Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sochi, "City-Resort"

I've got an opportunity to spend three days in Sochi this week, and so here I am reporting from the Caucasus mountains region, from the shore of the Black Sea. If you haven't heard of Sochi yet, you will in 2014, when it will host the Winter Olympics. The running joke in Russia is that Sochi, the Southernmost region of Russia, has been picked to host winter sports. Is the rest of the country much too cold? Of course, all the Olympic stadiums are being built from scratch, and it hardly seems to matter what the weather conditions are like. The Caucausus mountains are topped with ice (lately, receding) and already house first-class skiing resorts. Another curious factoid -- Sochi is located at the same latitude as Nice and Toronto.

The climate in Sochi is actually characterized as subtropical--it's moderately hot in the summer (in the 80s) and humid. The city is laden with palm trees, boasts its own unique varieties of yew and boxwood trees. Administratively, Sochi is labeled as a city-resort -- it's hardly a city at all, but rather an agglomeration of Soviet-style health resorts stretching along a thin strip of land between the Black Sea and the mountains. The city, at closer approximation, breaks down into several small coastal villages (and one inland village, in the mountainous valley, where the Olympics will actually take place), united together in one administrative body. The downtown area is quite small, although it too is undergoing major construction before the Olympics. Construction of everything is booming in the area -- from new hotels and stadiums to new roads and bridges through the mountains to new apartment buildings and beaches. At the moment, it can take up to an hour to drive the distance that normally takes 15 minutes.

What immediately struck me upon arrival is how young a city Sochi is. The territory was acquired by the Russian Empire in 1838 as a result of a war with Turkey. The local peoples--Shapsugs, Circassians (?), other "Caucasians"--were pushed out or left on their own for Turkey and Iran, and later in the 19th Century settlers moved in from all parts of the Russian Empire, from Estonia and Germany to Ukraine and Russia proper. Later, closer to the turn of the 20th Century the area became developed for dachas -- country houses for the aristocracy and for the growing middle class. They formed the first spas and parks in the area. The administrative city buildings and most of the largest health resorts were built after the Revolution, starting from the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Soviet construction was only one of the historical layers imposed upon pre-existing cities, here the Soviet city plan and aesthetic is the basis upon which the contemporary construction is developing.

Talking about the Soviet aesthetic, there weren't brand names in the Soviet Union. A grocery store was simply called "Produktovij Magazin" -- "Grocery Store." A restaurant was "Restoran" or a "Stolovaya" -- "Cafeteria." A bath house was called simply "Banya" -- "Baths." If there was more than one restaurant in a city, they would be numbered: "Restoran N1," "Restoran N2," etc. In Sochi this is still very much so. The first thing I noticed across the street from my hotel (a contemporary construction by a Western chain) was a "Stolovaya" and a "Konditerskaya" (Pastries) across the street. A downtown bookstore is simply labeled "Knigi" -- "Books." The attractions that do have names, are named (by pre- or post- Soviet settlers) after other places: Park "Riviera," Cafe "White Nights." There's a general sense that changes of the new, post-Soviet era, came to Sochi much later than they did to Moscow and St. Petersburg (contemporary Russia, after all, takes after the Soviet Union in that all decisions and changes are usually transmitted from Moscow out to the peripheries), and that they are coming now, with the Olympic Games, in the proportion never seen before.

Upon closer examination, the "Konditerskaya" across the street from the hotel sells goods produced by a local pastry factory that does have a name, "Kaskad" -- "Cascade." (This is another peculiarity of the Soviet labels -- when things do have them, they are very arbitrary). I've tried to Google this factory, but came up with nothing. I'm quite sure though they have been in business since the 1960s or 1970s, because the pastries I tasted are very much like the delicacies from my childhood. Long waffle rolls stuffed with baked sweet condensed milk. Choux pastry with scalded creme. Eclairs. Quality eclairs are very hard to find in this world.


  1. very funny about the changes transmitted out to the peripheries, and the frantically accelerated pace of change.

    "Quality eclairs are very hard to find in this world" - so which kind are these? :)

  2. Oh, man. These are the very best eclairs. Too bad in three years they will probably be forced out by bland "Western" bakeries.