The first impression upon arrival in Sochi is how un-wintry the place is.
It’s a Black Sea beach resort, the centerpiece of the Russian Riviera and, in its heyday, a spa haven.
No sign of Dr. Zhivago in his sleigh, but you could picture Darryl Hannah running along the pebbled strand.
After three days in gray, 12-degree Moscow, I was hit by a wave of warmth in sunny Sochi. Palm trees are just one of the incongruities of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
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The Olympics of Odd commence Friday with the Opening Ceremonies, sure to be a blend of rock and Rachmaninoff, pomp and tackiness.
Perhaps jarring contrasts are to be expected 22 years after the evaporation of the Soviet Union inside the “New Russia,” where monolithic Soviet-era government buildings share the same block with garish nightclubs. The Moscow Museum of Modern Art is directly across Petrovka Street from the onion domes of the Vysokopetrovsky monastery, founded in the 1320s. Opposite the creepy tomb of embalmed Vladimir Lenin on Red Square are the designer stores of the elegant GUM shopping arcade. Inside the Revolution Square subway station, passengers still rub the nose of the bronze statue of the border guard’s dog for good luck.
“Everything has changed, yet nothing is different. Or is it that everything is different yet nothing has changed?” has been a popular saying since the collapse of Communism.
So it is in Sochi, where you’ve got state FSB agents on the prowl against the terror threat from the neighboring North Caucasus region sharing cigarettes with Cossacks, in their wooly hats and knickers, who have been policing the highlands on horseback for centuries.
When Sochi was selected by the International Olympic Committee in 2007 after a impassioned plea by president Vladimir Putin, a lot of folks said, “Huh? Where is Sochi? What is Sochi?”
It was a strange choice that seems even more bizarre now that the Games are here. It’s like FIFA decided to hold the World Cup in Qatar.
Why not recycle the Winter Games to charming Lillehammer, Norway, or Lake Placid, N.Y.? Because the Olympics have become so gigantic that small towns can’t accommodate the infrastructure — nor would they want these Potemkin villages and arenas.
Staging “Putin’s Games” has cost a record $51 billion — that’s seven times more than Vancouver-Whistler in 2010 — and rallied Putin opponents, who see Sochi as another example of corruption inside the Kremlin, where Russia’s oligarchs get richer through deals with Putin. The dictatorship of the proletariat has been replaced by a bourgeoisie group of some of the world’s most fantastically wealthy men.
“The Olympics in the subtropics — a ridiculous idea, don’t you think?” former deputy prime minister and opposition party leader Boris Nemtsov asked during an interview in his Moscow office. “There was never any discussion in Parliament, no votes, no debates on TV. Just Putin’s obsession.”
Nemtsov is not as worried about the flood of complaints about unfinished hotel rooms as he is about unstable arenas.
“They used unskilled laborers imported from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and paid them nothing and the construction quality is very poor,” he said.
Nemtsov won’t be attending the Games in his hometown. He, and anybody else Putin fears might say something unpatriotic, was barred from buying tickets through the KGB-like background check Russians must endure.
“I’m on the black list,” he said.
Putin has been in Sochi schmoozing Olympic VIPs, reassuring everyone about security measures and visiting a national park, where he posed petting a Persian leopard and said the animal has been added to the protected species list.
“Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games we have restored parts of destroyed nature,” he said.
Environmentalists bravely fighting that destruction since Sochi was awarded the Games have been harassed for years and were jailed again this week — just as dissidents in China were rounded up before Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies. One activist was sentenced to five days Tuesday for disobeying police orders and another faces 15 days for swearing in public.
The trumped-up charges, plus Russia’s anti-gay rights law, reminded me of my visit to the Gulag Museum in Moscow, which traces the history of the camps where 14 million people were imprisoned during the repressive reign of Joseph Stalin.
Stalin loved Sochi’s climate and curative waters. Here in the Olympic city, you can visit his dacha and see a life-size wax figure of the dictator. Perhaps one day, given the fascination with preservation of Russian strongmen, you can visit a waxed Putin at his own vacation house in Sochi.
Winston Churchill referred to Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But the Cold War is long over, and Russians today are as eager to make a ruble as any other capitalist. For all their hypocrisy, the Olympics do open a window on their setting. See Beijing 2008. By the time these Games end Feb. 23, Sochi will provide even more enlightenment.