Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Looking to Sochi

What do you think about Los Angeles becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. If you want to see evidence that I'm not smoking hash from a hookah when I say that, you need look no further than the host of this year's XXII Winter Olympiad, for Sochi is living proof that Russia's landscape is not limited to the frozen steppes of which we always think.

Located on the Black Sea, closer to Istanbul than it is to Moscow, Sochi is about as far south as you can go and still be in Russia. Much like Los Angeles, it is a sunny subtropical paradise with palm trees everywhere you look. On average, it experiences less than three days per year that the temperature drops below freezing.

View of the Black Sea from a park in Sochi

But then there is this: Sochi's residents can look east to the snow-capped peaks of the Caucusus Mountains, and LA's can look east at snow-crested summits in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto ranges -- which means that even if it is 60 degrees where they are standing on a February afternoon, residents of both cities are only a short drive away from wintry landscapes where they can build snowmen and go ice climbing, and therein lies an ability to host events that might not seem to fit.

The San Gabriel Mountains behind the LA skyline

In the coming weeks, the city of Sochi will feature indoor competitions while the Rosa Khutor Ski Resort, 24 miles away and much higher up, features outdoor competitions. So going back to the LA comparison: Why couldn't Southern California host the games with hockey played in the Honda Center, figure skating staged in the Staples Center, and skiing taking place over at Big Bear or Mount Baldy?

Not that I'm advocating for a SoCal Winter Olympics, mind you. I'm only using the LA comparison to illustrate how different Sochi is from most places that play host to winter sports spectacles.

At heart I am a traditionalist who wishes these games would go back to the days when they were always held in snowed-under, out-of-the-way spots with names like Lillehammer and Saint Moritz. But Sochi, a place I had never heard of until four years ago, was such an iconoclastic choice for a host that it intrigued me the moment I started reading about it. That intrigue moved me to learn more about the city's history and people, and isn't that part of what the Olympics are all about?


Look at a map and you will find Sochi opposite the Bosporus, near the Georgian border on that isthmus-of-sorts that runs between the Black and Caspian Seas. If you were a bird flying from it, you could reach Iran faster than you could reach Kiev.

The region where the city sits is one where Europe and Asia merge and the line dividing the continents is vague. To my eyes Sochi is in Asia. To the eyes of a friend of mine who is from Bulgaria, it is in Europe. And even when talking to people who are authorities on such matters, the answer to the question "Which continent is Sochi in?" changes depending on who you ask.

If you retained a lot of what you learned in school, you might recall that the term "Caucasian race" owes itself to this part of the world, due to two Germans who were working independently of each other when they wrote about race in the late 1700's. Christoph Meiners divided mankind into two races and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach divided it into five, but they each theorized that the palest batch of humanity was descended from ancient ancestors who came from the Caucasus. Thus, the term "Caucasian race" was coined to refer as much to geographic origin as to skin tone.


Archaeological evidence reveals that early humans inhabited this region nearly 100,000 years ago and lived in open settlements for 65,000 years before retreating to cave dwellings with the onset of the Ice Ages.

Maritime Greeks crossed the Black Sea in the 500's B.C., landed at what is now Sochi, and found it to be inhabited by tribes that included the Aehi and Zygii. Those tribes readily traded for luxury goods, and consequently, commerce-hungry Greeks continued to sail here for more than four centuries. Darkly, slaves were among the "things" they traded for.

From approximately 280 B.C. to 60 B.C., the people who lived in what is now Sochi were subjects of an interesting and understudied entity called the Pontic Empire, which straddled cultural crossroads and drew customs from multiple sources (for example, the rulers of Pontus worshiped both Persian and Greek deities, in particular the sun gods Ahuramazda and Apollo).

Eventually the Pontic Empire was supplanted by the Roman. Then, many hundreds of years later, the Roman Empire's authority over the region was ceded to the Ottoman. There was no Russian presence until a relatively recent point in history.


In 1838, nine years after the end of the Russo-Turkish War, the first Russian outpost was constructed here. The natives resisted, viewing its construction as an imperial maneuver by a distant monarchy that aimed to take control of their homeland.

Hostilities ensued and mushroomed and the result was the Caucasian War, which went on for an astonishing 47 years before the distant monarchy prevailed. As Russia's Romanov Dysnasty proceeded to assert control over the region, much of the native population emigrated to Turkey.

Ethnic Russians, inspired by the warm climate, moved here gradually but steadily as the nineteenth century grew long in the tooth. In 1896, more than 2,000 years after the little burg by the sea first appeared, Russia gave it the name Sochi in honor of the local river.

As time marched into the first decade of the twentieth century, the newly named municipality began drawing vacationers for the same reason it had drawn settlers; namely, the weather. Its first major resort opened in 1909 and was called the Kavkazskaya Riviera.

Sochi officially received "town" status in 1917, which, coincidentally, was the same year the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the Romanovs. Unfortunately, all the Bolsheviks did was usher in Soviet Communism, an even worse breed of tyranny that would plague not only Russia but all of Eastern Europe and a large portion of the entire planet for the next 70+ years.


