Sochi being left behind by Putin despite World Cup boost
The Black Sea resort - where Stalin owned a villa - is crumbling around the edges
Tourism has been vital to Sochi for more than 100 years. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images
It’s been a good week in Sochi, the Black Sea resort put on the map by Joseph Stalin and revitalised by Vladimir Putin. The Irish Times made the rookie error of simply assuming the stadium was in the city whose name is on the list of venues and has paid for it in long but inexpensive taxi rides but Adler’s Fisht Stadium hosted the game of the first round last Friday night and the locals have been doing their best to welcome their second major influx of overseas sports fans in the space of a couple of years.
Tourism has been the town’s stock in trade for comfortably more than 100 years. Originally a spa town pitched at the country’s 19th century rich elite, the communists sought to hold it up as an example of how the proletariat would be treated in the coming workers’ paradise.
Stalin had a dacha of his own built in the lushly forested hills overlooking the sea and many union members and other loyal workers were rewarded with plots of land on which to establish holiday homes of their own or month-long stays at the various sanitariums linked to the industries in which they were employed.
Quite a few of these ageing but still grand institutions still exist although it is Stalin’s own place, still well preserved and open to the public, that provides the most obvious glimpse of the thinking at the time.
Millions died during his reign and it seems safe to assume that he signed a fair few of the 40,000 or more death warrants he is said to have personally approved during the few months he would spend here each year.
The scale of the terror created paranoia across the entirety of the old Soviet Union but the man behind it watched films from the safety of a bullet-proof couch, insisted on wooden floors so as to better hear a would-be assassin approach and had the curtains cut short so as to be able to spot someone lurking behind them. All of this in a huge house painted green so as to make it hard to spot among the trees.
Marina, our guide, points to a map of the old, much larger, USSR behind the desk where he used to work and talks about how “everybody lived happily back then”. There’s a silence until Russ, an American whose family and friends have allowed The Irish Times to crash their private tour, politely observes: “Well, maybe not everyone”.
“Tell me then, who was not happy?” she replies.
“The ones in the gulag?”
“Ah yes, the gulag. That is another story.”
It certainly is and Marina, to be fair, tells us some of it as we wind our way up part of the 11 kilometre road constructed at much the same time as the dacha so as to allow Stalin access a specially built tower at the top of Mount Akhun from which the views across the Caucasus are spectacular on a clear day. The road, she says, was built in just 111 days by slave labourers. The numbers involved are still kept secret by the government.
She clearly thinks that many of the things done were terrible and yet there is a lingering, slightly wistful, sense of ambivalence as she talks about the times.
More than 70 years on, Sochi was looking pretty rough around the edges when the decision was made to stage the Winter Olympics here. It is not clear how much of the widely reported €50 billion bill might have been siphoned off but you don’t have to be here long to get the sense of the scale of the investment that actually made it into concrete buildings and infrastructure.
Sadly, there were again widespread instances of forced labour with migrant workers from former Soviet republics or neighbouring countries the victims of sharp practices by contracting firms this time. Many lacked proper documentation and were exploited, according to human rights groups whose concerns were largely dismissed by the authorities.
Despite all the spending, the glittering Olympic park and many new hotels, the area faces significant challenges when the crowds from the World Cup move on. These days, Sochi attracts about two million visitors in an average year but Marat, the young local who works at the slightly out of the way hotel in which The Irish Times is staying, talks forlornly about the area seeming desolate in winter despite the mild conditions brought by the sub-tropical climate and the relatively close proximity (70 kilometres away) of the ski resort Krasnaya.
But in an era of easy foreign air travel, the Turkish resort of Antalya, where Ireland played back in March attracted 3.8 million Russian holidaymakers last year, with that number set to grow substantially in 2018.
If Sochi is to keep pace yet more investment is probably needed. The sports facilities – tennis, football, ice hockey and Formula One for starters – are magnificent but the seafront is ramshackle in parts and has, it is said, actually suffered as other things were prioritised for spending. The fear, you would think, is that the government might feel it has received its fair share but just as it would have been 80 years ago, attitudes are more personal than that.
“Putin is a good man,” says Marina, “but he is just one man and we are afraid that he will be too busy to look after Sochi”.