This video is available with captions on YouTube.
MS. HARF: Hi, everyone. Welcome to today’s Google Hangout on what to expect if you’re traveling to Sochi to the Winter Olympics just in a little bit over a week here. I know we’re very excited for the Olympics, and very happy to have a couple of my colleagues here at the State Department to talk to all of you and answer your questions about what to expect.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name’s Marie Harf. I’m the Deputy Spokesperson here at the State Department. I’m also a huge fan of the Olympics personally, so this is a very exciting time of year for me as well.
So what I’m going to do, I think, is introduce the three folks we have with us today, and then I’ll let each of them say a little bit about themselves, and then we’ll open it up and we’ll start taking questions. I usually am the one on the other end of the receiving here answering questions, so I’m actually looking forward to asking them today.
So first, joining us from Moscow is our consul general. Her name’s Julie Kavanagh. I’ll turn it over to her in a second to introduce herself.
Second, we have Matt Deakin with us, who, in addition to being a Department of State employee who works with our Diplomatic Security folks here is also a gold medalist from the 2004 Athens Games where he gold medaled in rowing, so we are very lucky to have him here to answer your questions today.
And finally, Laura Hruby, who is in charge of our office that deals with American citizens services for our EUR division, so the division covering the Russian Federation, and of course, the rest of the EUR countries.
So we have a great lineup here today. I think I’ll turn it over now to Julie to introduce herself, and then we’ll go to Matt and then to Laura, and then we’ll start answering your questions.
MS. KAVANAGH: Thank you. Hi, everybody. It is -4 degrees Fahrenheit here in Moscow, so we are in Winter Olympic mode. We’re very excited for the Olympics. I’ve been here in Moscow since August and this is – the past couple days are the coldest it’s been, so we are definitely gearing up for the Olympics and are very excited.
MS. HARF: Thanks so much. Matt, say hi to everyone.
MR. DEAKIN: Hey, I’m Matt Deakin. It’s – I think it’s probably 65 degrees in San Francisco where I am right now, so it’s hard to imagine it’s -4 degrees anywhere. But yeah, I was a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and currently working for the State Department, so excited to be here.
MS. HARF: I was upset that he wasn’t actually wearing his gold medal. So I’m just making that public unhappiness known right now, Matt. (Laughter.)
Go ahead, Laura. Say hi to everyone.
MS. HRUBY: Hi, everybody. I’m Laura Hruby. As Marie mentioned, I work in the American Citizen Services Office within the Bureau of Consular Affairs here at the State Department. I’m the Europe Division Chief, and I’m very proud to be with the office that is concerned principally with protecting Americans while they’re living or traveling overseas.
MS. HARF: Great. Thanks, Laura. And before kicking it off, I think in general, it’s important for folks – I’m sure people obviously have their tickets purchased, their hotels booked, they’re ready to go – I think it’s important for folks to remember that at the State Department, and certainly at the U.S. Government writ large, we’re really focused on three things.
The first is obviously protection of American citizens overseas. That’s our top priority. That’s what folks on this hangout do every day. The second is obviously providing security for and protecting our delegation and our team members who are going to be there on the ground very soon. And the third is, of course, working with the Russian Government on the threats, on the challenges, on the security situation, as we do with every government whenever there is an Olympics.
So we’ve been working on this for many years now. We’re excited for the Games to start. And I think with that, I’ll probably start with Laura to start answering the first question we have for folks, which is: At a very basic level, what should American citizens do if they’re planning to go? We have a number of resources here, I know, online for folks to look at, places for them to register. So maybe Laura, if you could give a little bit of information that all American citizens should do if they’re planning to go to Sochi, that would be a good way to kick off the discussion.
MS. HRUBY: Absolutely. Thanks, Marie. The first place where I would advise anybody planning to go and support the U.S. Team is to check out our website at travel.state.gov. We have a fact sheet for fans who are headed to Sochi as well as more general information about Russia and travel in Russia.
There’s also a link from that site to our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which is very important for any U.S. citizens who are traveling or living overseas. We strongly recommend that they sign up with this program and provide an email address. That way, any safety and security information that we send out, they will receive directly in their inbox.
