Everything You Wanted to Know About Sochi but Were Too Distracted by Toilet Photos to Ask

There’s more to the host city of the Winter Olympic Games than what you’ve been reading.

The Krasnaya Polyana resort near the Black Sea city of Sochi.
National Journal
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Marina Koren
Feb. 6, 2014, 7:33 a.m.

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.

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.

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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) Michael Heiman/Getty Images

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.

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.

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) National Journal

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.

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) Merkushev Vasiliy/Shutterstock

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) 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.”

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.

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.


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