Sochi: Russia’s Summer Capital


Aerial shot of the 2014 Olympic construction site on the Sochi coast in August, 2013. Note the proximity of the mountains beyond. These facilities were built, in part, on artificially created land.

Nestled between the Black Sea and the steep Caucasus mountain slopes, the city of Sochi and its surrounding area occupies a critical part of the Caucasus land bridge linking Europe with the Near East. The land bridge represents one of the few natural passes around the exceptionally rugged Caucasus – themselves contested for centuries between many civilizations as a natural barrier between warring empires. Thus, control of the land bridge represents substantial opportunities for trade, but also a crucial military bottleneck.

The Caucasus themselves, however, a rugged land occupied by rugged people, have a long history of resisting invasion. The native Ubykh people of the Sochi area, for instance, were only fully conquered by the Russians in the latter half of the 19th century, and only with the help of scorched earth tactics, forced removal of local inhabitants, and a massive Russian settlement campaign. Over the next century, Sochi Conflict Studies Banner was transformed from a tiny Tsarist military fortification to the USSR’s “summer capital:” a booming resort town for the masses. After modern Sochi was named host of the upcoming 2014 Olympic Winter Games in 2007, it has become one of the world’s largest construction sites, and now embodies both the resurgent strength and fundamental economic, political, and social problems within Russia.

Ironically, Russia’s first Winter Games will be held in one of the country’s warmest areas: the Greater Caucasus Range that flanks Sochi to the east protects the region from cold northern air masses while trapping moisture from the Black Sea, giving the city a humid, subtropical climate. Despite sharing a latitude with Toronto, winter in Sochi is short, mild, and wet, with temperatures averaging around 42F in January, rarely dropping below freezing even at night. Summer stretches from early May to mid-October, with relatively few overcast days. Average July and August temperatures range from 77-84F. The mineral waters of the Sochi region have long been revered for their health properties while the surrounding high mountains offer some of Russia’s best skiing, despite the relative warmth of the city itself. Today, almost half of Sochi’s residents are employed in the health, leisure, sport, or hospitality industries.

A detail of a map showing the ecoregion of the Northern (Greater) and Southern (Lesser) Caucasus. The Northern Caucasus form a nearly impassable wall between Russia and the geopolitical powers to the South.

Early History of Sochi

Archaeological digs in the Sochi area have revealed Neanderthal remains and stone age tools that date back to 70,000 BC. The eastern Black Sea coast was known to the Ancient Greeks as Colchis, where Jason and the Argonauts sailed in their quest for the mythical Golden Fleece. Greek traders visited the area as early as the sixth century BC, trading luxury goods for slaves. Greek and Roman historians noted that the region was controlled by a loose grouping of various tribes called the Heniochi, meaning “charioteers.” In The Geography, written in 100 AD, the Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo describes a tribe of fearsome sea raiders called the Zygii. Historians today know that the Zygii resisted external pressure from Sarmatians, Khazars, and the Alans, and were only nominally subservient to the Romans, maintaining relative independence until a devastating invasion by the Huns in 371 AD.

It was also around 400 AD that Christian missionaries first arrived from Byzantine Greece. Missionary activity was especially fervent under the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century. Byzantine efforts were largely successful, at least among the Zygiian ruling class, as can be attested today by the ruins of an 11th-century Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the Sochi suburb of Loo. Byzantine military fortifications are also scattered throughout the region, indicating a high degree of Byzantine military influence as well.

During the 13th century, Armenian, Arabian, Persian, and Turkish sources began to use the name “Circassian” to reference the natives of the Northwest Caucasus, and the term “Ubykh” to refer specifically to inhabitants of the Sochi region. The terms “Circassian” and “Adyghe”—both cited by the explorer Giorgio Interiano in his 1502 travelogue La vita: & sito de Zichi, chiamiti ciarcassi,—are still in use today, although their usage has varied widely over the intervening centuries. The changing terminology was indicative of the shift in influence from the Greco-Roman-Byzantine world to new regional powers during the High Middle Ages.

By the second half of the 13th century, the Black Sea coast, known as source of slaves since the ancient Greeks, became a center of the international slave trade under the direction of the Genoese, who established several colonies in the region. The Circassians lead excursions over a wide geographic area to maintain this trade, and sold Turks, Georgians, Slavs, Balts, and other peoples as part of their trade. The slave trade remained a linchpin of the region’s economic activity well into the 19th century.