MS. HARF: Great. Thanks, Laura. Sorry, I’m writing some notes to myself. This is actually the first Google Hangout I’ve done, so we’re all learning here together. Thanks. I think that’s really important. American citizens aren’t required to register with the State Department, but if you go online to the STEP website and let us know where you’ll be if we need to get in touch with you, I think that’s a prudent step everyone should take if they’re going to Sochi.
I think I’ll turn over to Moscow now for tips from you all – what the situation’s like on the ground, sort of what you’re seeing, advice for travelers maybe who have never been to Russia, things they should bring, things they should pay attention to, any advice you have for folks out there.
MS. KAVANAGH: Thank you. I would add on to what Laura had said, and on travel.state.gov, travelers can find some really, really excellent information about coming to Sochi. We have a fact sheet on Sochi. We have a country-specific information sheet where you can learn all about Russia. If you look in the Sochi fact sheet, you can find all kinds of tips related to making sure that you have enough cash on hand, what you should do about medical insurance, to make sure you have medical insurance to cover any emergencies in Russia.
I think those are a couple of the key points that people should focus on, but of course, we urge you to read all of the information there and consider how it affects you. As for things on the ground, things are coming together nicely. We will be having an office in Sochi where we can help American citizens who might have some difficulties if they run into a crime or lose a travel document. We’ll be able to help them with that. And the contact information for that office can be found, again, on our Sochi fact sheet.
MS. HARF: Great, thanks so much. And I think we’ll dive a little bit more into some of the specific Russia-related questions in a second, but I want to turn it over to Matt here, because I’m sure folks are very interested in your experience. I’d love for you to answer – we’ve gotten a few questions about what it was like traveling as an athlete to the Olympic Games and what it was like being part of Team USA, and what folks who are going – families, friends – should expect as they head to Sochi very soon.
MR. DEAKIN: Well, there’s quite a few questions there. I guess I’ll start with --
MS. HARF: You have to answer all of them, all of them.
MR. DEAKIN: All right. I think from my perspective, especially being about a little over a week out from the games, at this point, all the athletes are thinking about is their competition. And I think if they’re nervous about anything, it’s just the performance of looking forward to their racing or their competition or whatever it is that they have coming up in the next couple weeks. And I think that’s what really the athletes are thinking about, and I’m sure parents are wishing they could see a little bit more of their kids or if – friends, if – they would love to see more of their friends. But right now, I’m sure all the athletes are very sequestered and just focusing on what’s coming up next.
So you’re not going to – parents and friends and family are not going to be seeing a lot of them until the Games are over. And you’ll have to remind me--
MS. HARF: What was – yeah, no, I was just going to ask more follow-ups. It’s fine. This is fun being on this side of it. What was your daily regimen like in Athens? What – maybe for first time athletes who are going, what can they expect to encounter when they’re at the Olympics? Any advice you can give them?
MR. DEAKIN: Yeah. For us, rowing is a very training-intensive sport, and – but the training really backs off in the lead-up to the Games, so what – the idea that by the time you get to the starting line of your race, you’re basically bouncing off the walls with so much energy. And for us, it was a matter of trying to control that and also trying to stay focused. It’s a weird and kind of emotional rollercoaster coming into the warm-up for the Games. And you go back and forth between “Oh, I can’t wait till the day’s here,” and “I just can’t wait till it’s over.” And you go back and forth and you’re worried and – but then at the same time, you just have to rely on the fact that you’ve done your training and you’ve prepared, and all that’s left is just to do it on the day.
MS. HARF: I think that makes sense. Let’s go back out to Moscow, maybe. I know you’ve already mentioned a couple of them, but what are you all doing to get ready for the influx of Americans that are going to be visiting? What are you doing or what do you recommend? I think if there are specific security measures or steps that people take – we obviously have a Travel Alert out and if we can talk – want to talk through that, I think we’re probably all happy to. But what specifically are you all doing to get ready for everyone on the ground to land, I think, pretty soon?
