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World Cup, global wealth transforming Sochi's unique beach culture

Martin Ainstein's tour of World Cup host cities arrives at Sochi's Fisht Stadium, which will host six World Cup matches this summer.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of essays profiling all of the cities set to host World Cup games this summer. Eliot Rothwell visited every venue to get a sense of how preparations were going and what the mood was like ahead of the tournament.

SOCHI, Russia -- At the bottom of Ulitsa Sokolova, there's a scene few expect to see in Russia. The street opens onto a walkway lined by palm trees. It overlooks beaches and the vibrant blues of the Black Sea, reached by a set of terracotta and cream stairways. Light, wispy pop music floats up from the bars below as people dine on terraces, their sandals hastily thrown back on after dips in the water.

For Russians and people from the former Soviet Union, Sochi has long been a place for enjoyment and pause. This is the Russia of sunscreen, shashlik (kebabs) and chanson (song). It's the Russia of childhood memories, of holidays with the family and of simpler times.

In the summer, Sochi heaves with a mass of tourists from Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities around the country. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs accommodate the visitors who come to the city to escape from the monotony of normal life. In the colder months, people still come for a respite from the harsh winters further north and east. In March, when I travelled there, I left Moscow with the temperature gauge at -8° C (17° F) and snow piled on the streets. After a two-hour flight, my plane touched down at Sochi's international airport, located in nearby Adler. The temperature was +18° C (64° F). Palm trees surrounded the entrance to the terminal.

I was simply here to assess their World Cup preparation, but for over 100 years people have been making the same journey south, to Sochi, hoping to find something missing in other areas of Russia.

During much of the Soviet period, Sochi and the surrounding towns were developed as health resorts. Joseph Stalin, then leader of the Soviet Union, regularly visited nearby Matsesta to treat his ailments with the local mineral waters. At his instruction, the second of the Soviet Five Year Plans (launched in 1933) made provisions to develop Sochi and its adjoining coast as "a health resort of world significance."

Over the next few years, Soviet planners built sanatoria (resorts) to offer the country's workers some relief. They developed nearby beaches and bathing spots to make the area attractive to visitors. As historian Johanna Conterio wrote in an article for the journal "Kritika," the modern Sochi was conceived of as a rival to Miami and the coastal resorts of the Mediterranean. If the capitalist world could offer relaxing seaside holidays, socialism could do the same.

The development of this new holiday area was commensurate with a re-imaging of nature. As Conterio suggests, Soviet planners felt cheated by the flora they had been served up on the Black Sea coast. They reasoned that the temperate, Mediterranean-style climate deserved sub-tropical plants rather than the traditional Russian birch. So, they experimented. They simply planted what they wanted to see, allowing palm trees and other tropical plants to proliferate. Today, the trees remain dotted around the city, flanking sidewalks and the main, pedestrianised drag in the centre of the old town.

In Conterio's words, the planners succeeded in constructing "a place of beauty, of luscious subtropical landscapes, the jewel of the Soviet territory."

But the Soviet dream of Sochi as a spa town full of sanatoria and the aches and pains of the proletariat is fading. As modern capitalism engulfs Russia's Black Sea coast, the area is changing. The sanatoria have been converted into hotels ready for athletes and visitors. Stretches of beach once occupied by ageing metal workers are now given over to private parties, cordoned off from the people they were once supposed to serve. The historic marina, with its spire jutting out over the older parts of the city, is flush with lavish yachts rather than the joyriders of old.

The central lever pulling Sochi towards this new future is international sport. The award of the 2014 Winter Olympics erupted onto the Black Sea coast in a haze of concrete and contractors. In the mountains above Sochi, Krasnaya Polyana, a small ski resort, was brought up to Olympic capabilities. The road to it, from the city of Adler, became mired in controversy and corruption. Costs spiraled. Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few independent, investigate newspapers, found that the road could have been constructed for less money if it was paved in gold. But still the authorities got it done... eventually. Down on the coast, Sochi was also spruced up, turned into a weekend destination for Moscow's super rich with their taste for sushi and shisha pipes.

Russians enjoy the local sun and sand of Sochi, a neat reminder of what the city was founded upon before more cosmopolitan and international concerns came to town.
Russians enjoy the local sun and sand of Sochi, a neat reminder of what the city was founded upon before more cosmopolitan and international concerns came to town.

Dutch writer Arnold van Bruggen documented the changes to Russia's Black Sea Coast in the years preceding the Winter Olympics. Along with photographer Rob Hornstra, he travelled to the area 12 times over five years, publishing his findings in the The Sochi Project. Speaking over the phone from Amsterdam, he told ESPN: "When we started going there, there was the old splendour of the sanatoria. There were several of those giant, Stalin-style spots and also a modernist one, which I think is still dedicated to the Red Army. We fell in love with the old sanatorium culture, which was disappearing already."

