If you’ve been following the news about the Winter Olympic Games, you probably think Sochi is a pothole-ridden village with no clean water or doorknobs where smartphones get hacked in coffee shops, hotels don’t have lobbies, and toilets don’t flush toilet paper.
Sounds like the Russian city is not quite ready for its international debut when the games begin Friday. Russia has already poured as much as $51 billion into prepping Sochi for the international sporting event, making it the most expensive Olympic Games in history.
But there’s more to Sochi than the latest reports of its troubled infrastructure and accommodations. The people who live there have their own #sochiproblems too, some of which will persist long after athletes, spectators, and journalists have returned home.
Here’s what you need to know about the city that Russia has spent the past seven years refurbishing for its Olympics debut. This is not an exhaustive history of Sochi. It is, however, enough to help you impress your friends at an opening-ceremony watch party.
What is Sochi?
Sochi is a city in southern Russia that runs along the Black Sea coastline. It’s a grueling 37-hour train ride or a comfortable two-and-a-half hour flight from Moscow. The city is a little bigger than Rhode Island but with a third of its population, which is about 340,000 people. Most of its inhabitants are Russian. Armenians, Ukrainians, Georgians, and others reside there as well.
Like many municipalities, Sochi has restaurants, museums, coffee shops, aquariums, parks — even a crumbling,1,500-year-old Byzantine fortress. Here is Sochi on a map, and here’s how you pronounce it.
What happened there before the Olympics?
The Sochi region was populated more than 100,000 years ago by humans who migrated from Asia Minor — wait, too far back? OK, let’s skip ahead.
Russians arrived in Sochi in the mid-1800s, sparking a long and bloody war that resulted in the expulsion of the local population, mostly to Turkey. By the turn of the next century, Sochi was formally designated a city. Its first health spa opened in 1909, and Sochi’s reputation as a place for weary, wealthy Russians to convalesce began to grow steadily. In 1934, Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin called for a makeover of the city, complete with new roads, theaters, parks, and more spa resorts. Population swelled.
Sochi became Russian presidents’ go-to vacation spot after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, when Crimea, the usual resort destination, became part of Ukraine.
In 2007, Sochi beat out Pyeongchang in South Korea by four votes to become the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
The Bolshoy Ice Dome in the Adler district of Sochi. (Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
And what’s changed since it was picked in 2007?
Nearly everything. In seven years, the Russian government has built almost an entire town from scratch. New infrastructure in Adler, one of Sochi’s southern districts, is now home to the Olympic Park, which includes a stadium, ice dome, skating center, and the Olympic Village, where athletes stay. Krasnaya Polyana, a mountainous area northeast of Adler, boasts new facilities for luge, bobsled, ski, and snowboarding events. Whole railroads, highways, bridges, and tunnels have been erected throughout the Sochi region. The airport was completely overhauled, and new power plants cropped up throughout the city.
So many large-scale projects mean good business for people seeking to make a profit in Sochi. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any corruption, but reports suggest that winning bids for new projects have frequently come from Putin’s friends. The workers who built the sites have faced poor working conditions, delayed wages, and even violence.
And thanks to rapid development, there’s barely any trace of wildlife left in the area. The hundreds of stray dogs who have stayed are being killed by a pest-control firm hired by local authorities.
How do people who actually live in Sochi feel about all this?
Not great. The Russian government’s top priority is to make sure the Games go off without a hitch, which means the people who live in Sochi year-round have become an afterthought.
While Russia works to build and beautify the Olympic grounds, “thousands of ordinary people in the Sochi area put up with squalor and environmental waste: villagers living next to an illegal dump filled with Olympic construction waste, families whose homes are sinking into the earth, city dwellers suffering chronic power cuts despite promises to improve electricity,” wrote AP’s Nataliya Vasilyeva recently.
“It’s a parallel universe that locals to a great extent have no access to,” a Sochi resident told her.
For the rest of the country, the Games represent a proud but uncomfortable moment. Hosting an Olympic tournament is an honor nations compete for. But watching the flawed operation unfold on an international stage is embarrassing for Russians, who as a people tend to be uniquely sensitive to what outsiders think about them. They genuinely want the Winter Games to be a smashing success, so watching the whole affair fall apart at the seams before the first figure skater even toes the ice is perturbing.
