Sochi, a city rebuilt for the 2014 Winter Olympics, is now a sunny beach holiday destination for many Russians. Situated on the coast of the Black Sea, close to the Caucasus mountains, the balmy climate and beautiful surroundings would suggest on paper that Sochi’s charm might last beyond the Games. But when I visited the city last weekend it struck me as something of a mirage – beautiful but unreal, and another superficial attempt to prove something about a nation’s economic status. Sochi is, in my mind, a perfect example of the hypocrisies and paradoxes that exist in Russian society, and indeed in many countries across the globe.
I arrived after a surprisingly comfortable overnight train journey and was immediately struck by how un-Russian this place felt. Palm trees, sun-filled boulevards, greenery, Grecian architecture… everything very much gave me the impression of being something Other to any other Russian city. I was on holiday! Though it became apparent after a conversation with a friend, in which the usual themes of financial and political corruption came up, that the situation here may not be so very different. Oh, that supermarket chain is run by the mafia. And that one? But I shop there all the time! Even McDonald’s is in on it. How disappointing.
NB: The more I am confronted with these themes, the more I realise, and feel that I need to affirm, that they are very much global. Gangs, violence, corruption in any form – we, as the willing sheep of our great leaders, and ultimately as imperfect beings, consciously allow such situations and phenomenons to manifest themselves within society. I’m still working on my suggestions for improvement and am fully aware that as an observer, I am perpetuating all sorts of hypocrisy and the ineffectuality of modern liberalism, but that’s a topic for another day.
So, what is there to do in Sochi, from a traveller’s perspective? Taking the city at face value, Sochi is great, and I would highly recommend a visit if you happen to be travelling around Southern Russia or the Caucasus region! It provides a great base from which to explore the stunning natural surroundings. I spent the weekend exploring the city; going to the beach, sampling some Georgian cuisine (хачапури – soft bread filled with cheese and eggs – is a must try!) and venturing out to the mountains where we went for a short hike through the forest, with the leaves still vivid shades of red and gold. Feeling most at home in the mountains, I was thrilled to get out into the wilderness and get some fresh air in my lungs, which is hard to come by in Rostov.
2 days. A snapshot impression of Sochi. Certainly a very beautiful and relaxing setting, and somewhere that I would like to visit again. But something felt strange. The city felt so very empty.Just the season or a reflection of the general decrease in Russian tourism in recent years? Of course, it’s November, and I imagine that in Spring and Summer the town and the beach must be full, but I also imagine that it will be Russian people flocking to their homegrown oasis, rather than foreign tourists. Seasonal trends aside though, I felt like some kind of change had been anticipated after the Winter Olympics, a change that had not been realised. Multi-storey luxury apartments that had been built to host visitors to the city during the Games now stood unused and very much un-lived in. The Olympic rings and the stadium stand as nothing more than a memory to this event, which was supposed to boost Russia’s international image and power, and now just looked like a very expensive monument.
Of course Russia is not alone in committing to a gross expenditure on sporting events in order to boost self-image rather than benefit the lives of its citizens, as highlighted in the run-up to this year’s Olympic Games in Rio, and the controversy surrounding the 2022 Fifa World Cup Qatar bid. Whilst politicians enjoy summers in one of their several seaside mansions on Sochi’s beachfront, what real difference are they making to the lives of their citizens? The answer seems to me fairly evident. And noone cares.
Funnily enough, even with so much money evidently having been poured into the Winter Olympics, officials didn’t take too much time checking the English translations… Let us welcome the Prince of Whales, and congratulations to the participants from the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland of Great Britain! Money can’t buy everything, I suppose.
As with many financial ventures, Sochi has become a symbol of patriotism, pride, and wealth, but I would suggest that it doesn’t accurately represent the interests of the people.