FROM THE OLYMPICS IN SOCHI to the occupation of Crimea, Russia has dominated the headlines in 2014. Yet for all the attention, it is hard to get a sense of Russia and the Russian people from the confines of a secured Olympic Village or sensationalist media coverage of escalating military tensions. Here, an experienced Russia traveler gives us a glimpse of the Russian people through a journey to Sochi long before its Olympic facelift.
(All photographs by Mark Lawrence Schrad. All rights reserved.)
In hindsight, my first mistake was buying a telnyashka (the standard-issue blue-and-white striped undershirt of the Russian military) at a local army/navy surplus store in Rostov-on-Don. My second mistake was putting it on before hopping the night train south to Sochi. In my defense, it was an unusually chilly evening for the first week of May; by the next morning, our small group of American exchange students was scheduled to be basking in the warmth of Russia’s famed Black Sea resort after a long, cold winter matriculating in Moscow.
As the train pulled into the station at dusk, we had only a few short moments to board before it was off again. This particular train had originated in the Crimean port town of Sevastopol — in neighboring Ukraine, yes, but still home to many ethnic Russians as well as Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. By the time it crossed the Russian border and arrived in Rostov-on-Don, the train was already bristling with a boisterous mix of Russians and Ukrainians from all walks of life. We were traveling platzkartny — “third class,” technically, but in reality closer to steerage — up to 54 passengers crammed into each carriage, with no doors, no dividers, and absolutely no privacy. Foreign expats often say that the bonding, communal experience of platzkart is the best way to experience Russia. More likely, it is a practical joke: “I suffered through the cramped, sweltering, malodrous, drunken, traveling dormitory, and hey! If you really want to know Russia, well then you should too.”
As we climbed aboard, struggled through overpopulated corridors, and acclimated to the 80-degree humidity and smell of dried fish and sweat, we passed a particularly aromatic and rowdy pair of Russian sailors who no doubt had been drinking heavily since the train left Sevastopol some six hours earlier. Based on my shaved head and military-issue telnyashka, they assumed I was also a sailor, and immediately invited me to join them for drinks. My third mistake, probably, was ditching my group of American students and accepting that invitation. It took my new friends Vitya and Sergei over an hour before they realized that, not only was I not military, but not even Russian — something I attribute less to my far-from-native linguistic proficiency and more to the astronomical quantity of vodka we were all imbibing by that time. Perhaps this was that bonding experience or quintessential Russian hospitality, but after a few shots, it didn’t seem that my foreign birth mattered anymore. I was among brothers — brothers who would do anything for me, and I for them! As we travelled southward overnight, my recollections became a bit … hazy.
I remember being castigated repeatedly by Russian babushkas because our alcohol-fueled merrymaking was keeping everyone up in the open layout of the platzkart train car. Sergei piped-up (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Fuck off, old lady! We are Russian military, and who is to blame us for blowing off a little steam?” Later, the provodnitsa — the blond, twentysomething attendant for our train car — repeatedly implored us to quiet down. This time, Vitya stood up: “Fuck off, devushka [girl]! Can’t you see that we are Russian military? Who’s to stop us from having a bit of fun?”
Eventually we did retreat to the gangway between the train cars for a smoke. There, between drags, Vitya informed me that my surplus-store telnyashka was “inauthentic shit.” Without thinking, I immediately took it off, wadded it up, and threw it out the window of the clattering train into the cold Russian night. His initial shock gave way to a chuckle and an approving De Nero-esque nod. Vitya then took off his own striped telnyashka and gave it to me. It was a tank top. It was soaking wet, full of holes, and hadn’t been washed in weeks — but he literally gave me the shirt off his back. I put it on before nonchalantly wiping the sweat residue from my fingers onto my jeans. To this day — washed and folded neatly in a drawer somewhere — I keep that threadbare tank top as one of my most genuine souvenirs of Russia.