Already no strangers to widespread government misconduct, Russians don’t believe Putin’s denials of corruption in the preparations for Sochi, according to a new opinion poll. But they also want Russia to bid to host future Summer Olympics.
Wait, let’s rewind a bit. Sochi is in Russia. How can any city in Russia possibly be considered a resort town?
Sochi, believe it or not, has a subtropical, humid climate with palm trees lining the streets. Temperature lows rarely dip below freezing for long periods during the winter, averaging out at about 52 degrees in the winter. In the summer, it’s a pleasant 75 degrees. About 3.5 million people, mostly from other parts of Russia, flock to the popular vacation spot to shake off the cold and soak up the sun.
A woman stands in front of a large wave on Sochi’s beach in October 2010. (MIKHAIL MORDASOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Many Russian leaders, including Putin, have built dachas, or vacation homes, in Sochi. The city is “the Florida of Russia, but cheaper,” according to Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, who have spent the last five years reporting on the city to create the Sochi Project.
So, if it’s so warm in Sochi in February, why is it hosting the Winter Olympics?
A lot of people wondered the same thing. Sochi may very well be the only place in Russia without a “real” winter.
During a ski trip in 2002, Putin and Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia’s most influential oligarchs, decided Russia needed a world-class ski resort that could attract tourists from all over the world. Potanin hired Paul Mathews, an American winter-resort designers, to find the right spot for one. Mathews picked Sochi for Krasnaya Polyana’s mountains, which are about the size of the Alps, and started pushing development. “I told them it would be good if we picked up the garbage on the road from Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana,” Mathews told Vanity Fair recently. “And it would be good if the road had a white line down the middle of it.”
For Putin, hosting the Winter Games in Sochi is a show of power for other nations, a public-relations campaign for the “new Russia.” The world leader wants to show the international community that he can turn a beach town into an Olympian metropolis, and do it well.
Russia built an entire Olympic city from scratch. (Merkushev Vasiliy/Shutterstock)
There are a lot of security concerns about Sochi. Is it safe there?
Yes and no. There are two kinds of threats in Sochi. The first exists in virtually every city, especially ones that attract wide-eyed tourists: pickpockets, thieves, fraud, and the like.
The second threat is much graver. The North Caucasus, where Chechens and Russians — divided in religious, cultural, and political beliefs — have been locked in conflict for years lies just over the mountains. Islamic insurgency groups there have long threatened violence during the Games. In December, more than 30 people were killed by suicide bombings in Volgograd, a major transportation hub about 400 miles northeast of Sochi.
But although Putin has been reluctant to reveal security strategies for Sochi, he’s taking the threats seriously, deploying 40,000 police and special armed forces for the Games.
Sochi may pose an extra risk for the LGBT community and its supporters. Protests of Russia’s antigay “propaganda” law could provoke street attacks — or possibly riots — in Sochi, as has happened in other parts of Russia since the legislation was passed in July.
Police officers detain a gay-rights activist during an unauthorized protest against controversial Russian antigay outside the headquarters of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee in Moscow in September. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Last month, the State Department issued a travel alert for the Russian Federation, urging Americans traveling to Sochi to “remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times.” This week, the Homeland Security Department warned airlines flying into Russia for the Games that explosive materials, concealed in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes, could be smuggled aboard.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak was unfazed by the threats, delivering the government’s usual vague response. “I do not have any reaction,” he said during a press conference Thursday. “If this information is confirmed, it means that our special services will work on the information about this threat.”
What will happen to Sochi after the Games end?
Putin hopes the city will become a world-famous ski resort. The machinery the Russians built to help produce snow and protect against avalanches during the Games will be used to considerably extend the ski season. Accommodations built for athletes may turn into private homes. Some of the infrastructure will be dismantled and relocated, but most of it, including hotels and roads and railways that wind up to the mountains, will go unused. After all, Olympic outposts aren’t relevant for regional development.
It could be years before the quality of life significantly improves for the people of Sochi. The city is in the running to host the World Cup in 2018. If Russia wins that bid, Sochi dwellers will be forced to buckle down for another chaotic whirlwind of development.
OK, that’s depressing. How about a fun fact to wrap this up?
Sochi is the only part of Russia warm enough to grow tea leaves. Established in 1905, tea plantations that sit in the mountains west of Sochi hold the title as the northernmost point in the world where tea is grown. The herbal blend, called Krasnodar tea, is traditionally served with poppy seed cakes, honey, and jams.