Andrew Osborn









Independent On Sunday, 7th January 2007 12:18

Andrew Osborn

Joe Stalin must be turning in his grave. Oligarchs are blowing billions on his old seaside haunt, Sochi, turning it into an über-resort fit to host the Olympics. Andrew Osborn reports

Its name may not trip off the tongue, but Sochi, a brash resort on the Black Sea, is about to become Europe’s new Riviera – if its oil-rich civic leaders are to be believed.

Adored by the likes of Vladimir Putin and glitzy pop stars with big hairdos – and long ago by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – this hitherto obscure resort, 900 miles south of Moscow, is in the throes of a multibillion-pound campaign designed to drag it into the 21st century and put its name on the international tourism map. And it’s being styled with oligarch cool.

The mission to turn Sochi into an über-resort has been galvanised by the fact that the Black Sea town sits at the foot of the Caucasus mountains and has become a leading candidate city to host the Winter Olympics in 2014. Stretching across 90 miles of pebbly coastline, the resort is selling itself as that rare beast, a destination where you can swim in the sea in the summer and ski in the mountains in the winter, and, crucially, at certain times of year, do both. For the area boasts a subtropical coastal climate and, just an hour’s drive away, alpine conditions courtesy of the Caucasus mountains.

If the Kremlin’s master-plan unfolds without any hitches, come 2014 the seaside town will become one of the 21st century’s most glamorous hot – and cold – spots. The Kremlin is putting its money – £6bn of it – where its mouth is and has marshalled its most loyal and deep-pocketed oligarchs to get the job done.

Sochi is undergoing a top-to-bottom revamp: gleaming new ski villages are being thrown up in its snow-capped mountains; the airport is being modernised; a high-speed rail link installed; hotels and luxury apartments erected. But this remodelling is not without its critics. Greenpeace has accused the Kremlin of putting profits before the environment and has cried foul over plans to develop a quarter of Sochi’s pristine national park for tourism.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this – and there do appear to be grounds for concern – Sochi’s government-led metamorphosis is unstoppable since it has the personal imprimatur of one of the town’s most regular and powerful visitors, Mr Putin.

The Russian president likes to work from his seaside Sochi official residence in the summer and enjoys skiing at the nearby resort of Krasnaya Polyana in the winter. His cavalcade sometimes jams the town’s main drag, Kurortny Prospekt; a warship is permanently moored off its coast for his protection, and state TV often films him receiving VIP guests on a hulking balcony overlooking the Black Sea. And where Mr Putin goes, Russia’s super-moneyed new élite follows, building lavish homes that compete for attention.

Sochi first caught my eye as the backdrop in a gentle old 1970s Soviet film about an ill-fated but comic love affair. The film made the place look good; bright sunshine, grandiose Stalinist architecture, happy holidaymakers, good swimming, a range of bizarre exercise machines for tired workers.

It was Lenin who signed the decree in 1919 that created these “health resorts of national importance”, and the following year the first sanatoria were opened in Sochi. In the Soviet era, the town was packaged as “a workers’ paradise” where the hard-working proletariat unwound in dozens of state-run sanatoria as a reward for their heroic labour. Those sanatoria still exist in Sochi today.

As my taxi zipped through the streets, I caught intriguing glimpses of grand residences tucked down long verdant driveways. A sanatorium named after the Soviet daily newspaper Pravda (Truth) was, unsurprisingly, meant for journalists, the driver told me, while another grand edifice was designed for generals, and another for oil industry workers. Some resemble vast, elegant English country houses, covered in ivy – it’s easy to see why the Communist élite liked to kick back in those. But others are less than pleasing on the eye, such as the 20-storey mass of concrete misleadingly named Jemchujina, or The Pearl.

I checked in at the Grand Hotel Rodina, a former sanatorium where Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, recuperated after he returned to Earth. For today’s visitors it offers a taste of the Sochi of the future, having been painstakingly converted into the last word in luxury at a cost of about £20m. Fittingly, it is owned by an oligarch, Oleg Deripaska (Russia’s sixth-richest man, worth almost £5bn according to Forbes magazine).

Standing on my balcony overlooking the Black Sea, an enormous wall-mounted LCD TV murmuring in the background, I could see Mr Putin’s official residence to the right and the hotel’s yacht club by the shore. In one of the Rodina’s gourmet restaurants I was made to feel a little like a world leader in my own right – the service here is “New Russia” and that means attentive in the extreme. As soon as I had half emptied a glass of water it was lovingly refilled by one of three waitresses who would not have looked out of place in a Bond movie.

To get an overview, I headed for Sochi’s viewing platform, via a cable-car ride over the botanical gardens. From here it is easy to see why the Kremlin chose Sochi for a showcase resort. Fronted by the shimmering Black Sea, the mountains beyond, Sochi looks like a page from a holiday brochure.

And down in the town there is already a full programme of sophisticated distractions on offer to today’s work-weary visitor. The town’s colonnaded theatre puts on opera and ballet; there’s a decent art gallery and even a permanent circus. Sochi fills with Russia’s movie stars once a year, who converge on the resort for an annual film festival and pop stars roll up to play to the crowds.

Yet along the promenade, the town tells a tale of two Russias. On the front there is still little sign of the caviar-lifestyle of New Russia. This is still a resort for people with simpler tastes; a place to laze on the beach, eat candyfloss and stroll about the kind of seaside shops you find the world over. Indeed, most of the holidaymakers who throng Sochi’s beaches today are not oligarchs but people who get by on salaries of about £3,000 a year. How long they’re invited to the party remains to be seen.