MS. KAVANAGH: Well, I think one of the most important things is just getting the message out. I think a really important message to people is just to use common sense, and that applies for security, it applies for crime. Sochi is a big city. You have the potential for crime there just as you would have in any large city around the world. And so we really urge people to just use common sense in every respect. So that’s one of the big things that we’re working on is to make sure that that messaging gets out to the American public. We want people to come and have a great time. We want them to be well-informed.
The other thing I think that is – that we’re spending quite a bit of time on is actually getting the office set up. As you know, Sochi is nowhere near Moscow, so we are working quite hard to make sure everything is up and running so that we can communicate, we can help Americans. I will be traveling down to Sochi this weekend, as will a number of my staff. Our American Citizen Services chief is traveling there as well. So we are getting everything setup, getting ready for people to come into town.
MS. HARF: Great. And actually on that same vein, we have a question from Twitter. Brittany is asking: “Should we use public transportation in Sochi?” So I guess I’d turn it over to you out there in Moscow to answer that question.
MS. KAVANAGH: Sure. We do actually urge people to use public transportation. The traffic situation in any Russian city can be pretty intense. So there is a train system in Sochi that’s running quite nicely. We’ve got all kinds of details about that, scheduling and so on, that’s available on the various pieces of public information, on the website, and so on. So yes, we definitely are advising people to use public transportation.
MS. HARF: Great, thank you. And we have another question here from Facebook that maybe I’ll take – and if other folks have thoughts, jump in as well – asking about security and the threat of terrorism that we talk a lot about. Certainly, we address it lot. The press have a lot of questions, but Sarah on Facebook asking: “How can we be 110 percent certain there’s no threat of terrorism?”
And I think what I would say to Sarah, and other folks can jump in, is that we’ve been working very closely with the Russian Government. It’s not unusual ahead of a big international event for threat reporting to go up. That’s why we’ve been so focused on security for years now and why we’re working with the Russian Government, who, more than anyone, is committed to making sure that they do everything they can and put security in place so, God forbid, nothing bad happens at the Games. We know it’s a concern. That’s why our Travel Alert tells people to be cautious and attentive. But certainly we want everyone to go and have fun, to go cheer on Team USA, just while being smart and paying attention to what’s going on around them.
So I think, Sarah, hopefully that answered your question. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that a lot more in the coming days as well.
Let me go back out to Matt, here.
When you were in Athens, did you have family or friends who – how big was your entourage traveling with you, I guess? And what kind of experiences did they have, maybe advice you can give to other families and friends who are going to Sochi?
MR. DEAKIN: Well, I, of course, traveled with a pretty large team, so there was, I think, over 70 athletes just with the rowing team, so it was a big group --
MS. HARF: Oh, wow.
MR. DEAKIN: -- and we’d all trained together for very long.
MS. HARF: It was a big entourage.
MR. DEAKIN: Yeah. Well, they weren’t all there to see me; they were there to compete themselves. So that was nice to be able to travel with a group that we’d all been training together for several years, so that was very nice. And then my parents came over as well. So I had a relatively small entourage, just being two people. But I think for them it was a very interesting experience because they didn’t get to see a whole lot of me until the racing was complete. And of course they’re parents, so they’re worried and they – they’re just running through all the scenarios of, “Oh, what if it doesn’t go as well as he wants it to” and all these kind of things. And then when it’s over, it’s just such a huge emotional high and they were very excited, of course, and --
MS. HARF: Well, and you won the gold, so that’s probably helped a little bit.
MR. DEAKIN: Yeah, it definitely did. But even after that, they didn’t really get to see me because you’re rushed off and you have all these things you have to take care of, and so it’s – I think it’s a little bit difficult for parents, but it’s also – I’m sure they wouldn’t have missed it for the world, so --
MS. HARF: Of course. And let’s go back to Laura here in Washington with a couple sort of factual questions for folks tuning in who at this point might still have some questions about actual travel to Russia.
I think, Laura, if you could start talking a little bit – we did issue a Travel Alert for the Russian Federation before the Sochi Olympics, fairly recently, so maybe if you could talk a little bit about that, what the difference is between an alert and a warning and what the key points were in that. I think that would be helpful to folks.