Map showing the city of Sochi and its location on the Black Sea coast

The Mongols lead devastating invasions of the area in the 13th century, although the Caucasus remained relatively independent at the time. In the 15th century, the Northwest Caucasus came under Ottoman influence via their nearby client state of the Crimean Tatars. The Genoese regional capital Caffa was besieged by a joint Ottoman-Crimean force in 1453, the same year Constantinople fell to the Turks, and by the beginning of the 16th century, many Circassian chieftains were nominally under Crimean rule. By the first half of the 17th century, the majority of Circassia had converted to Islam.

The Ottomans formally gave up all rights to the eastern Black Sea coast in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, opening the way for Russian expansion into the Sochi region. Russian forces met stiff resistance from the Ubykh and other Circassian people, who received munitions and other support from the British. On April 21, 1838, the first stone of Fort Alexandria, the military base that would give rise to the modern city of Sochi, was laid at the mouth of the Sochi River. The following year it was renamed Navaginsky—in honor of a distinguished Russian regiment—to avoid confusion with an identically named fort nearby. Soldiers stationed at Navaginsky fought off periodic Ubykh raids until the Crimean War in 1854, when all fortifications along the eastern coast were strategically evacuated to the north.

Although the war would end two years later, Russian forces did not regain control of the Sochi region until 1864. The Ubykh were among the last people to resist Russian rule in the northern Caucasus, and victory was only achieved after the 1859 defeat of the Islamist leader Imam Shamil on the eastern front. The Russian army was then able to launch a full offensive against the Circassian resistance. On March 18, 1864, a force of around 5,000 Circassian warriors was defeated at the river Godlik on the outskirts of modern Sochi. Fort Navaginsky was taken without further resistance the next day, and the settlement was renamed—for the third time—to Dakhovsky, after the home village of the Cossack detachment that first entered the fort. Fighting officially ended May 21, 1864, when a victory parade was held in the nearby village of Kbaada under the supervision of the Grand Prince Mikhail Nikolaevich. After more than thirty years of fighting in the Sochi region and over a hundred years of conflict in the greater region, the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus had finally come to an end.

The Sochi Area under Russian Rule

Towards the end of the war, in what is undoubtedly one of the darkest chapters in the history of the region, the Russian government began a deliberate campaign to empty its newly acquired territories of their native inhabitants. Discussion of the issue has become politicized, and a war of words continues over the exact nature of the campaign. For some, it was nothing less than genocide, or, at the very least, ethnic cleansing, while other sources prefer the terms “exile,” “deportation,” or even “migration.” Numerous eyewitnesses described Circassian villagers being driven from their homes with little or no notice, often burning or burying their property rather than relinquishing it to the Russians. Other sources document the burning of entire villages and the wholesale slaughter of their populations. The Ottoman Empire provided transportation to those that chose to seek refuge with the Ottomans. However, overcrowding, disease, and starvation on the ships took the lives of thousands of Circassians during the journey across the Black Sea. Those who survived the trip found the declining Ottomans ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of refugees, and often lived in abject poverty. Estimates of the number of victims vary considerably; while some reach several million, most historians agree that around 500,000-600,000 Circassians were forced to leave their native land in the second half of the 19th century. The consequences were especially dire for the Ubykh, who have essentially ceased to exist as a people: Tevfik Esenç, the last speaker of their language, passed away in 1992.

Emptying the land of its native populations, the Russian government also began an aggressive policy of Slavic resettlement. Land was offered at low rates for long-term leases, and settlers were freed from various taxes. Many of the first settlers were the same Cossack soldiers who had conquered the land during the 1860s. Though disease, especially malaria, took the lives of many, the southern frontier attracted a wide variety of nationalities: Greeks and Armenians arrived from the Ottoman Empire and Poles, Germans, and Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. By 1888 there were 10,000 people living in sixty settlements along the coast. In 1878, the deserted village of Kbaada was reoccupied by Greek settlers, who rechristened the area, in Russian, Krasnaya Polyana (“Red Glade”). Twenty years later the village had become the site of the royal family’s personal hunting lodge and mountain retreat.