Over the years, the gradual shift from old to new became more pronounced. "Many sanatoria were rebuilt or renovated into normal hotels, three-star, four-star or even five-star sometimes," said Van Bruggen. "For instance, the Rodina is now really a new fancy, Moscow style -- or global style -- hotel. It's a very fancy place. Maybe a little bit boring compared to the others." The result, according to Van Bruggen, is "a rowdy mass tourist place with discos and foam parties on the beach. A lot of noise, the smell of sunscreen and a lot of vodka. Really, the sort of resort that you see all around the world on the coast."

In nearby Adler, a 40-minute train ride from Sochi, Olympic construction transplanted world-class sporting facilities onto a ragged patch of the city. A large portion of land, just behind the beach, was developed into the Olympic Park including a Formula 1 race track and two stadia.

The Fisht Stadium, a domineering space-ship-type bowl, is the centerpiece, built on land that was previously occupied by refugees from Abkhazia, the disputed territory at the far end of the beach. Now new hotels, restaurants and roads occupy what was once empty space, catering to international sport in an area with little local sporting heritage. The Fisht Stadium, built to host 41,000 fans, is a home without a tenant. Sochi and the adjoining coastline has not had a professional football team since 2013, when Zhemchuzhina-Sochi disbanded. In recent weeks, reports suggested there are talks to transplant Dinamo St Petersburg to the city for the 2018-19 season.

On Russia's Black Sea coast, the unlikely is often made possible.

Fisht Stadium is expected to be the jewel in Sochi's crown but after the World Cup, there's no local team ready to take it over.
Fisht Stadium is expected to be the jewel in Sochi's crown, but after the World Cup there's no local team ready to take it over.

In the summer, Adler, which Van Bruggen describes as a "strangely 1990s Russia town where people just improvised and survived," will form the heart of Sochi's World Cup experience. The idea though is that fans and visitors use Sochi as their base and then travel to and from Adler's Olympic Park for matches. The fan zone, the central hub of the World Cup in each host city, is located alongside the marina in the centre of Sochi.

Even the name of the host city, "Sochi," reveals some erasure of Adler's place within the competition. It is seen as more Sochi-overflow than a city in its own right. Sochi ("Adler") International Airport is located down the coast rather than in Sochi itself. For marketing purposes, the brand "Sochi" has been made to encompass many of the adjoining towns, pushing them all towards the same future as part of a single, shared area.

Among the residents of these towns and cities, Sochi's renewed status as an international destination has not been greeted as warmly as officials might have hoped. Van Bruggen found opinion divided between young and old. Among the older generation, who had been moved out of their historic villages and settlements to make way for construction, he encountered sadness as "many things had been lost," but for young people, this re-calibration of their local area provided some hope.

"What I heard from the younger generation," said Van Bruggen, "is that those people are actually quite happy with what happened because they see more chances for doing business or working or having a good life in Sochi."

It's not uncommon to see people cooking
It's not uncommon to see people cooking

As the opportunities for work increased, people began to arrive from nearby towns and cities. All along the Black Sea Coast, labourers, restauranteurs, waiting staff, bartenders, taxi drivers and a host of other services were required.

Artyom Fedorov, a 27-year-old waiter, was among those who came to Sochi to make a living. He moved with his girlfriend from Stavropol, a city further north, in 2014. He began work as a taxi driver, ferrying Russia's rich from night clubs to hotels. But shortly after he arrived, his relationship turned sour and his girlfriend returned home. Artyom, happy with the climate and the life he had built for himself, remained, taking a job in an Italian restaurant.

More recently, Dima Mironov arrived in Sochi from Donetsk. As conflict set in around his home city, he decided to move his family out of harm's way, starting a new job at a tech company. Now he spends his weekends on the beach, drinking beer and checking the Shakhtar Donetsk scores on his phone.

The legacy of Sochi's Winter Olympics and World Cup rests on people like Artyom and Dima finding reasons to stay in the city. Over the next 10 years, if visitors continue to arrive, work opportunities remain and restaurants and bars survive, Sochi will prosper.

The centre of the city, where people have visited for over 100 years, seems ready to cope after the travelling shows depart. The "sunscreen, shashlik and chanson" culture will not be put to an end by the final whistle of the World Cup. People will still visit.

Yet further down Russia's Black Sea coast, at the Olympic Park, the future is more uncertain. Without investment in local sporting culture, the Fisht Stadium could go unused, only opening for the occasional Russia match or a cup final. In Sochi, and along Russia's Black Sea coast, the local must eventually supersede the international.

Eliot is a European football writer with a special interest in Eastern Europe. Twitter @EliotRothwell

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