MS. HRUBY: Absolutely. We first released the Travel Alert for Russia related to the Games on January 10th and we updated it last week with some newer information. We put out a Travel Alert whenever there are short-term considerations that could affect the safety and security of American citizens while they’re overseas. And this is differentiated from a Travel Warning, which typically addresses longer term conditions over – that would continue over a greater time.
So this is fairly typical, especially before large international events like the Olympics, and some of the factors that we mention in the Travel Alert, and which I won’t go into detail about because folks can go and look at the Travel Alert itself, but we do talk about the terrorism threats.
We talk about crime and the potential for crime in Sochi, as there would be in any other city of its size. We also talk about the medical system in the region, which is a bit untested at this time, and we always recommend to U.S. travelers that they know what their medical insurance will cover while they’re overseas and that they strongly consider getting supplemental insurance if they would not be covered for a medical evacuation in the event that that would be necessary.
We also talk about issues like public demonstrations and some restrictions that there will be on the location for such demonstrations during the Games, as well as some LGBT considerations for anyone who will be attending.
We also include all of the contact information for U.S. citizens in the event that they need assistance from our consular staff who will be there in Sochi, and those staff would be available around the clock if needed.
MS. HARF: And – thanks, Laura. Picking up on a couple things you said, first, maybe could you talk a little bit about the LGBT issues? Obviously, it’s been a huge issue in the press. We’ve made very clear how important these issues are to us as a country, and a team and a delegation, but maybe if you could just talk through a little bit about what we’re telling people on that issue if they’re planning to travel.
MS. HRUBY: Absolutely. So the main point is that under Russian law, the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors is banned, and there’s a lack of clarity about what Russian authorities would consider to be propaganda under this law. So travelers should just be aware that their activities would – could fall under this in certain circumstances, and we don’t know precisely how Russian authorities will interpret that.
MS. HARF: Embassy Moscow, do you all have anything to add on to that, specifically about the LGBT issue or any of the other Sochi-specific things in our Travel Alert that you want to jump in with here?
MS. KAVANAGH: I don’t have anything to add on the LGBT issue. And with regard to just public information for people to know, it is expensive in Russia. It’s expensive in big cities. I don’t know about anybody else, but I grew up in a place where it wasn’t quite expensive and I get sticker shock when I go certain places, even New York City, Washington, D.C. So people coming to Sochi should know that it’s quite expensive and should make sure that they plan accordingly. Not every business will accept credit cards and so before you go into a restaurant, please make sure that you find out whether they take credit cards or not, and if not, do you have enough cash.
MS. HARF: That was actually going to be my next question about credit cards. So thank you for addressing that.
Sort of a very basic question, and again, I know this is in our Travel Alert, but what should an American citizen do if they get into trouble? If they get sick, if, God forbid, something worse happens – what should they do if they’re there in Sochi? Who should they contact? Just so folks have that information right at the tip of their fingers.
MS. KAVANAGH: Well, first of all, if they are in a life-threatening situation, they need to seek our police assistance or medical assistance at the nearest location. There will be volunteers all over Sochi who do speak English, and so seek out that kind of help. Consular officers and consular staff will be in Sochi, but we are not medical personnel. And so we really would urge people to immediately seek whatever medical assistance or police assistance that they might need. But aside from that, if it’s a lost document or if the immediate concern has been addressed by the police or by the hospital, we would urge them to call us and we will get in touch with you. We’ll figure out how we can best help.
The contact information is all on our Sochi Fact Sheet and posted various places. You can go to the Embassy website; it’s all over the place.
MS. HARF: Great. And how many – approximately – folks do you have from Moscow? You mentioned you’re headed down to Sochi soon. What kind of presence will we have down there, and how many folks are actually headed there from Moscow?
MS. KAVANAGH: Oh, I couldn’t give you to the total number. It’s pretty big.
MS. HARF: A lot. (Laughter)
MS. KAVANAGH: There are different roles for different people. We’ll have people who are dealing with press issues, people who are supporting high level visitors, consular officers, all kinds of people. But we will be available 24 hours if the need arises.
