Sochi: Then and Now

written by Daniel Nikulin February 6, 2014

The four panels of the accordion-style back door tried their hardest to shut but fell short, springing back slowly to remain ajar. As the rickety bus picked up speed, overflowing with beach goers and slithering its way up a winding, overgrown road, sharp branches poked their way inside, brushing my still wet legs. I gripped a sweaty steel bar and watched the changing sea of green through the opening, welcoming the breeze it allowed. On days when the bus was too full, we’d make our way back to babushka’s on foot, strolling through shaded streets, stopping occasionally to feast on ripe figs my dad would pick off the trees en route, like he did as a boy.

Along with that rickety bus, I’d imagine that route between beach and city is quite different nowadays; the infrastructure as a whole, completely revamped and looking nothing like my childhood memories of a charming and sleepy beach town. This year, all eyes are on Sochi and the world will finally get to know a part of Russia I’ve held dear since the early 70’s.

I still remember my surprise when I first heard that it was chosen to host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The Winter Games?!?! My father was born and raised in Sochi and would often boast about having never seen snow until moving to Prague with my mother as a young adult. My own memories of it are strewn with beach scenes, palm and fig trees and hot, humid weather.

We walked into the old, thick-walled building and climbed the cold staircase. My grandmother worked as a nurse in one of the many sanatoriums but I remember always finding her in the kitchen, cooking. In front of a large open window, she’d trim the fat off the beef for the borscht then let me throw it, with all my might, out the window and across the laneway, into the bushy escarpment to feed the many waiting feral cats who called it home. As we waited for dinner, we’d play chess and snack on black caviar with black Russian bread and talked.

Growing up, Sochi was one of the most popular Eastern European resort towns. Nestled on the north shore of the Black Sea, it was the place to go for limited, vacationing families stuck behind the iron curtain. The broad and pebbled beach would be teeming with sun-starved Russians, Hungarians, Czechs and East Germans. My father was a tour guide there, my mother a young Czech tourist. Neither, at the time, could imagine it would ever become the host of the Olympics, the Paralympics or the Formula One Russian Grand Prix but it will. That rickety bus transformed into a rapid transit system, shuttling athletes and spectators from the Sochi Olympic Village to the rugged backdrop hosting the events, the majestic Caucasus Mountains.

This year, Sochi will make history. A $12 billion (USD) investment package has been set up to bring the small city of less than half a million residents, to world-class status. New hotels, a new power plant and new roads all need to be in place for the occasion and the world will surely be watching. It is the largest ever budget for an Olympic host and the first time Russia is hosting. Babushka will also turn 90 years this year and just in time for the complete transformation of Sochi, from our quaint and charming “then” to the world’s lavish and modern “now.”