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High life: Sochi has been a site of dreams since Soviet times. What does it say about Russia today?

High life: Sochi has been a site of dreams since Soviet times. What does it say about Russia today?

Sochi has been a site of dreams since Soviet times. As it remakes itself for the Games, from lofty new ski slopes to Disneyland-meets-Dubai luxury apartments, Joshua Yaffa asks what the latest incarnation of a talismanic town says about Russia today

27 January 2014
Photos Max Avdeev

One bright afternoon this fall, I rode a cable car up a steep, wooded slope to the site where Gazprom, the giant state-owned gas company, has built the biathlon course for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Stepping off, I could see a palette of green and brown stretching out across the Caucasus, and the dark blue of the sea beyond. The view was beautiful, the sort of geographic alchemy of earth and water that Vladimir Putin spoke about to delegates from the International Olympic Committee in 2007 when Sochi was awarded the 2014 Games. It was early in the fall and snow hadn’t yet started to fall this far down the mountain. Stored in the hillsides above were some of the 450,000 cubic metres of snow being warehoused in case not enough had fallen come February.

Andrei Markov, the director of the biathlon venue, with close-cropped brown hair and a zip-up athletic jacket, was happy to give a tour. As he stood between the two viewing stands for spectators, he called the course a “flagship for years to come” and “a standard for sports construction that Russia has given the whole world”. (As to why a natural gas company would build a biathlon course, he explained, “Sure, it may not be non-core activity, but it’s for the benefit of the nation.”) I asked him whether questions about costs — the price tag for the Sochi Olympics has famously ballooned to more than $50bn — slowed down or otherwise complicated the project. Markov shook his head. “What kind of financial difficulty can there be,” he said, “if the president has given his guarantee?”

Such a guarantee — that for Putin, and thus by extension for all of the country’s state officials, the Sochi Games were a project of sacred importance — meant that the process of readying Sochi would proceed without concerns for cost or long-term impact. In this Sochi resembles some of the grand Soviet projects of the last century, for which the marshalling of state resources in the service of a messianic, Promethean idea became the point itself. (At least, unlike the never-realised Sibaral plan from the Sixties, when Soviet authorities considered detonating nuclear bombs to reverse the flow of the Irtysh and Ob rivers, Putin never envisioned employing weapons of mass destruction in Sochi’s facelift.) In other words, the details matter less than the gesture and what it proves. Putin himself explained this last month, telling foreign journalists that Sochi has a “psychological aspect” in helping Russia overcome a “negative and pessimistic” public attitude. Pulling off the massive project would help strengthen “the nation’s morale,” he said.

It is perhaps no accident that Putin’s gaze fell on Sochi, a patch of lush and hilly earth wedged between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, which has offered successive generations of Russian rulers the chance to impart their vision on the southern reaches of the empire. It was here, in 1864, where a last, bloody campaign waged by army of Tsar Alexander II marked the end of a 50-year war of conquest in the Caucasus. The highland Circassian fighters bivouacked in the mountains above Sochi were either killed in battle or fled with their families to port towns across the Black Sea.

Under Stalin, Sochi was the epitome of the Soviet bargain: work yourself to near death and the state will send you for a seaside holiday

Under Stalin, who kept a holiday dacha just outside of town, Sochi became a showpiece in the postcard version of communism, in which the working man inhabited the trappings of aristocratic comfort. If the underground stations of Moscow’s metro were designed to serve as everyday palaces for the proletariat, then Sochi was their summer residence, a place where workers could stroll under the shade of palm trees and breathe the sea air. Sochi, in its subtropical splendor, was the epitome of the Soviet bargain: work yourself to near death in the Arctic Circle, for example, and for a month a year the state will send you and your family for a seaside holiday.

Putin, Russia’s leader now for 14 years, was also drawn to leave his own mark on Sochi. He went skiing in the mountains above town and saw Sochi’s revitalisation and emergence as a world-class destination as reflective of Russia’s transformation under his rule. As Putin saw it, holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be the metaphor of his time in office, realised on a grand physical scale: national embarrassment would be replaced with national pride; bumbling decrepitude with great skill and ability. In 2007, after Putin successfully lobbied for Sochi’s bid to the International Olympic Committee, he pronounced the decision to hold the Games there “not just a recognition of Russia’s sporting achievements, but ... beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country”.

Sochi is a fairytale city that brings to mind the sprawl of southern California; the misplaced exuberance of Dubai

Back in the summer of 2008, when I visited Sochi for a few days, a promoter at a nightclub in town — in keeping with the buoyant spirit of the moment, the venue took the form of an offshore oil rig, which bobbed in the shallow waters of the Black Sea — told me with great pride in his voice that Sochi was on its way to becoming Russia’s own “little Monaco”. Why should the country’s wealthy and powerful have to decamp to the Alps to ski and the French Riviera to party?

More than five years later, on the eve of the Olympics’ opening ceremony, Sochi is a fairytale city of sporting palaces rising out of the sand and high-speed trains hurtling up into the mountains. A tangled nest of highway interchanges brings to mind the sprawl of southern California; largely empty glass-fronted condominium buildings evoke the misplaced exuberance of Dubai.

