In one word, I found Sochi charming. I spent three days there, and though the weather was unusually rainy and overcast, and though right now the city is one giant construction site, and even though I was trying to combine sightseeing by day with work in the mornings and in the evenings, the trip ended up being very relaxed and relaxing. To me, it had a sense of a place that is so far removed from the centers of my world (San Francisco, St. Petersburg) that if my everyday concerns didn't entirely cease to matter there, they at least lost much of their urgency. The funny thing about Sochi is that because of the Olympics it's very much in the center of public attention, and because of its status of the prime Russian resort area it has always been a destination. Sochi is also very important as a city that borders Abkhazia, one of the territories that have become centers of recent conflict between Russia and Georgia. Sochi is one of the Russian strongholds in the Caucasus mountain region--a city locked between the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, once a very important military conquest for Russia and a center of a lot of social and military unrest. And yet despite its historical and current significance, despite all the trouble that's brewing in and around it, to the tourist, Sochi feels like a small city, a quiet Southern resort town. The tourist notices spas and potholes, tries to work around traffic jams and looks for a free bench to sit down and finish her ice cream or a cup of kvas. Sochi has lovely benches -- with unusually tall legs, so that when you sit down you can dangle your feet in the air and remember your childhood while doing so.
I visited four museums in Sochi, the Art Museum, the History Museum, the Dendrarium (an extensive Arboretum and Botanical Garden with trees and plants from all around the world), the museum of the writer Nikolai Ostrovsky. The Art Museum had a heart-wrenching photo exhibit, portraits of the children from the local orphanage. The curator of the exhibit told me that there are 64 pre-school children in the orphanage in Sochi, from the smallest infants to clever little kindergartners. The curator had gone to the orphanage with the photographer and her crew when they were taking the pictures, and she couldn't hold back the tears when guiding me to a picture of a little boy captured at the moment when tears burst from his eyes or to a picture of three little girls doing their best to sit still and to listen attentively to their lesson. "The children," the curator said, "were so touching, so sweet." The rest of the museum houses a collection of Soviet art by Moscow and St. Petersburg artists who over the years came to paint at the Sochi resorts; it also has more contemporary art by local artists who have grown up here and in a larger city, Krasnodar, the administrative center of this region.
Perhaps due to the time of day (I visited the museums either early in the morning or late in the afternoons) or to the fact that it's still very early in the tourist season in Sochi, I was the only visitor in all three museums, the Art Museum, the History Museum, and the writer's home. Each time, my appearance caused a flurry of activity: the ladies who guard the exhibit rooms (one lady per room, to make sure that the visitors don't touch or break anything) broke off their conversations and ran off to their rooms, turning on the lights everywhere, opening the protective covers on the showcases. In the Dendrarium I was not entirely alone but for large stretches of the walk it felt like I was -- they told me that they did have a crowd earlier in the day, but by now (I came two hours before closing time) everyone had dispersed. All of these museums in Sochi (like all the theaters in St. Petersburg and many art organizations throughout Russia) are fully dependent on government funding, they could not survive without this support -- they wouldn't know how to even try.
Another word I am finding useful in trying to describe Sochi is the word "province" in the Russian sense. Technically, in the old Russia this word described any township that was not a seat of administrative government of a region. For example, Sochi is a part of the administrative region with the seat in Krasnodar, a city on the other side of the Caucasus mountains, closer to river Don. I overheard conversation of a couple who were discussing the purchase of a flat in a new apartment building that's being built in Sochi. "The management company received all the permissions [necessary to build the apartment building] from Moscow, from Krasnodar, but in Sochi they got turned away. So now I don't know what they're going to do. Probably give somebody more pocket money." Since administratively Sochi is a part of Krasnodar region, and Krasnodar region is a part of Russian Federation, and all the administrative decisions are made in Moscow it's not surprising that the development of Sochi has been so tardy. If everything that has to do with local infrastructure, from road construction to telephony, postal services and all other government services has to be governed from Moscow via Krasnodar -- I can imagine that any new undertaking is not impossible but requires an astounding amount of paperwork and money to sweeten the officials' moods. This is probably one of the reasons why there are so few Moscow and St. Petersburg chains in Sochi -- the coffee shop and fast food and grocery store chains probably cannot or don't want to expand to this area. There are local cafes and fast food shops and grocery stores, but most of the reasonably priced ones are hold-overs from the Soviet era in appearance and menus (which is not necessarily a bad thing, personally I enjoyed eating there very much), and the modern, Western style cafes and restaurants charge prices ten times higher. One day, I could eat a full dinner for under 150 rubles in an old Soviet-style dining room (no bathrooms!), and the next day I'd go to a more modern restaurant and pay 500 rubles for just one dish. In St. Petersburg, the prices of both types of establishments have more or less evened out (not entirely, but as a matter of degree), and there are a lot more medium-range options.
Actually, the best place to shop for groceries in Sochi is the local open-air market. We bought strawberries and cherries, and souvenirs to take home: local spices, local tea (Sochi and Krasnodar Region is the only part of Russia suitable for growing tea and wine), churchkhella (a Georgian treat, nuts soaked in fruit juice). Prices are negotiable and people are friendly, talkative.
Two more notes on the curious condition of Sochi as simultaneously a province of an empire and a showpiece of the same empire. Since Sochi is also the location of many trade shows and conferences, the local hotels and clubs are used to catering to businessmen -- who, in their overwhelming majority, are business men, not women. Thus, for example, on every flat surface in the rooms and in the lobby of the hotel where I stayed (a nice business-class hotel, 4 stars), there was advertisement for the hotel's "Erotic Club 'Twilight'." To translate (as literally as possible), "'Twilight' -- a club of erotic fantasies and sensual temptation for those who truly appreciate the beauties of female bodies. Here you will find exquisite entertainment in the society of sexually appealing dancers. We offer striptease-show that lasts until the morning, a sea of alcohol, intriguing 'crazy'-menu and rather democratic prices."
Restaurant menus do exist in English -- the kind of English very similar to what Dave is finding in post-World Fair Shanghai and post-Olympic Beijing. "Cold fish for fish gourments." "Pizza: a pepperoni, a salami, the bulgarin pepper." "Milky cocktail: milk, ice-cream, syrup with your choice." "Coffee on the sand like turkish."
Leaving downtown on our way to the airport, we noticed an advertisement for a "Fitness Club 'Young Leninets'," a Western style fitness club for young people who believe in the work of Lenin -- the ultimate sign of the rapidly colliding worlds.
Meanwhile, Dave has joined me here in St. Petersburg and is blogging about it: http://dave-grenetz.blogspot.com/2011/06/white-knights-june-6-2011.html