Development accelerated rapidly towards the end of the century as the construction of rail and road lines linked the village with European Russia. On May 23, 1896, Dakhovsky received its fourth (and final) name: Sochi, from the Ubykh name for the local river—“Shatche,” or “Soatshe.”

The local economy grew, and with it the settlement that surrounded the fort. By 1898, with nearly 4,000 people, the military outpost was officially reclassified as an “urban settlement.” That same year, the new city hosted a special government commission made up of Russian geologists, hydrologists, and medical experts who determined that the region held great promise as both a coastal resort and sanatorium.

The newly-christened resort town quickly outgrew its military beginnings. On the eve of the 1917 revolution, over 70,000 people lived in the Greater Sochi region. Around 13,000-14,000 people lived in the city proper, which now contained four hotels, a library, a theater, an electric power station, the famous “Caucasian Riviera” spa complex as well as several factories that produced goods such as mineral water, sausage, ice, and bricks.

Sochi within the USSR

In late January 1918, communist workers councils formed – as did the anti-Communist Volunteer Army. General Denikin’s White Army forces in Russia formed an alliance of convenience with those of the new Georgian Democratic Republic, which had just proclaimed independence from Russia. Georgian forces occupied Sochi on July 6 with the goal of securing the vital rail links along the Black Sea coast against the communists. Relations between the reluctant allies deteriorated quickly, however, and General Denikin retook Sochi from the Georgians on February 6, 1919. In response, the Tbilisi government began actively supporting left-leaning partisans in the Sochi region, weakening Denikin’s hold on the area. In the spring of 1920, towards the end of the Civil War, the Red Army captured Sochi.

In Soviet Sochi, the Caucasian Riviera was the first institution to be nationalized, reopening as a “worker’s resort” in 1921. In the early twenties, some 4,500 Soviet citizens rested or received treatment in the area each year. Beginning in 1933, Sochi was completely rebuilt along Stalinist lines: with new highways and libraries, massive concrete hotels and sanatoriums transformed the city skyline. The city became a sandbox for Stalin’s favored architect Miron Merzhanov, whose grand projects of the 1930s included a leafy summer residence for Stalin himself. By the 1940s, the city was hosting 110,000 visitors per year. Sochi became a place of rest for the elite as well as for the masses, playing host to important Soviet political and cultural figures. The author Nikolai Ostrovsky lived in Sochi from 1928-1936 and wrote his classic Socialist Realist novel How the Steel Was Tempered while recovering from war wounds in a Sochi sanatorium.

Sochi served as the Soviet Union’s primary military hospital during the Second World War. By that time, the city boasted 111 health facilities. Although the Germans reached the Caucasus in 1942, they were never able to break through and they never reached Sochi.

Development continued at a rapid pace. By 1960s, the city was hosting 500,000 visitors per years and greater Sochi area had more than 100,000 residents, with some 90% of those inside the city limits. A post-Stalin “general plan” for the city’s development, put in place in 1965, aimed to quadruple available facilities for visitors over a period of twenty years. This development would help Sochi nearly quadruple its population between 1959 and 1989. However, by this time, geographic restrictions on the city’s development began to become clear. Thus, the majority of new construction continued along the narrow strip between the area’s 145-kilometer coastline and the Caucasus mountains, giving Sochi the nickname of “the longest city in the world.”

Modern Sochi & The 2014 Olympics

Sochi’s incredible growth was accomplished through intensive state planning, with little or no attention given to profitability. With the loss of considerable state subsidies, Sochi experienced considerable decline and fell into disrepair, although it continued to dominate the Russian tourism industry throughout the chaotic 1990s, particularly as other resorts commonly used under the Soviet Union were now located outside Russia – in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. Thus, the population remained relatively steady even throughout the economic chaos of the 1990s and 2000s, even registering some overall growth.

Sochi’s population in 2013 was 368,000, making it the fifth largest city on the Black Sea. Its popularity within Russia continues, with a survey from late 2010 revealing that Sochi was the second most popular travel destination for Russians within the country after Moscow, beating out even Russia’s official “second capital” of St. Petersburg.

A new era in the history of Sochi began on July 4th, 2007, when the city was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The bid having been personally supported by Vladimir Putin, the financing of massive construction of accommodations, sporting facilities, and transport infrastructure is now being carried out by the state as well as many of the country’s largest business and wealthiest businessmen.

