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Russian Riviera

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Photo: Simon Watson

Back in town, things are only marginally less wild. Sochi, which means "juicy" in Russian, is at heart a flaming neon phoenix of a boardwalk town. On its main corner stands a giant mosaic of Lenin’s head, perpetually wreathed in smoke billowing from carts of grilling meat. The women—characterized by feral blue eyes and gangly limbs—wear high heels on the beach here, and their proto-capitalist mates unironically chomp cigars as they stand in the shallows.

This 21st-century present exists cheek-by-jowl with the Soviet past, in the form of Sochi’s sanatoriums: combination spa-hospital-resorts where the U.S.S.R.’s workforce—the metalsmiths, the auto workers, the tax collectors—arrived with vouchers to take a heavily discounted month of rest, cooling the sweat of their noble communist labor. On the paths winding through the forested grounds, signposts point: this way—pool, that way—X-rays. In what must be one of the nation’s funnier exercises in futility, wall murals in the socialist-propaganda style exhort Russians not to smoke.

The magnificent Stalinist imperial buildings (and depressing Brezhnev concrete blocks) may be falling into disrepair, but the sanatoriums still endure. At Ordzhonikidze, a palatial structure named after an early Bolshevik activist, pinafore-clad middle-aged women—of the type known as "chemical aunties" for their improbably hued hair and toxic demeanor—guard creaky wooden corridors lavish with original detail. No one can see a room without the proper permission (and paperwork). Inquiries about services and prices, or whether it is even possible to stay the night, are met with extreme suspicion, and visitors are sent to a separate department to stand in one line, then another. And so on.

The sanatoriums are slowly being bought up and transformed—the Rodina is only one example. But visitors who make haste to the region will still have plenty of opportunities to see statues of robust, toga-wearing workers and beautiful marble bas-relief carvings: sheaf of wheat, basket of fruit, hammer and sickle.

Ironically, these still-functioning relics have become obstacles in Sochi’s development. Sanatoriums attract 3 million visitors a year, according to state PR channel Russia Today, many of them financially and physically distressed—making Sochi currently too unfashionable among the Russian elite to, well, become fashionable any time soon. Propose it as a Destination, and chic Muscovites react with varying degrees of amusement and alarm; as the joke goes, "Question: What’s the Russian Riviera?Answer: The Riviera."

Moreover, the infrastructure isn’t yet up to luxury-travel standards. Roads are traffic-choked, mountain paths are sometimes scattered with litter, and the night spots are a collective time machine set to 1980. Until the boondoggle that is the Olympic bid is secure and/or the new ski resorts, airports, and roads are built, it might be foolish for anyone less financially secure than an oligarch to dump money here. A lesson can be drawn from a sight a few minutes up the road from the current, abysmal airport: a grand, ruined, insectile black-glass structure that was to be a new international airport—half-built and then abandoned a decade ago.

And there’s still the general implausibility of Russia as a resort destination. Although it’s very good at many things, the country is not known for its service industry. "Sochi, so far, is still fighting for tourist clientele on a par with those of Turkey and Egypt," says Anton Lyalin, an owner of Moscow’s Goodman Steak House chain, who considered opening a restaurant in town (a low-cost café is all he thinks would make sense) and has decided against it for now. "But the service guys in Turkey—they smile," he says. "Sochi needs a program of how to welcome people to our city, and it’s not happening yet."

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