Sochi has always been a strange city — a contradictory place of conflict and carnival, of nostalgia and imagination. And it has only got stranger with the arrival of the Olympics. As the world turns its eye to the noisy ski-jumps-and-scandals circus that is the Games, the time is right to sneak away from the hubbub and explore the city itself, to wander into dive bars and dumpling joints, stroll through ancient forests and maybe take a moment to think more deeply about the past and the future of an eccentric resort that has become a utopian project.
The Olympics is a monster. A peaceable one, perhaps, but a monster all the same, wandering the globe greedily hoovering up money and press coverage. The Winter Olympics, however, used to be different, something a bit smaller, a bit more offbeat. Lillehammer, Albertville and Salt Lake City are not Sydney, London and Beijing. And while maybe, just maybe, kayaking could conquer the world, snow-bound biathlon will always remain a niche interest. That has changed with Sochi 2014, the most expensive games in history.
It was perhaps inevitable: Russia does many things well, but its strength has always been bigness — big country, big history, big problems, big Olympics. Has this grandiose pet project of a grandstanding president steamrollered all the quirk out of a fun-loving festival of slipping and sliding?
You can think of the Sochi Olympics as a giant Gatsbyesque party, but with lycra-clad lugers instead of flappers. An enigmatic host seeks to hide his unsavoury past in the splendorous lights of a lavish celebration. You can be drawn into the brilliant fiesta, but, as at any party, the real story lies in the shadows, away from the music and the dancing. And what do we find beyond the bright lights and badly made beetroot canapes? There is scandal, of course. Corruption, homophobia, human rights abuses. But if the guests boycotted the party, would these things go away? No. In Russia xenophobia and homophobia are intertwined. At least now we have a chance to sneak upstairs and rifle through some drawers.
But there is something else too, almost obscured by the carnival. The city of Sochi itself. And it is here that the offbeat spirit of the Winter Olympics survives. Sure, there is nothing small about Sochi: the view of the looming mountains is blocked by hulking high-rises. This is nothing new: when this seaside resort was a Soviet Riviera where workers and nomenklatura alike spent their holidays in super-sized sanatoriums.
But Sochi has always managed to stop big becoming bland. In part, this is result of the city’s sweet-and-sour contrasts. The clash of sea and snow; Russian rigour and Caucasian warmth; pomegranates and pelmeni; concrete and palm trees; faded seaside glamour and tacky new-build opulence. It’s also a product of the freewheeling spirit of a holiday town — Sochi is a place for trysts, adventures and excess. But above all it’s a testament to the visitors and locals who remake the city for themselves, from below, carving out curious little spaces in between the bombast dropped in from Moscow.
It’s this city that The Calvert Journal invites you to explore. Enjoy the sport, marvel at the skill and dedication of the athletes, gasp at the organisers’ combination of inspiration and ineptitude. But take some time to slip out of the party, duck down an alley, buy yourself a chewy churchkhela, pull up a plastic chair and ponder the city as you stare out at the steel-grey sea.