How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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.
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.
In the postwar years, then, the Soviet government made further investments to expand beachfront vacation facilities, and by the 1960s, Soviet vacationers could aspire to a seaside trip to either the Crimean peninsula, along the western Black Sea coast from the Sea of Azov in the north to the Georgian border with Turkey in the south, or one of the new Baltic Sea sand beach resorts in Latvia and Lithuania. In the same decade, Soviet travelers began to flock to modern and consumer-friendly beach resorts in socialist Bulgaria and Romania.
Still, Stalin’s patronage guaranteed that Sochi would emerge as the country’s premier socialist showcase, a Soviet creation that owed nothing to the tsarist past. Under Stalin’s direction, huge works projects created a monument to socialist modernity. A broad tree-lined boulevard, Stalin Prospect (now Resort Prospect), replaced the narrow, winding road along the coast. A terraced embankment planted with cypresses, palms, magnolias, and other flowering trees rose up from the narrow pebble beaches. Meanwhile, the country’s leading architects loaned their skills to design new sanatoriums and public buildings. The Central Red Army sanatorium, built in the constructivist style, became the symbol of modern Sochi, “not life, but paradise,” as one rapt worker wrote her comrades back home in 1936. This wasn’t intended to be a place for fun, but for purposeful medical attention. A Soviet vacation restored the ability of the Soviet citizen to contribute maximally to the economy. Sun, sea, mineral baths, and therapeutic strolls all required a resort doctor’s prescription.
Like Stalin, his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, returned regularly to Sochi’s mineral baths for treatment and rest. By then, the town’s reputation for medical miracles was legend. A former staff member recalled how, in the early 1980s, Brezhnev was so crippled that he couldn’t climb the stairs to the bath building without support. Yet he emerged from the baths a few hours later able to walk on his own, and he even danced a little jig for the benefit of admiring staff. (Putin has consolidated the Sochi cult by spending summers in a magnificent new presidential palace there and winters on the ski slopes of nearby Krasnaya Polyana.)
Despite the egalitarian mantra that “Everyone must visit Sochi,” it was really only the powerful and famous who got to go year after year, especially in the prime summer months. You couldn’t purchase a trip to Sochi, or to any other Soviet vacation destination. Instead, vacation vouchers were issued by Soviet trade unions to the “most deserving.” Workers, if they were lucky, might snag a pass to Sochi once in their lives, but almost surely in winter. By 1967, Sochi was home to exclusive trade union sanatoriums, an increasing number of “creative retreats” for artists and intellectuals, and dozens of closed Communist Party sanatoriums and holiday homes. The Party apparat received the best supplies and the best service.
In turn, Sochi’s night life catered to the needs of the elite: it boasted symphonies, theater, film, and a circus, featuring guest appearances by the leading artists of the capital, who combined their cultural work with vacations of their own. Sports celebrities and cosmonauts made Sochi their home for training and recovery. In the 1960s, visiting foreign dignitaries from the newly liberated countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean ceremoniously planted trees of friendship in the arboretum or the public Riviera Park. The film industry used the marble health palaces and lush nature as settings for many feature films.
Sochi’s night life also offered something else: the opportunity for a little hanky panky while away from home. Vacation vouchers were given to individuals, not to families. So, it was common practice for husbands, wives, and children to vacation separately, and equally common for the adults on vacation to claim their “share of happiness” through a resort romance. We know from surveys and personal accounts that casual sex outside marriage was widely accepted in Soviet culture. And when I asked a vacationer I happened to meet in Sochi in 2006 about the continuing allure of the “resort romance,” she laughed in affirmation.
If the party leaders claimed the best vacation spots, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens had bought into the dream that someday, a Sochi vacation could be theirs too. But by the 1960s and 1970s, a Soviet spa retreat was one more deficit in a socialist economy of increasing shortages. As more and more Soviet citizens acquired their own cars, though, they headed south, with or without a voucher, camping on beaches, or renting private rooms in apartments in Black Sea towns.
In 1961, Soviet officials tried to resolve the huge excess demand for a Sochi vacation by expanding the city limits of the resort town. They decreed a “Greater Sochi” that extended 140 kilometers along the coast from just south of Tuapse to the little resort town of Adler, on the border with Georgia. This edict immediately extended the cachet of a Sochi vacation to a much larger group of consumers -- and eventually to Olympians. It’s Adler that provided the beachfront landfill site for the 2014 Olympics.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the once “unbounded expanse” celebrated in song and folklore shrank. Post-Soviet Russians lament the loss of the spaces that were once theirs to travel to and play in. The Baltic beaches are now “abroad,” and so is Crimea, given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev in a symbolic act of generosity. Independent Georgia controls much of the Black Sea shore. Only Greater Sochi remains to remind post-Soviet Russians of the Soviet dream vacation.
It’s a complicated dream, a paradox. On one hand, the story of Sochi and Soviet vacationing illustrates some of the causes of the regime’s demise. The regime itself created and abetted the yearning for freedom to travel within and beyond the nation’s borders. Yet its economic system failed to fulfill the ever-rising expectations of its consumer public. Privileged access to Soviet vacations reinforced social distinctions that Communism was supposed to overcome. At the same time, however, the history of Soviet vacationing -- with Sochi at its symbolic heart -- speaks even more assertively about how the system survived as long as it did. Soviet institutions of leisure, including Sochi, provided a sense of material and cultural well-being. They created cohesive collectives and safety valves for marriages gone stale. And, to some extent, they satisfied the desires of Soviet people to expand their horizons.
Vacation travel became part of the ordinary Soviet person’s aspiration for a good life, or at least a better life. In this realm, the interests of Soviet state and citizen coincided. Productive work was rewarded with pleasure and freely chosen mobility. At the same time, in travel, citizens also began to break free of the state, to take charge of their individual itineraries, and to claim their own autonomy. In the end, perhaps precisely because of this better life, they remained loyal to the state that had enabled their voyages of self-discovery.
And perhaps this is why it was so important for Putin to win the Olympic games for this place. In April 2005, Putin told his nation that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” In July 2005, he submitted his bid for Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Games. The success of his Olympic bid links Russia’s reappearance on the world stage with one of the great symbols of the Soviet dream, the socialist medical fairyland on the Black Sea.
With the Olympic flame extinguished and the athletes and journalists gone home, what will become of Putin’s 51-billion-dollar investment? There are already plans to stage future mega-events here such as Formula One racing and the 2018 football World Cup. The Olympic hotels will fill again with international visitors, and Russians will watch the contests on television. But will the expansion of hotel spaces at sea level and altitude make Sochi a vacation destination affordable for Russia’s growing middle class -- the folks who now find it much cheaper to vacation on Turkey’s sand beaches? When the glow of a successfully staged Olympics has disappeared, Sochi’s image as a temple to health and athletic prowess will remain. But it is unclear whether vicarious spectatorship of mega-events or the delivery of an actual Sochi vacation will become the next chapter in the Sochi dream for ordinary Russians. Russia is back, then, but for whom?