When I tell foreigners about Sochi, few believe that I am describing a Russian city. It is truly unique in many ways and does not conform to international stereotypes of your typical post-Soviet city. Located on the Black Sea coast, some 200 km from the border between Russia and Georgia, Sochi is blessed with a subtropical climate thanks to the Caucasus Mountains; they protect it from chilly northern winds and trap balmy sea air over the city. Meanwhile, a wealth of mineral springs makes Sochi a popular health and spa destination. Blessed with lush Mediterranean greenery, Sochi boasts groves of palm trees, magnolias, and gorgeous pines framing long pebble beaches, while locals grow peaches, persimmons, grapes, and mandarins in their own gardens. During high season, flip-flop-wearing holiday-makers descend on Sochi, turning the beaches and long seafront esplanade into a busy vacation haven. It is a truly unique place – and an unusual oasis of levity, ease, and open-mindedness in Russia. Until the advent of the Olympics, that is.
When the Games were announced, they triggered enormous urban infrastructure developments. Among these Olympic legacies are a new airport for six million passengers per year, a network of eight sea ports, 360 km of roads, more than 150 car and rail bridges, over 200 km of rail tracks, more than 20 tunnels, 27,000 hotel rooms, three water and wastewater facilities, four power stations, as well as many brand new sports and convention facilities. Caught up in this gold rush for improved infrastructure and international image-boosting measures, however, Sochi failed to protect its most valuable treasure: its unique character and idiosyncrasies, most of all its ethnic composition, cuisine, and traditions.
Populated by a rich mix of Armenian, Georgian, and Greek communities, sprinkled with an ethnic mix of Northern Caucasus tribes as well as refugees from the nearby Abkhazia, Sochi exuded a certain southern flair that found its gastronomic expression in spicy dishes and home-made wines, vibrant fruit and sweet markets, humble kebab and fish houses, or sizzling shashlik stalls that suffuse the hot air with their savory and smoky flavors, while lezginka sounds blasting from cafes and taxis provide an equally buzzing soundtrack. Proud to be a little bit different, Sochi disdained the metropolitan mainstream and instead stayed true to its local roots.
Unfortunately, in the run-up to the Games, officials considered such local color ‘provincial’ and erased plenty of the city’s characteristic or ethnic features. The push to streamline the city included some drastic policy measures: People from the North Caucasus republics are no longer considered Sochi citizens, but treated as potential terrorists. Ironically, some of the city’s less-popular ‘local’ qualities remain unchanged: Below the shiny new surface, visitors are still likely to encounter less-than-perfect service, rude staff, and the occasional encounter with Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
A shame, really, since Sochi was once a paragon of urban development, designed for living and enjoyment. Almost untainted by the usual proliferation of badly designed Khruschevka apartment blocks and cookie-cutter urban structures, the city was planned to provide a great pedestrian experience, plenty of public space for summer activities and socializing, as well as visually and aesthetically pleasing architecture and landscape design. One of Sochi’s biggest assets was its chain of splendid parks, botanical gardens, and walkways – a strong green mesh that permeates the long city and ties it together, connecting all of its major destinations and making Sochi extremely walkable, even on hot summer days.
Around the turn of the millennium, however, Sochi outgrew its sheltered honeymoon status and required a major overhaul. The city’s existing urban infrastructure, chronically underfinanced during the tumultuous times of Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the economic downturn of the 1990s, could no longer support Sochi’s prime tourism status. The city suffered from frequent blackouts, overstretched sewage systems, untreated wastewater discharge, near dysfunctional public transportation, and a road network struggling to service remote suburban areas. All of a sudden, the city found itself competing with major international tourist destinations and could no longer rival nearby Turkey with its attractive service and prices.
So, the Olympics came at the right time for a government that favors quick-fix solutions with massive one-time investments over incremental and deliberate improvements. And the Olympic Klondike, as it became known, attracted plenty of opportunistic real estate developers that soon dotted the shoreline with rows of identical residential high-rises unfettered by proper city planning or development controls. Prohibitively expensive for locals – and targeted mainly at rich Muscovites – these buildings remain lifeless and alien additions to the city. The corresponding quality of architecture, landscape design, street furniture, and amenities clearly leaves much to be desired: In the pre-Olympic rush, neither the city, nor the developers cared about how many trees were chopped or how many public spaces and walkways, breathtaking views, and entire landscapes were irreversibly disrupted; often dispossessing local communities of their most treasured neighborhood assets.
At the same time, and surprisingly so, Olympic riches did nothing to improve Sochi’s most important selling points – the sea and the beaches. Already far too cramped by international standards, even before the Olympic bid, the city shoreline has now been deprived of its customary free-and-easy, spontaneous summer buzz by the addition of high-end marble retail emporia and restaurants. Previously the city’s heart and engine, the sea now generates a different kind of energy – for those who can afford it.
Along these lines, the new Olympic Park is unlikely to enhance city life. A clear misnomer, this vast space is no park per se, but a mere cluster of custom-built sports arenas. Almost an hour away by train, this hard-to-embrace area does not mesh with the existing urban tissue and has no function beyond its event-centric purpose. After the Games, these venues will host sports competitions and training facilities, concerts, forums, and corporate retreats – many of these mandatory events due to a government edict that obliges state-owned corporations to host their corporate events in Sochi. So, unless you are a keen skater or love attending conferences and concerts, there is little reason for locals to visit.
Among the latter, there is a certain, and often unvoiced, feeling of hollowness and deprivation: While they can clearly see all these beautiful Olympic trains and wide roads, locals seem to have lost their actual home. A loss that is hard to put in words. But they sense that they have no stake in the Games – in this 50-billion dollar party organized by the federal government for the privileged few.
Text: Ksenia Mokrushina
Header image: The Olympic Park © Sochi2014 Winter Games