When the International Olympic Committee awarded Russia the 2014 Winter Games nearly seven years ago, Vladimir Putin made it clear that they would be his pet project. Officially, these Games are intended to reintroduce post-Soviet Russia to the world, while serving as a personal, unofficial capstone to Putin's 15 years as the country's leader. They are also meant to turn the host city, Sochi (a.k.a. "the Florida of Russia"), into a premium tourist destination for the well-to-do world traveler. That, however, will be easier said than done. Despite Sochi's reputation as the long-time go-to spot for R&R (both among the proletariat and Russian elite), trouble is as much in the water as redemption.
Legend, Lore and Lure
Sochi, and the greater Caucasus region in general, started out as a place where outlaws, rabble-rousers and scoundrels were sent to redeem themselves—or die trying. The long-disputed area was only finally "conquered" in the mid-19th century after a series of meandering, bloody wars that included subjugating or eliminating the native population.
Back in polite society, literary giants who'd spent time in the Caucasus fueled interest in the region. A Hero of Our Time (Lermontov), Hadji Murat (Tolstoy) and Prisoner of the Caucasus (Pushkin) depicted duels and battles against a remote, beautiful Caucasian backdrop. In them, exotic women, noble savages and flawed men sought—and often failed—to find inner peace. Inextricable to this narrative is the allure of the wild, made even more desirable for its inability to be tamed. It's precisely because of this tension that Sochi and the Caucasus first beckoned to travelers.
Sochi B.C. (Before Communism)
In the early 20th century, Russia's elite returned from vacations in Western Europe with burgeoning ideas about the self-improving nature of travel—such as the importance of communing with one's native land and developing broader cross-cultural social skills.
Simultaneously, the first railways penetrated the Caucasus, leading straight to Sochi's doorstep. Russia's infirm could now easily visit the healing waters along the Black Sea rather than more traditional destinations in Germany and elsewhere. Among the most popular were Sochi's Matsesta sulphur springs; the first spa there was built in 1902.
The line between health and pleasure was immediately blurred. Daytime soaks in mineral springs and mud baths were balanced by nights spent dancing to live music in public gardens. Apparently, relaxation mixed with revelry was crucial to the cure, regardless of the ailment.
Sochi A.D. (After Stalin's Death)
Throughout both World Wars I and II convalescing soldiers from the Eastern front were Sochi's primary occupants. Afterward, the Black Sea coast became a playground for Stalin and his inner circle—traces of which still appear in Sochi today (e.g., Stalin's camouflage green dacha stands as a museum commemorating his frequent presence in post-war Sochi).
When Stalin died in 1953, the nicest beaches continued to be reserved for Russia's elite, but so-called "wild tourism" ran rampant thanks to bribery and ingenuity. Practically anyone with enough rubles could pay off a doctor, spa-keeper or hotel desk clerk to gain access to such reserved areas. Other Russians simply packed their families into a vehicle and flocked unaided to Sochi, sleeping in illegal, unregulated pop-up camps.
As a result, national heroes like cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lived it up alongside the proletariat who convalesced in Sochi on the Soviet Union's dime after spending the rest of the year laboring for government-owned industry.
When Communism Was No More
Sochi's popularity took a nosedive after the fall of the Soviet Union. As capitalism replaced state-sponsorship, a lack of funding forced once glamorous resorts and sanatoria to close. Complicating matters further, international borders were opened, allowing those with means to travel outside of Russia, which they've done with relish ever since.
Sochi needed a dramatic rebirth, which is yet another reason why Putin pushed so hard to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Fifty-one billion dollars later, visitors will find a much different Sochi today than that of even a decade ago. Old Sochi exists now only in the shadow of five-star hotels and luxury apartment complexes built to woo international visitors. During the Games, cruise ships will line the shore, providing added accommodations for an otherwise impossibly large influx of guests.
Of course, crafting such a giant tourist trap has come with significant human costs. Watchdogs are screaming about human rights violations, ranging from allegations of forced relocation of residents to environmental atrocities. And so, for a local population that's already among the poorest and most politically volatile in Russia, the Winter Games have only fanned the flames of resentment.
What the Future Holds
After the Olympics and Paralympics have run their course, Sochi is tying its short-term future to hosting the first Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix series since World War I.
Even if these events succeed in piquing, and sustaining, the interest of travelers across the world, a lack of international flights into Sochi paired with notorious difficulties in acquiring visas to the region mean the Black Sea coast will remain a tough destination to reach for non-Russians.
Perhaps the most revealing specter of Sochi's future is the looming relocation of three out of five brand-new arenas constructed for the Olympics. Partially disassembled, these landmarks will be literally picked up and moved to other locations within Russia to serve new purposes.
The empty footprints where they once stood might prove to be the ultimate legacy of Sochi post-Olympics—that of a modern Potemkin village.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © RIA Novosti/Alamy