We hopped off the train to stretch our legs and have another quick smoke (a habit I’d only picked up to assimilate in Russia) as we stopped in Krasnodar in the middle of the night. Though all three of us were standing next it, none of us noticed when the train started to depart without us on it. Shit! We ran down the platform, pounding on the closed door to our train car. Through the window, the young attendant, whom we’d slighted earlier, smirked down at us, before taking pity on our souls and opening the door at the very last second. Breathless, we hopped back on, just as our train left the station. There in the vestibule, we shared a moment: the diminutive railcar attendant standing over two drunk Russian sailors and their drunken American friend sprawled out on the floor, gasping for air as the train wheels rhythmically clattered over the iron rails below. Seeing Vitya shirtless and shivering from the chilly night air, I stumbled back to my bunk to find a sweatshirt for him, one of those overpriced $60 heather gray sweatshirts you get at your college bookstore. Yeah, that’d do. Maybe not equal to a sweat-drenched tank top, but friends look after friends; he accepted it not with a thanks, but with a nod.
We soon found that our young lady friend had phoned ahead, and that a local team of security officers had boarded the train to confront an ongoing disturbance — us. Minutes later, they found us back in our berths, continuing our drunken ruckus. Like the babushkas and provodnitsas before, these half-dozen officers sternly demanded that we keep it down. By this time, I felt that I knew the routine, so I bolted up and pointed a finger in their faces: “Fuck off, guys! Don’t you see that we…WE are Russian military? How dare you try to stop us from having a little fun!”
The officers stood there, stone-faced. They dismissed the agitated, foreign inebriate, and took Vitya aside, the elder member of our newly formed brotherhood.
I don’t know what they said to Vitya, but he was noticeably pale when he returned. In straightforward and unemotional terms he sat me down: “Mark — our American friend — we have had a truly enjoyable evening. But now is the time for you to return to your place and not look back.” Okay, I thought. Got it. I had my Russian “machine” story, said goodbye and quickly passed out in my top bunk — surely to the delight of everyone else in the car — resting my head next to the plate-glass window.
The late-spring sun rises early in Russia, as I was painfully reminded when its light poured over my face. In that cottonmouth stage between drunk and hungover, I groaned as our train stopped in the city of Tuapse on the Black Sea coast. Looking out the window, I saw the security services throwing Seryozha and Vitya (still wearing my sweatshirt) off the train, before we slowly pulled away from the platform. It wasn’t their stop. I waved meekly; I don’t think they saw me. Especially while watching recent coverage of the deepening tensions between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers in Crimea, I often wonder what happened to them — and that sweatshirt. Even though we knew each other for a few short hours some 15 years ago, I still felt we forged a friendship — no, a kinship — far stronger than those I’ve made with many American acquaintances. In conversations with other expats in Russia, many have expressed similar sentiments: below Russians’ closed and gruff façade, there’s an openness and endearing kindness that the simple word “hospitality” could never hope to encapsulate. It is truly a rewarding life experience that I wish everyone could experience — though I’ve found it usually comes with a crippling hangover.
As much as my body was calling me back to sleep, my captivated eyes wouldn’t let me. Overnight we had traded the brown Russian steppe for the lush Mediterranean climate of the Black Sea. We snaked southeast along the coast — in and out of tunnels and over seaside trestles. Outside, everything was alive: green hills rising and falling, clear mountain streams emptying into the pulsating sea. It was riveting. Even the rusting hulks of shipwrecks — the Rousillon, the Kolashin — were mute monuments to tragedies of the past.
Long before the 2014 Olympics, Sochi was the Soviet Union’s foremost resort destination, and as we wearily disembarked, it was easy to see why. It is warm there. The ubiquitous Soviet-era statues of Vladimir Lenin seem out of place among palm trees, instead of being buried in snow. But more than anything I remember how the sea breeze whisked away the heavy stench of diesel fumes characteristic of every major Russian city; that heaviness that weighs on your shoulders and causes that nagging headache at the base of your skull. That was gone. In Sochi, you can breathe.
