Sochi in the Russian Imagination

Dreaming of Health and Greatness, From Stalin to Putin

Sergei Kirov and Joseph Stalin in Sochi, 1934.
Sergei Kirov and Joseph Stalin in Sochi, 1934. (Wikimedia Commons)

Russia is back, or at least that is what you were supposed to think while watching the 2014 Sochi Olympics over the past two weeks. To prove it, Russia spent 51 billion dollars on the first-ever Winter Olympics staged in a subtropical climate zone and took great pains to showcase Russian culture, diversity, wealth, talent, and swagger during nonstop coverage of the Olympic mega-event. Although the setting might have seemed odd, it is no accident that the Black Sea resort town of Sochi was chosen to host such an extravagant celebration of Russia’s return as a world power.

For Russia, Sochi symbolizes the achievements of Soviet power that wrenched a backward society out of poverty through socialism, industrialization, and authoritarian rule. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin happened to like to vacation there, and beginning in 1933, okayed massive state investments in medical facilities, cultural palaces, and infrastructure to transform the city from a malarial backwater into a showplace of medicalized leisure and purposeful play. In the Soviet imagination, the marble sanatoriums of the Sochi health resort epitomized the good life, the promise enshrined in the 1936 Soviet Constitution that every citizen enjoyed the right to a vacation. By the 1980s, everyone knew the saying, “Everyone must visit Sochi, if only once in their lives.” 

By staging the Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has revived the city’s image as a shrine to Russian wellness and power. His unprecedented investment is a bet that a twenty-first century Sochi will become a truly world-class showcase to rival alpine resorts and the Mediterranean Riviera, a recognized successor to the greatness of Russia past.

TO YOUR HEALTH

Before Sochi was fashionable, Russian and Soviet vacationers preferred the mountains for their vacation escapes. The breathtakingly scenic North Caucasus, a region dotted with mineral water spas, attracted party officials and military men to towns such as Kislovodsk and Piatigorsk, reproducing nineteenth-century leisure culture on a more proletarian budget. Yet, like elsewhere in Europe, seacoasts that were once shunned as sites of shipwrecks and storm danger, emerged in the twentieth century as pleasure zones. The lure of the sea began to tug harder than the mountain sublimes, and vacations that combined rugged scenery with sea breezes and salt water became the ideal.

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