Vladimir Potanin, head of the powerful Interros conglomerate, pledged one billion rubles ($30.3 billion USD) for the construction of the Roza Khutor Olympic Village complex, and the state oil giant Gazprom has contributed not only a 160km gas pipeline to help power the games, but also a second Olympic village and a ski resort. Many of these projects will operate at a loss, but Sochi’s “patrons” publically state that they are humbled to be given the opportunity to fulfill their patriotic duty. When Putin suggested in front of the Russian media that a $100 million ice arena built by the metallurgical conglomerate UGMK be given over to federal control, the company’s CEO Iskander Makhmudov quickly obliged.

Although the construction is a matter of national pride now for Russia, it has also been plagued by controversy and problems. The cost of the Games, for instance, has ballooned from a 2007 projection of $12 billion, to a current estimate of $51 billion, making the Sochi Games the most expensive Olympics in history. Most link the inflation to rampant levels of corruption—the price of gravel in the city, for example, is 3-4 times more expensive than the Russian average, although some increase is to be expected given that demand in the city is also wildly elevated and transport into the city is bottlenecked by the Caucasus mountains. One of the most contentious projects is the $9 billion 50-kilometer road leading from the city center to the alpine area where the majority of events will take place, which, it has been shown, could have paved in gold and been less expensive.

Area residents have also found numerous to reasons to complain. Much of the Olympic construction site was officially undeveloped territory. However, unofficially, many homes had been built there, hundreds of which have now been bulldozed. Many have not received compensation. The rapid construction has also lead to environmental degradation.

City residents have also been inconvenienced by an incredible about of road construction, increased traffic, and the closure of public spaces for renovation. The city is flooded with nearly 100,000 construction workers laboring in a city of 350,000, which has resulted in increased prices for nearly everything and strained infrastructure on all levels. Residents complain of increased crime committed by the workers, some of whom are illegal immigrants. The workers themselves, however, have complained of unpaid wages and abuse at the hands of the construction companies and even city police.  Environmental concerns are also a major issue, with the city having experienced everything from landslides to increased water pollution and resultant drastically reduced fish populations since construction began.

Perhaps most controversial, however, are security and safety concerns now raised in the city. Participants and the International Olympic Committee have expressed concern that a controversial gay propaganda lawand increasingly reported cases of homophobia in Russia may put athletes and spectators at risk. There have been internationals calls to boycott the Games in support of LGBT rights as well.

The fact that Sochi is located so near the restive regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, and near the site of the Five-Day War fought by Russia and Georgia in 2008 is also of concern. Not only is that Caucasus region itself prone to attacks, but, in June 2013, Doku Umarov, self-declared “Emir” of the Northern Caucasus and Islamist militant leader, called upon all his followers to use “maximum force” to prevent the Games from taking place. In response, Russian anti-terrorism agencies and the Sochi Olympic Committee have promised that security at the games will be given top priority.

A lesser-known political issue connected with the games is the unresolved issue of the city’s past residents: the Internet has become a crucial tool for the self-organization and mobilization of the far-flung Circassian diaspora originally displaced by Tsarist Russian forces and which today, according to its own estimates, numbers between 5-7 million. Organizations such as the Circassian Culture and Human Rights Center and the Circassian Cultural Institutehave used the occasion of the Olympics to step up their calls for the international community to recognize the events of 1840-1870 as “the world’s first genocide,” noting that the Games will be held on the site of the Russian Army’s victory parade 150 years prior. So far only the country of Georgia has officially recognized the Circassian community’s claims of genocide.

The ultimate impact of the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, of course, remains to be seen. Although the city’s history has long been one of state-sponsored, rapid growth, some worry that the newly built structures will stand empty after the Games. In any case, the Games will certainly raise the city’s international profile, and massive improvements to the city’s beleaguered transportation and tourist infrastructure could help Sochi remain attractive to Russian tourists against growing competition from low-priced resorts in Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia.

About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has been with SRAS since 2003. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. He lived in Moscow from 2003-2022, where he ran Moscow operations for SRAS. At SRAS, Josh still assists in program development and leads our internship programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

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David Parker

David Parker holds degrees in Russian and East European Studies from Middlebury College and Stanford University. He studied abroad in SRAS's Translation Abroad Program in Moscow. At the time he wrote for this site, he resided in Seattle and worked for a tour operator that specializes in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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