MS. HARF: And I know you all are providing a lot of support to our opening and closing ceremony delegations. I want to ask you a question first about how we’re going to be supporting them, and then ask Matt a question about the opening ceremonies as well. So what all support – I know you provide security support, but – logistical support for our delegation out there?
MS. KAVANAGH: That’s right. This is the President’s delegation. This is a presidential delegation, representing President Obama, coming to Russia for the Games, and we’ll be providing all kinds of support for them – logistics, working with the Russians, the Russian Government, to ensure their security, hoping that they have a very successful visit. I know many of them are very, very interested in meeting the athletes while they’re here. That’s one of their primary purposes is to represent the President and to meet the athletes, so we’ll do our utmost to help them do that.
MS. HARF: Absolutely. And of course, it’s led by our former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, Billie Jean King, Brian Boitano, some other folks heading out there as well.
Matt, I’m curious. Did you get a chance to march in the opening ceremonies in Athens?
MR. DEAKIN: Unfortunately, I did not. Our event started early, early the next morning, so we were not able to attend. And our venue was also --
MS. HARF: That seems unfair. (Laughter)
MR. DEAKIN: Our venue was also close to 50 miles outside of Athens, so we would not have gotten home until very, very late. So again, it’s – for the athletes the opening ceremonies is great and it’s a spectacle, but if their competitions start early the next morning, they’ve got to focus on that.
MS. HARF: And I was looking at the schedule. It looks like some even start maybe before the opening ceremonies, and I think one or two events after the closing ceremonies. So you’re trying to get a lot of events into a short amount of time. I know the schedule can be a little tough there.
Laura, going back to some of what you talked about with the Travel Alert, you talked a little bit about crime, particularly for a city of the size of Sochi. Are there any specifics related to Sochi that you think people should be on the lookout for? Maybe both Laura and Julie can address that, just for travelers. Anything specific?
MS. HRUBY: Julie may have something to say about this specific to Sochi. I would say people should just use good judgment, that – use the normal precautions that they would when they’re in a crowded place – keep good track of their valuables; consider not taking a lot of valuables; and to the extent that folks are carrying cash because they may need to for certain purchases, to divide that up among a couple different locations on their person, try to leave some back in the hotel safe, that type of thing.
Also, travelers should carry their passport with them, but leave a photocopy of that and any credit cards that they’ve got with them somewhere safe so that, in case it were needed, they would have all of that information right at their fingertips.
MS. HARF: And people need a visa – Americans need a visa, correct, to travel to Russia, Laura?
MS. HRUBY: That’s correct, yes. U.S. citizens need a visa for Russia. They’ve expedited the processing for these visas for Olympic ticketholders. And U.S. travelers – actually, sorry – anyone attending the Games will actually also need to get a spectator pass in order to gain admittance to the Olympic venues.
MS. HARF: And that’s in addition to their ticket?
MS. HRUBY: That’s right.
MS. HARF: And how do they go about doing that?
MS. HRUBY: The details are all on the Sochi 2014 website, but it does include a background check that the Russian authorities would do. So this is one of the security precautions that the Russian officials have put in place to make sure that everything goes smoothly.
MS. HARF: So basically if folks are watching this and decide they want to buy a ticket to Sochi, not only will they be spending a little bit of money at this point, probably, but there are a number of steps they would need to go to. Is it too late if folks, on a whim, decide to go, or is – how are the processes working in terms of timing of visas and everything?
MS. HRUBY: I think since the Olympics go on for a few weeks, I think there’s still time, depending on which events people would want to go to. But --
MS. HARF: I mean, I might decide to go. That’s --
MS. HRUBY: All right.
MS. HARF: I may just decide to buy a ticket.
MS. HRUBY: As long as you enroll in STEP, we’re happy to have you go.
MS. HARF: Yes, of course. Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.
MS. KAVANAGH: Just to address the spectator pass issue, you can register online for the spectator pass once you’ve purchased a ticket through the Russian website. We’ve got some links to it. But it’s actually quite easy to register. You can even take your own photo on your laptop or your iPad – that’s what I did – then you – once you come to Russia, you take your ticket and your ID, your passport, to a spectator pass office and you pick up your spectator pass.
