For the next three weeks Sochi will be the world’s playground
UBC Prof. Anne Gorsuch details the troubled history of the seaside town of Sochi, a paradoxical place of healing and excess.
How did Sochi become a destination for health tourism?
Sochi became a destination for holidays and medical cures starting in the late 19th century. Russians believed the Black Sea coast, where Sochi is located, had the ideal climate for healing, especially of lung diseases like TB. Other attractions include ample sunshine, some of Russia’s warmest seawater and mineral springs to bath in and drink from.
How did early tourism differ from today’s?
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spas were appropriated by the Communist Party and turned into health resorts, or “sanitariums,” for workers. Unions gave workers a ticket to spend a week or so there to rest and recharge. Husbands and wives often didn’t go together, because they worked for different unions or factories, so it was a very particular style of tourism. Officially these were places for ordinary industrial workers, but in practice, many of the very best resorts and spas were used by the Party elite.
How is Sochi’s development linked to Joseph Stalin?
Sochi’s development is closely linked to Joseph Stalin. It was his summer residence (dacha) and under Stalin Sochi became the Soviet Union’s premier health resort destination. In Diane Koenker’s history of Soviet tourism, she describes Sochi as the “epitome of the Soviet spa vacation,” and a “socialist sacred space.” An influx of investment in the 1930s led to new sewage and electricity facilities, a broad, tree-lined boulevard (Stalin Prospect), public buildings including a new theater, and multiple spa facilities which were often lavish and in grand style. Several decades later, it was Putin’s use of Sochi as a vacation home that influenced his decision to host the Olympics, and to invest, again, in further development.
How did Sochi come to embody the socialist dream?
With its subtropical climate and vegetation, Sochi became known as the “Russian Riviera.” Elites and Soviet officials vacationed at a closed network of nearby health resorts that received the best in supplies and service. In the 1960s and 70s, artists, musicians, and leading sports figures visited Sochi, or in the case of athletes and cosmonauts, used it for training and recovery.
According to a 2009 poll, one in three Russians has visited Sochi at least once. These millions were accommodated by expansions of the original small town into a “Greater Sochi” that stretches 140 km along the Black Sea coast. In the Oscar-winning movie from 1980, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the protagonist says: “Everyone must visit Sochi, if only once in their lives.”
Prof. Anne Gorsuch, head of UBC’s Dept. of History, is a cultural historian specializing in Russia.