Under Soviet rule, Sochi's climate once again proved to be its salvation, for while freedom remained a stranger on its shores, prosperity did not. As the only warm weather resort town in the world's largest country, it attracted Russia's elite like a porch light attracts moths. Extravagant hotels were erected, marinas brimmed with high-end boats, and health resorts (what we Americans might call spas) popped up to turn postwar Sochi into the world's leader in sanatoriums and health vacations. It enjoyed a Club Med/Playground of the Rich and Powerful status even when Communist Party bosses had unfettered access to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula during the height of the USSR.

Meanwhile, the local climate opened the door to other economic successes that had nothing to do with tourism. Tea is the most prominent example, for Sochi's outskirts are home to the northernmost tea farms on the entire planet. Over the years these farms have given rise to a number of respected tea brands, of which Krasnodarsky is the most notable.

Two decades ago, when the USSR dissipated and Ukraine gained its independence, an already well-off Sochi took full advantage of the fact it no longer had to compete with the Crimean Peninsula to get the attention of Moscow pols trying to figure out where to spend their domestic vacation rubles. As of 2010 it was bringing in more than 1.5 million tourists per year -- roughly five times its population of 343,000.


None of the above means that everything is hunky dory in this city and its surroundings. It sits near the nexus of the Old World's Christian and Muslim populations, and on the doorstep to three small countries that were forcibly controlled by the USSR for much of the past century (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). Therefore, civic tension is a reality, which you might have guessed from the much-reported worries that terrorists might attack this year's Olympics.

But despite all the headlines terrorism has garnered, no terrorist attack has ever happened in Sochi. The most prevalent and systemic problem is grift, which many claim to be rampant. Perhaps that is an almost inevitable byproduct of the city having spent most of its history under despotism, and the despotism having been replaced not by liberal democracy but by corrupt kleptocracy.

There has been much talk that the preparation projects undertaken to pull off these games have been nothing more than a massive wealth transfer to well-connected Putin cronies, who may or may not deliver on their promises but will definitely finish over-budget and with their pockets plushly lined.

There has also been talk that Putin pulled international levers to bring these games to Sochi not because it is better qualified than the cities it beat out (Salzburg, Austria and Pyeongchang, South Korea) but because it is where he likes to ski and he wants to flaunt it to the world.

There has been talk that he sees these games as a chance to project Russian significance in much the same way Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics to project Nazi power. The thinking is that he wants to 1) create an innovative image by showing his regime can pull off the Winter Olympics in a place that is not very wintry, and 2) gain an economic boon by showcasing Sochi as a place all the world should want to visit.

Every bit of that talk is easy to believe, but that does not change the fact that Sochi is indeed a fascinating place. And we should remember that its citizens are not responsible for the acts of their rulers.


My original Los Angeles analogy, though apt, is not perfect. Sochi's low temperatures in February are not cold enough to impress people in Tennessee, much less people in places like Alberta and Finland. However, its daytime highs in February are not balmy either. They average 50 degrees, which is only about 10 degrees warmer than New York's.

Geologically speaking, the snow-caps of Southern California are seasonal and somewhat inconsistent, while the ones east of Sochi are permanent, deep, and much more prominent. This is due partly to Sochi's wetter air and more northerly latitude, and partly to the superior elevations of its nearby mountains.

There is no question that the ranges which encircle the Los Angeles Basin are world-class affairs. They exceed timberline, culminate in rugged pinnacles, and top out at the 11,499-foot summit of San Gorgonio Mountain. Yet San Gorgonio would not even rank among the top 25 points in the Caucasus, which have 18 named summits exceeding 12,000 feet and numerous unnamed summits exceeding that threshold as well.

The loftiest peak in the Caucasus, Mount Elbrus, is a white behemoth that soars to 18,510 feet above sea level -- 3,000 more than the highest point in the Alps and 4,000 more than the highest in the Rockies. Its hulk is home to 22 glaciers that give birth to three rivers. According to myth, it is where Zeus bound Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver as punishment for teaching humans the knowledge of fire. Not only is Elbrus one of mountaineering's Seven Summits, it is one of the grandest sights ever painted by the brush of God.

Mount Elbrus


The oft-repeated claim that the Olympics are about peace and brotherhood is, in my opinion, a bunch of pap. What the Olympics are primarily about is excellence in competition, and the goal of all competition is to defeat your opponent. Such an environment does not tend to produce the mother's milk of peace and brotherhood, even if its media cheerleaders say otherwise.

The Olympics do have a "bigger purpose," however, and it is this: By changing locations around the globe, they serve to broaden our understanding of how vast and various our planet is. By projecting Earth's beauty onto our television sets, the Olympics serve us by making us appreciate all that is out there to be explored. By spotlighting people from faraway lands, and spotlighting nations big and small whose citizens have their own trials to endure and their own triumphs to enjoy, the Olympics do lift us up even when we are gritting our teeth over the hockey officials and snowboarding judges.

For me, the Sochi Olympics have already served this "bigger purpose" by bringing to my attention a city I never knew of, and by bringing back to my attention a region I had learned about in high school (thank you, Mr. Foley!) but later pushed to the back of my mind. By prodding me to read up on Sochi and its surroundings, these Olympics have reaffirmed for me the mystique of human history. They have reminded me of the reasons I have always wanted to travel the word. In those things, I am confident I won't be alone as February unfolds.

1 comment:

Scott Friedersdorf said...

Loving the Mr Foley reference!