. Who will he root for?

“Honestly, I want America to be first,” Kesler says. “But in my opinion, they are not too good at it.”

For Snejana Bowers, it’s all about the figure skating. “It's graceful. It's beautiful,” she says.

Bowers, 39, was born in Ukraine. She also has divided loyalties: “Ukrainians, Americans and Russians - I’m for three teams!”

When asked if she has a favorite, she refuses to choose.

“I know they are all going to try the best,” Bowers says. “Of course, I’ll be happy to just watch the action.”

It would be hard to talk to Russian speakers in heavily gay West Hollywood about the Sochi Olympics without asking about the Russian government’s crackdown on gays and lesbians.

Bowers frowns and says: “It's no one’s business who is sleeping with who. It's their life.”

“For me, it doesn’t matter who is gay, who is not,” Kesler says. “It depends on how good the person is.”

Back at Plummer Park, Mekhed says he is less accepting of something else – all of the new extreme sports at the winter Olympics. 

“It's not for me,”​ Mekhed says. “But people are becoming more and more crazy.”

He’ll still watch those sports on TV. He played professional volleyball at one time. He is a sportsman, and is excited the Olympics are in a country he knows intimately, and still loves.

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