My teenage trip in the glory days of Soviet Sochi.
- By James TraubJames Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly. Follow his Twitter feed at @JamesTraub1.
In the summer of 1970, on a teen tour across Scandinavia and Russia, I spent a week in Sochi, long before the $55 billion Olympic Village was even a twinkle in Vladimir Putin’s eye. The Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia only two years before; the mighty eyebrows of Leonid Brezhnev, the ponderous party general secretary of that ponderous era, were still jet black. The Soviet Union felt comatose; with military spending consuming much of the federal budget, everything was scarce. In Leningrad — that would be St. Petersburg today — our group went to an outdoor "Georgian-style" shashlik restaurant where, owing to the rationing of meat, we each received precisely 3 ounces of gristly beef along with our grilled onions and peppers. "Back in the USSR" boomed out over the speaker system across an empty dance floor.
Ah, but Sochi; that was our beach vacation. The salubrious climate, with mountains not far away, had made Sochi Russia’s tuberculosis capital. As soon as we arrived, the guides assigned to us informed us that Sochi had 60 sanatoriums; we would have the opportunity to visit many of them. From our first visit I recall only long hallways, tiled floors, high ceilings, vast lounges with slippered patients. We begged off the other 59.
In those days, travel in the Soviet Union was organized either by Intourist, a giant state bureaucracy, or Sputnik, the travel arm of the Communist Youth League. We went Sputnik, which is to say, bargain basement. Our hotel was a giant white block at the edge of the beach. We ate all three meals in the cafeteria. All three were the same — boiled sausages, kasha, and black bread. In the morning, but only in the morning, we got butter with our bread. At lunch, our stewed fruit juice appeared also to have been smoked. None of us complained about only receiving 3 ounces of meat.
This being Russia, alcohol was practically free. Vodka was $1 a bottle; so was champagne; so was cognac. In what now strikes me as a suspicious coincidence, it seemed that many of us were celebrating birthdays during this period. In the evenings, our two tour leaders, who held on to the money, would stock up on alcohol, and we would camp out on the grass not far from the kiosk that sold crumb cakes. Although I had already begun drinking wine, I can thank the Soviet Union for teaching me how to drink. I was 15, which I suppose by Russian standards was a very advanced age for a beginner.
You may, by now, have seen pictures of Sochi’s famous beach. It was not a sand beach, nor even the fine pebble beach you find on volcanic islands. The beach consisted of rocks. Somehow, this seemed exactly right. What it meant, however, was that you couldn’t lie comfortably on a towel, especially not on the threadbare towels handed out by our Sputnik hotel. Also, the rocks heated up in the course of the day so that by the afternoon you had to run straight into the water to keep the bottom of your feet from roasting.
The Russians did not, themselves, do a great deal of swimming. These were large, very pale persons who were generally content to remain immobile. A vacation in Sochi was a reward for Stakhanovite achievement, which in 1970 I suppose would mean things like exceeding production targets on the building of semi-functional black-and-white televisions. The Russians around us seemed perfectly pleased with the room, the board, and the beach.
It was taken for granted among us that our rooms were bugged. This may have been Cold War paranoia, but in several cases our Soviet guides dropped something into conversation that it would seem they only could have known from overhearing our private talks. We then adopted the conceit that absolutely everything was bugged. When we paddled out into the Black Sea on one of the rubber rafts the hotel made available, we staged elaborate bouts of disinformation.
All this comical hokum came to an abrupt end on the morning when our Sputnik guides presented to us a petition, already signed by patriotic Eastern Bloc youth, calling on the United States to halt the imperialist war in Vietnam. Bear in mind that this was 1970. The anti-war movement was peaking. Most of us were between left and left of left. I can’t remember whether I was a socialist or a social democrat. Or maybe an anarchist. In any case, we were all for signing. Here, fortunately, we were rescued by our trip leaders. Toby, a dancer who I suppose was all of 23, said, "If you guys sign this today, there will be an article next week in the International Herald Tribune with the headline, ‘Americans Sign Russian Petition Condemning Vietnam War.’ And it will have a list of your names.’" We acknowledged that that was a good point. Also, a dirty trick by our hosts.
By this time in history, pro-Soviet sympathies had long since been purged from the American left. None of us needed de-programming. Nevertheless, the experience of this dank, cheerless, monochrome country cured us of whatever lingering sense we might have had of the virtues of collectivism. We boarded our Aeroflot flight to Helsinki, making sure to take the hard candies we were offered on board to prevent our ears from popping in the poorly pressurized cabin. When we arrived, I recall that a few of my friends kissed the tarmac. Thank God for Europe!
Sochi will now serve as the international showcase of a Russia that is no longer dank, cheerless, and monochrome. The billions of dollars lavished on the city have bought, according to Russia scholar Leon Aron, "40 new and refurbished hotels, 220 miles of new or reconstructed roads, 125 miles of rail, a dozen tunnels stretching 16 miles and cutting through the mountains," and so on. A report from the International Crisis Group notes that while "the virtually nonfunctioning sewage system had made the Black Sea, unbeknownst to tourists, risky for swimming" — now they tell us! — a new water-treatment plant has made it safe for dog-paddling. The report also notes, incredibly, that President Putin plans to develop the tourist potential of the North Caucasus with a chain of ski resorts in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and even Chechnya.
In the old Soviet Union, success meant that you got to spend a week basking on rocks and eating boiled sausage that someone else had cooked. Now you get to go heli-skiing (with armed bodyguards). That’s progress, at least for the 1 percent. But Sochi is a gigantic monument, by many accounts ruinously wasteful and spectacularly corrupt, to the whims of a dictator. The Sochi we will see on television is a gold-plated Potemkin village, its bedraggled citizens swept out of camera range. It’s too crude to compare Putin to the blood-drenched Joseph Stalin. A more just analogy would be the era of the Romanov tsars, when a glittering aristocracy presided over a vast, benumbed populace. How long, you wonder, will they stay numb?
Addendum: In last week’s column, I gave the impression that David Kilcullen is a counterinsurgency (COIN) enthusiast, albeit a disappointed one. Not true, he says. "Rather I’m a student and practitioner of guerrilla warfare who has always (and publicly) argued against large COIN interventions, for more than a decade in both print and verbally, both in and out of government."