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It was already nightfall when I met Alla Nikolaichik, 76 years old and a tightly coiled bundle of anger. She was standing outside her home in a half-derelict Soviet-era apartment block, just off the main highway that runs along the Black Sea shoreline from the Russian summer resort of Sochi towards the border with Georgia.
This may be the warmest place in Russia – they say it gets 300 days of sunshine a year – but as the last rays of the sun faded, Nikolaichik put on a grey cardigan and wrapped her arms around her body. In the middle of winter, even Sochi gets a little chilly after dark.
It was, somehow, a very Soviet scene: an old woman, surrounded by her neighbours, bitterly complaining about her life, the government, everything. Perhaps it was even pre-Soviet – I thought of Tolstoy, and how he would have recognised the drama being played out in the dirt of her front yard.
We were talking, of course, of the Winter Olympics, which have turned life in the city upside down. I asked Nikolaichik what she thought of the people who had brought the 22nd Games to her doorstep. “If I could,” she replied, “I’d get a big stick and hit them over the head with it.”
She said the Games have made her life a misery. At first, she was told that her home would have to be bulldozed to make way for a new housing development. Then she discovered that the new homes she and her fellow tenants had been offered were owned by the same developer who was proposing to tear down the home where she has lived for the past 50 years. She refused to go, the plans were dropped – but now, she said, the water supply to the building has been cut and she lives in fear.
Nikolaichik shares her one-room, ground-floor apartment with her daughter Zhanna, a 50-year-old former civilian employee in the police force. They invited me in to show me, they said, how they’re now forced to live.
The thick rugs on the floor and the heavy drapes on the walls give the room a cosy, almost womb-like feel. The wood-burning stove in the corner provides stifling heat but the two women worry about where they will be able to store their wood through the rest of the winter. For some reason they don’t understand, they’ve been told that the communal wood store, used by all the residents in the block, is going to have to be demolished. Something about it being “not safe”.
And how are they expected to cope with no running water? Nikolaichik wanted to show me the communal toilet they have to use – it’s disgusting, she said, so I declined her offer. Outside, by the front steps, they showed me the broken water pipe. How did that happen? It was no accident, they were sure of it.
Nikolaichik and her neighbours are convinced that someone, somewhere, is determined to force them out. There has already been one mysterious fire, and some residents have already decided to cut their losses and move. Rightly or wrongly, Nikolaichik blames the Olympics.
Up in the mountains is the new winter sports resort – and that’s where Vladimir Putin wants you to feast your eyes. Gaze and marvel at the state-of-the-art cable cars and ski lifts, at the mega-hotels and apartment blocks. The architecture is mainly oligarch-chic (what, in a different context, Egyptians call Louis Farouk – the sort of ersatz opulence that Louis XIV and King Farouk would have favoured if they had jointly designed a suitable place to live). But I am also reminded, despite the differences of scale, of Quinlan Terry’s Canary Wharf and Prince Charles’s Poundbury village in Dorset – lots of columns, arches and bare brick. You’d never call it cutting edge.
As I walk through the pedestrian shopping malls of the much-modernised Sochi town centre, it occurs to me that since being named as host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics seven years ago, it has had the municipal equivalent of major cosmetic surgery. Not just Botox here and a chin tuck there, but the full works: new nose, new neck, new everything. So it comes as a shock, driving along the highway towards the airport and the Olympic village, to see the giant Cyrillic letters CCCP on the top of an office building. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? What’s that doing here?
My mind goes back to the final hours of the Soviet Union in December 1991. I was broadcasting from a hotel room overlooking Red Square in Moscow, and I remember noticing the unfamiliar white, blue and red stripes of the Russian flag, flying from the Kremlin ramparts as snowflakes flurried down. Where was the red flag, the hammer and sickle? Could 74 years of Soviet communism be erased from history overnight? (I did spot one red flag: it was outside Moscow’s first McDonald’s. Ah, the irony.)
Now, of course, there are Russian flags – and burger bars – everywhere. When we stopped on the Sochi highway for a quick lunch, all we could find was a McDonald’s rip-off joint, offering a tasteless burger with a giant carton of French fries and a Coke. I had to stop myself pining for the good old days, when all you could find was thin soup and Russian salad.
You can’t really erase a country’s past, of course, although Sochi has made a valiant attempt. There’s still a statue of Lenin in a suburban park, for example, and that – appropriately enough – was where I came across a group of disgruntled construction workers, victims of dishonest employers and unscrupulous middlemen.
As I listened to their sad tale of not being paid for months, I remembered the old Soviet joke from the days of state-owned enterprises: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” The new Sochi version is sadder: “We did the work, but they still didn’t pay us.”
But if you really want a reminder of Sochi’s past glories – it was, after all, Stalin’s favourite holiday haunt – take a turning off the main highway and head for the Ordzhonikidze sanatorium. It’s one of several such places that Stalin built here, giant pseudo-classical hotel-spas in extensive wooded grounds with formal Italianate gardens and splashing fountains, state-subsidised holiday destinations for the men and women who laboured mightily to turn the Soviet Union into a global industrial power.
Today, the Ordzhonikidze sanatorium has the air of a forgotten Versailles. It was built for the country’s miners but now it is a decaying hulk, the gardens abandoned, the fountains silenced. If in its heyday this was a palace for the proletariat, the palace has followed the proletariat into the history books. There’s talk of converting it into a five-star hotel but, as I pick my way gingerly through the rampant undergrowth, I find it difficult to imagine that it will ever be revived.
Will the Sochi Olympic stadiums be Putin’s answer to Stalin’s sanatoriums? In 80 years from now, will they also lie abandoned and forgotten, decaying monuments to the vaulting ambition of a Russian autocrat who wanted to be remembered for making his nation great again?
To my surprise, I like Sochi. I like its broad, seafront promenade and its palm trees – for a brief moment, I fancy I could be in Bournemouth. I like the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, looming on the horizon. And when I’ve had my fill of complaints from local people who, to be sure, have plenty to complain about, I like the giggling teenage schoolgirls who say they can’t wait for the Games to start, because they’ve signed up to be volunteers, and it’s going to be so exciting.
I also have to confess a weakness for what the French call les grands projets. I like buildings that make statements about the era when they were built – I have a favourite spot on the south bank of the Thames, from which you can admire both the majestic tower of Southwark Cathedral and the elegant needle of the Shard without moving a muscle.
Sochi’s Olympic planners have thoughtfully buried a time capsule beneath the stadium in which the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, and in it they have placed a message to future generations. Presumably, they want it to represent the essence of Sochi 2014. What a shame that they could come up with nothing better than “Believe in your strengths, and together we will win.”
Robin Lustig’s documentary “The Road to Sochi”, for BBC Radio 4, is available via the BBC Radio iPlayer