I can’t say how long that would take because it depends on how many people are doing it at one time. I can say here in Moscow the process was very quick and very efficient.
MS. HARF: Great. And Julie, staying with you for a second, are there any specific – when we talk about crime, obviously, Sochi is a city of a certain size where crime can occur. Are there any specific things in terms of crime or security specific to Sochi that people should be aware of, any scams, any ticket issues, anything like that that folks should be aware of?
MS. KAVANAGH: There are some online scams with regard to ticket resellers, so I would urge people to be careful about that. Aside from that, I don’t think there are any specific crime issues related to Sochi. I would note that often when people travel, they decide they’re going to leave their passport in their hotel and carry a photocopy with them. We do not advise that in Sochi. We advise people to carry their passport, the original passport, with them at all times because the Russian police and security services are doing identity checks for security purposes for obvious reasons to keep the Games safe and secure, and so people really should have – need to have their passports with them.
MS. HARF: That’s a great tip. And I think we’re coming up on a half hour here and I think I’ve addressed most of the questions, so I’m going to go back on the horn one more time for last thoughts from our three guests who have been very gracious with their time today.
So Laura, why don’t I start with you back here in Washington for any last thoughts or tips or advice for travelers.
MS. HRUBY: Thanks, Marie, and I think I’ll just finish off actually the same way that I started, and not to repeat this too many times, but I really hope that everyone listening to this and watching this today will go to our website, check out the great information and products we have there. As Julie mentioned, there’s just loads of good information, travel tips, and links to other information that we publish for travelers that would be useful for anyone attending the Games in Sochi or planning any other travel coming up, and that they take the opportunity while they’re there to enroll in STEP and let us know when they’re going to be in Sochi and give their email address so that we can make sure that they stay updated with any developments.
MS. HARF: Absolutely. And just underscoring that, STEP is – if we need to get in touch with you, this is the way we do it. So I can’t underscore Laura’s point enough that we want folks who are traveling to make sure they do that so we can get in touch with them if we need to.
Let’s go out to Moscow. Julie, any last thoughts before we sign off today?
MS. KAVANAGH: Just to say that Sochi is a beautiful location. It’s temperate on the coast, but it’s got beautiful, beautiful mountains and it should be an exciting several weeks, so we’re looking forward to it.
MS. HARF: Well, we can’t wait, and I know you call can’t either. Let’s finish up with Matt, our very own gold medalist here at the State Department. Any last thoughts – athletes, fans, friends, families, anyone going – that you have for folks today?
MR. DEAKIN: I would just wish the best of luck to all the athletes that are out there, and I’m personally – I’m really looking forward to the start of it. I am an Olympic superfan, so I’m really excited to watch all the events and see how we do. So that’s --
MS. HARF: Do you have a favorite Winter Olympics event – putting you on the spot?
MR. DEAKIN: I like the speed skating.
MS. HARF: Speed – they’re all very cool, but I agree speed skating is very cool.
MR. DEAKIN: It’s --
MS. HARF: Well, obviously – go ahead.
MR. DEAKIN: I was just going to say it looks suitably painful, which I appreciate as a former rower.
MS. HARF: You appreciate that. That was a good answer. Secretary Kerry, obviously, is a huge hockey fan.
MR. DEAKIN: Oh, okay.
MS. HARF: Has played hockey for a long time and is a huge hockey fan here, so I’m sure there will be a lot of people watching the Olympics at their desks during the Olympic Games. But I want to say thank you to our three folks who joined us today. Hopefully, we provided our viewers with some good travel tips, security tips, and just a little color about what it’s going to be like when everyone very soon goes to Sochi for these upcoming Winter Olympic Games.
Stay up to speed on what we’re doing here from Twitter, Facebook. Obviously, the State Department will be tweeting throughout. Ambassador McFaul in Moscow, as we all know, tweets all the time, and we’ll be keeping American citizens up to date as well, our travel.state.gov online and on Twitter as well. So we’ll keep you all posted and you always know where to come for more information.