John Kass

SOCHI, Russia -- What do you do in Sochi?

I just arrived here, it's late, I'm exhausted, but I'm going to find out. That is, after I sleep for about a day and a half.

The Winter Olympic Games open later this week, protected by a security cordon called the Ring of Steel. It was nighttime when I arrived, but I'll soon see whether the Ring of Steel gleams in the Russian sun.

And of course, this Olympics will feature ice skating. My wife and most American women are addicted to the figure skating events, which I once foolishly described as the Cinderella Princess Competition, but I've since apologized.

My wife will be watching the Olympics at home while I'm in Sochi, determined to understand the Russian ethos in a few days.

"You've got to have a bath," said a guy who spent years in Russia. "You can't understand Russia until you've taken a bath."

He explained that the bath business is part of the true Russian culture, where you steam slowly for hours, and pay someone (probably a Russian security agent) to whip you with a tree branch.

Does it hurt?

"Yes, it hurts," said the Russian expert. "It really hurts."

So why would I want to be whipped by a Russian wielding a branch of birch?

"Because after they're hitting you for a while, it begins to feel good," said the guy. "Incredible, really. Then you plunge yourself into ice water. Then vodka."

The vodka I can take. And that's how this columnist will roll in Sochi. I'll pay some guy to whip me with a tree, have a few snorts, and then tell you how wonderful it was.

Before I got on the plane, I prepared for my Russian adventure. No, I didn't study a folder of clipped newspaper stories for some quickie background. I did real research.

I rented some movies -- "Dr. Zhivago" and "Taras Bulba."

You know what "Zhivago" is about. Less famous is "Taras Bulba," the excruciatingly long movie of yesteryear starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis as a Cossack father and son.

Yul has a topknot on his otherwise shaven head, and he and his friends drink vodka, fight with the Poles, wrestle bears and so on. I'm sure there's some parallel to the Sochi of today.

"Weren't they Ukrainian?" asked an editor.

Maybe, but Curtis could play anything, even an English squire. And Brynner played a cowboy and a cowboy robot. His range was spectacular.

But I won't rely on movies to tell me of the Russian soul. Not even "And Quiet Flows the Don," the novel by Mikhail Sholokhov, given to me years ago by a great writer at this newspaper who has long passed.