We spent the day touring the city, and ate lunch at a traditional tea plantation high in the mountains. Strolling through the lush botanical gardens, through open-air markets, and past Sochi’s historical sanatoriums with old men “taking the treatments” and playing chess under swaying palm trees, we came to a city park with some county fair–type amusements, including bumper cars. My excitement about the latter ride was tempered when I discovered that they had only two bumper cars, one of which didn’t work very well. Furthermore, we learned that actual bumping was very much frowned upon. It was a reminder of the time.
By 1998, the economic free fall of the immediate post-Soviet years was over, but there were no hopeful signs of improvement in Sochi or elsewhere. With the Asian financial crisis lashing at the door, Russia was just three months away from defaulting on its loans and devaluing its currency, prompting an even deeper recession. Still, the evening air was warm along the promenade. Passing the strings of Christmas lights, thumping Eurodance music from the local discotheques, local employees wearily preparing for another night’s revelry, we ended up at Sochi’s seaport. Viewers of the Olympic TV coverage may remember idyllic shots panning across the seaport — with its picturesque Stalinist spire — dwarfed by the towering new resorts on one side, and surrounded by cruise ships and millionaires’ yachts on the other. But in the ’90s, there were no gleaming five-star hotels and certainly no yachts. The seaport was quiet. Inside there was a fading, Brezhnev-era map of ferry routes to destinations like Yalta, Odessa, and Istanbul. It told of a golden era of Black Sea tourism and commerce. Like so many aspirations of the Soviet past, it is hard to tell whether that golden era actually occurred or was merely in planning.
Sochi’s beaches feature greatly in my memories of the place; they are the reason I go back. You can’t build sandcastles on these beaches because there is no sand — only smooth, rounded pebbles. You must adjust your leisure activities accordingly. If you don’t care to fish with the locals, sunbathe, or swim (the waters can be chilly), you can walk for miles along the beach just picking through its beautiful, varied rocks — some with cross-cutting lines and designs, others as round as marbles. It is its own special kind of meditation. And when a storm blows in from the sea — erasing the horizon and kicking-up the surf — the crashing waves, and the millions of rocks they pull back to sea, create a sound unlike anything you’ve heard before. Imagine the noise of thousands of Peruvian rainsticks echoing through the city, into the foothills and valleys.
Before making the daunting 20-minute trek back up the hillside to our tourbaza (essentially a tour-group dormitory), I stopped at a small metal shack, where two well-tanned men with gold-toothed smiles and infectious laughter grilled khachipuri — Georgia’s mouthwatering cheese bread — and shared wine from neighboring Georgia. Unlike the traditional round khachipuri of the Georgian restaurants back in Moscow, these guys from the Adjarian region made it in their native style: in the shape of a canoe with a raw egg cracked on top. After the second time they saw me scrape the egg into a nearby trashcan, without even asking, they began to make mine (as they said) “po-Amerikanski”: special, no egg, for our good American friend.
Watching the Olympics on TV, I was surprised how few reporters were adventurous enough to leave the cloistered confines of the Olympic complex in Adler to explore the city of Sochi itself, and the natural wonders that made it a resort destination long ago. Granted, it takes a meandering and bumpy ride, a long hike through the mountains, and a treacherous descent straight down a slippery, ladder-like staircase to find the Orekhovsky Falls, but it is definitely worth the trip — especially when the mountain fog descends and fills the valley with mystery.