The Olympic Village, built by Basic Element, the holding company for the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, is to be converted after the Games into luxury condominiums with seafront views. The loud, clanking cargo port used to bring in construction materials for Olympic venues will become a yachting marina. When I visited the site a few months ago, workers were laying down grass along the sidewalk and finishing the caulking for the pools that dot the grounds. The cheery sales director told me, “The task is to offer the same level of service that Russians usually have to travel abroad for.” Opening prices per square metre will equal those in many of western Europe’s vacation destinations — one huge, unanswered question for future profitability is whether Russians will pay European prices to vacation at home.

One afternoon, I took a tour of what organisers call the mountain cluster, where the Olympic ski and snowboarding events will be held. Up on a plateau sunk in between the peaks of the Caucasus, an ersatz Austrian ski village, built by Vladimir Potanin, a metals and mining oligarch, straddles the Mzymta River. Ski lifts rise up the steep valley, passing over the horizon of snow-dusted pine trees. The sporting and hotel cluster has the air of Disneyland about it, in that it contains a feeling of great theatrics and expense — and even quality, of a sort — but without much of an underlying idea or historical resonance. The day I visited, a crew from a German television station was wandering around, clearly confused. The correspondent walked up to me. “Why,” she asked, pausing for a moment to gather her words, “does it look like this?”

For all of Sochi’s frenetic reinvention, glimpses of its Soviet undercoat are still visible. The sea terminal, a beautiful jewel of mid-century Soviet architecture, has been tastefully restored; though in keeping of the times, it is now home to an expensive and mediocre Italian restaurant. Still, gazing out from its balconies to the horizon of the Black Sea, it’s easy to imagine setting sail for Batumi or Trabzon. Though such voyages were not pleasure cruises for all: after the final stand of Circassian fighters in 1864, those who survived were pushed out of the mountains and into exile, fleeing by sea a ghastly assault that has been called Europe’s first genocide. The victory over the last remnant of highland fighters in the mountains above Sochi marked the Russian Empire’s defeat of the truculent subjects along its southern border; by the time of Russia’s first census, in 1897, the Black Sea coastline and the mountains overlooking it were virtually devoid of highland natives.

A nurse opened a tap and dark black water that smelled of rotten eggs rushed into the tub; several minutes later I was out, feeling perky and smelling a bit off.

Sochi was a popular spa town under the tsar, but it wasn’t until after the Bolshevik revolution and a 1921 decree calling for “centres of relaxation” in “the “most pleasant and healthful conditions” that it became a focus of mass tourism. Nothing speaks to Sochi’s not-so-distant Soviet past more than the sanatorium, a rest home and kind of communist spa in which highly regimented, 24-day stays remain the norm even today. I spent several nights this fall at the Sanitorium Metallurg, built in the Thirties for, as its name suggests, workers in the Soviet metallurgical industry. Its main building, a regal edifice of Stalinist neoclassicism, faces a sprawling, charmingly unkempt garden that lies on a slope leaning down toward Sochi’s main drag, Kurortny Prospekt, or Resort Avenue.

Breakfast was served in a soaring hall replete with polished columns and heavy drapes. Though, just like in Soviet times, the menu was less refined than the surroundings: when I visited, the morning spread comprised fried fish, mashed potatoes and slices of pink sausage laid out on a metal platter. Bowls of sour cream, tartare sauce and what looked like Thousand Island dressing were lined up next to one another and labelled according to whatever diet the resident doctor had prescribed. A sign printed in bright red and gold pronounced that the shvedsky stol — or “Swedish table”, the Russian word for buffet — was the “tasty, healthy and modern” way to eat.

After breakfast every morning, I would shuffle guiltily past the other sanatorium guests taking their places in the hallways for their daily battery of medical appointments and treatments. (A sampling: “monitored cleaning of the bowels”, room 1-4; “group psychotherapy”, room 3-33.) On my last day, I finally gave in and visited Matsesta, a palatial complex of hydrogen-sulphide springs in the hills above the city. After haranguing me for several minutes about the pointlessness, if not danger, of taking just one bath treatment — it was as if I had wandered into a hospital and asked for one of those amusing, curious things called an X-ray — the resident doctor wrote me out a prescription for one ten-minute dunk in the curative waters. A nurse opened up a tap and dark black water that smelled of rotten eggs rushed into the tub; several minutes later I was out, feeling rather perky and smelling a bit off.

On my last afternoon in Sochi, I set off to walk from the new train station in the Olympic Park toward the seafront. I walked up a hill, past a muddy field of construction equipment and wooden pallets, some of which were inexplicably on fire. One sidewalk was closed off, then another. I ended up having to dash across two lanes of rumbling traffic on a highway overpass. A freshly built Russian Orthodox church rose from in between the tangle of road construction. Migrant workers filed in and out of their barracks, single-storey buildings set among the Olympic venues and new housing developments. I hit a dead end within view of Fisht stadium, the site of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And after that, once the Games have passed, what Putin has built on the shores of the Black Sea will remain — a monument to an age in a country’s history, to a president who dreamt of stadiums that could fill what was once swampland, and to the particularly Russian mixture of over-exuberance and fatalism that lies behind so many of the country’s gestures.

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