I have a love-hate relationship with Russia.
One minute she can charm. Smiling, helpful, patient people like restaurant staff, hostel managers and most media volunteers at the world track and field championships create an illusion there is hope beyond communism, barriers and bigotry.
An example occurred upon completing one and a half laps (about 3km) of Luzhniki Stadium (the 1980 Moscow Olympic park) to collect accreditation for this week's track and field world championships. It was like orienteering without a compass. Still, once in the right place a little knowledge of schoolboy Russian went a long way.
After exchanging zdrastvuite (hello), the accreditation team went about establishing my profile. They prised out the fact I am more of a fan of The Beatles than Deep Purple as part of the small talk. They ask for a favourite song; I opt, rather cheesily, for "Back in the USSR". This elicits a group chuckle. "Ho, ho, ho," I reciprocate, while suspecting Big Brother will also become privy to the details. As Paul McCartney intoned: You don't know how lucky you are, boy...
A photo of my still glistening face is snapped for the accreditation pass and I am presented with a glossy diploma which makes a prediction: "In recognition and appreciation of your contribution to the success of the IAAF world championships Moscow 2013".
A chap passes my goodie bag and gets a spasibo (thank you). His face lights up as he returns a pozhalsta, which, on this occasion, translates as "no problem". I find that I too am beaming as I make another wipe at my brow.
However, a darker side to Russian life detracts from the genuine goodwill.
For every gesture of assistance, some dullard, be it a shop assistant, office manager or security staff will look at you with bleak, robotic eyes and grunt in monosyllables which suggest your very existence has ruined their day. It presumably hasn't, but it's an insight that social thorns lie behind the rosy exterior. Maybe it's a worldwide phenomenon, but it feels worse here.
Russia's dilemma appears to be not so much a language problem as a cultural one. The looks seem to mask a deeper emotion: fear.
A fear of showing initiative, a fear of showing spirit, a fear of showing weakness. The country's Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy is difficult to comprehend but history offers a clue.
Perceived resentment might descend from the deprivation endured by generations defending the country during WWII against Hitler's Germany and the poverty of its aftermath. The Soviets also had to defend themselves internally during Stalinist purges where death or banishment to gulags was routine. Such results would tend to engender caution.
Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union) has been besieged by endless war, pain and suffering. The communist ideal which drove the revolution to overthrow the Tsarist regime in 1917 never materialised. Mikhail Gorbachev did his best to instigate social reform in the late 1980s but now they're back under Vladimir Putin, a man who, as an example, was prepared to sign off recent anti-gay propaganda legislation without hesitation. Repression seems commonplace.
In fact Putin, he of the bare-chested photos in warrior pose on horseback, handling his rifle and casting his rod, appears more than willing to pursue populist politics. He knows if he creates enemies such as the gay community or the United States (an easy target given he simply has to resuscitate propaganda from the Cold War) he creates voter support.
Such an approach also appears to extend to sport in Russia. A winning Russia blanks out any creep towards an inferiority complex. It worked in the space race and extended to the Olympics. Perhaps it's a coincidence but Russia (and other former Soviet republics like Belarus) have some of sport's worst doping records through the generations. The 'win at all costs' theory fits with long-suffering insecurity. It also might not be an accident that adjacent to the Olympic park is a two-metre high wrought-iron wall surrounding a concrete monstrosity which looks capable of withstanding nuclear attack. The building is the Olympic Committee headquarters.
Across the road - this time behind a three-metre green iron fence - the slogan outside the accreditation centre for the world championships reads - 'peace, sport, friendship'.
This seems token. Perhaps an asterisk should be attached with the disclaimer "unless you are gay, American or prefer to think independently". The International Associations of Athletics Federations chose to put the anti-gay issue in the too-hard-basket this week, with president Lamine Diack of Senegal (where homosexuality is illegal) saying he had "no problem, whatsoever" respecting Russian law. The issue will now become a powderkeg at the Sochi Olympics in February. Still, that's not his problem.
Russian needs to prove its goodwill is not merely for show.