The series of 100-foot waterfalls along the Agura River are even more stunning and accessible. Fed with melting snow from the Alek Mountains, the water is not nearly as cold as one might expect, and swimming or diving from the nearby rocks into the deep pool not only offers welcome relief on Sochi’s more tropical days, but also affords a unique view of the white Eagle Cliffs (Orlinye skaly), towering high above. A small path meanders through the lush flora of the Agura Gorge, providing a daunting hike to the top of the cliffs. The climb is long, but you are rewarded with breathtaking panoramas of the foothills, Stalin’s dacha, and the Caucasus Mountains beyond. It is certainly no place for children and it would hardly pass Western safety standards, as there is no railing between you and a seemingly thousand-foot drop into the gorge and waterfalls below. Having climbed to such triumphant heights, you’d expect some degree of solitude. Wrong. Not only did someone have the grand idea of building a hulking monument to an unbound Prometheus (better not to talk about it), there is a pleasant picnic area, and even a concession stand. On another trip with my wife years later, the owner of the stand — in between tending to the juicy shashlik (shish-kebabs on a grill) — struck up an awkward conversation, and insisted on taking our picture once he discovered we were American. After agreeing — reluctantly — he seemed excited to add our photo to an album he’d compiled of every American visitor that he’d met. It wasn’t a big album, but he was happy to page through it with us. There was “Jim” from Texas, he told us. (Russians have a hard time with “Jim” since there is no letter j in the Russian language — but there is a letter zh, and when you put a d in front of it you get something of a “Dzhyim.”) Then there was Mike, from Michigan. “He came to Sochi to ski,” our host told us, “he’s also from America — so certainly you must know him.”
Of course, there are many more skiers in Sochi now — and presumably in the future — thanks to the Olympics and the related construction of a world-class ski resort in the mountains near Krasnaya Polyana. Now there is a sparkling new multi-billion-dollar highway and railway line that connects the mountain resort to the seaside Olympic complex some 30 kilometers away. But that certainly wasn’t the case in the 1990s.
We knew something was up when our hosts explained that to get to Kransaya Polyana, we couldn’t take our normal tour bus. Instead, we had to climb aboard a clunky old Soviet-era PAZ, with a shorter wheelbase and 4×4 capabilities. After rumbling along the coastline for miles, we arrived in Adler on the Russia–Georgia border, where the Olympic park now stands, and turned up into the mountains. Or we would have, except there was a herd of cattle standing — and in some cases sitting — in the middle of the road. Undaunted, our driver weaved between them before continuing up into the gorge. There, we quickly discovered why no normal bus would do.
Before Olympic construction began, there was only one road to Krasnaya Polyana. It had been carved along the walls of the gorge sometime in the 19th century, and probably hadn’t been improved much since. It was something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. For much of the stretch, the road was only one lane wide, gripping the side of the sheer rock wall, snaking around bends and through the original tunnels. A bus with a standard wheelbase could never navigate such turns, and would fall off the road and into the river far below. When inevitably you’d meet oncoming traffic, both vehicles would stop, and the drivers would negotiate — i.e., shout at each other with all the appropriate gestures — to determine which driver would have to back up to a place where the road was wide enough to pass. (And God forbid another car pulls in behind you at this point — that makes the negotiations exponentially more complicated.) On multiple occasions, our pudgy little PAZ did indeed back up along the cliff, with the terrified passengers in the rear at times sticking out over the edge of the chasm. To calm the nerves of some of the more distressed passengers, we reassured them that our driver had just taken a different group up here just the day before, and they returned, a little rattled, but all in one piece. And indeed, this old Soviet bus had been making the trip since at least the ’80s and, judging by its continued operation, had yet to be scuttled on the rocks far below. It was little consolation.
On our final descent to the village of Krasnaya Polyana, we passed construction crews working on a new bridge over the mountain stream — the old one apparently having been washed away in a flood. The one-lane bridge did not look ready for traffic, but with a few wooden planks laid on top, it seemed we were good to go. Once arrived at our destination, we were happy to have our feet on solid ground once again, but it was not to last. We quickly climbed aboard the town’s only ski lift. The seats were comprised of a rickety bench with a chain that you laid across your lap — you know, for safety. Not that the chain would help, as the lift went ridiculously high, especially for someone used to the flatlands of Iowa. I simply closed my eyes and envisioned riding the Skyride over the log flume at Adventureland in Des Moines in the 1980s.
The shorts and T-shirts we’d been accustomed to wearing in Sochi hardly seemed sufficient when we hopped off the ski lift and immediately into a snow bank. From there, we were treated to the same spectacular mountain backdrops that we’ve all now seen from the coverage of Olympic alpine sports. The only difference was that none of the world-class facilities, upscale villas, or even basic infrastructure, were yet in place. Still I remember that even back then —I n the economically depressed ’90s — our guide explained that there were plans to make this into a world-class ski destination, and perhaps bring the Olympics there. A few in our group tossed quizzical, disbelieving glances at each other.
We held our breath as we made our way back down the lift, along the one-lane road back toward the coast. On the way, a strikingly modern building of glass and steel stood out from the other Soviet-era structures. “That’s the brand new passenger terminal for Sochi International Airport,” our guide told us. Suddenly we were kicking ourselves for riding the train platzkartny to Sochi instead of flying in comfort. “But it is not in use,” our guide explained — after contractors from the former Yugoslavia came in and built it, there arose some legal dispute over who actually owned the land.
When my wife and I returned in 2003, we chose to fly into this gorgeous new terminal. Surely, five years was enough time to resolve even the murkiest post-Soviet legal dispute. And as our flight from Moscow descended over the Black Sea, landed and then abruptly decelerated thanks to the short runway, the plane turned toward that shiny new edifice — and rolled right past it. Confused, we looked closer and saw none of the usual signs of airport activity. The only difference — it seemed — from years before was that a rooftop panel on the new terminal was missing; some sort of palm tree had been planted inside and had since pushed its way through the ceiling. We arrived at the same old pavilion they’d used since Khrushchev’s time, which even on its best day looked more like an aging bus terminal than an international airport. Oh well. At least as we taxied toward the structure, a pack of stray dogs emerged from their shady resting place to eagerly run on the tarmac alongside our plane, as if to say, “Welcome to Sochi”!
I know much ado has been made about Sochi and the preparations for the Winter Games: the astronomical expense, hastily constructed facilities, the anti-LGBT legislation, hotels with spartan amenities, cronyism and corruption, and even those stray dogs. Even with the astronomical advances that Sochi has made to prepare for these games (and certainly, not without problems), there is the sense that everything in Russia is still just a little … off. Both for better and worse, that is the way things generally are in Russia. Even as it stages a triumphant “return” after decades of hardship, Russia is still going to be a little rough around the edges. That’s true of most countries.
What is different is our willingness to understand those differences, even if not everyone is willing to embrace them. There’ll always be those who are happy to ignore the entirety of a spectacular opening ceremony, just to rush and gloat that “Aha! That last ring didn’t open!” As if similar malfunctions hadn’t happened before. There’ll be those who ignore the high quality of facilities only to laugh when a bathroom isn’t arranged the way we think it should. We’re ready to ignore the effectiveness of security measures in a rush to scare people away from the (supposedly) “most dangerous Olympics ever.” The only reason that such pseudo-scandals and, in some cases, outright hoaxes gain so much traction is that we are so eager to believe them. It is unfortunate that the window of opportunity for greater understanding and international goodwill that accompanied the Sochi Olympics closed so soon — replaced with TV images of nameless and faceless Russian troops intervening in Crimea, a believable reaffirmation of old Cold War stereotypes of Russian hostility and aggression.
The only remedy that I have found for this condition is to get to know Russia better — and I don’t mean just meeting its people, but experiencing them. For me, it came through experiencing people like Vitya, Sergei, and the train provodnitsa the guys selling shashlik, khachipuri, and Georgian wine, in addition to countless others on subsequent journeys to Russia. My guess is that those foreign athletes and visitors who went out of their way to truly experience Russia likely came away with a vastly different impression of Sochi than what we regularly experience through our computer and television screens.