So, Sochi, Just What Is That Place?
The moment most Americans learned that the Winter Olympics this year would be in Russia, their first reaction was likely that such a thing made sense. Americans tend to know three things about Russia, if they know anything: it’s cold, it was communist, and they get invaded by everybody. The first of those is the one that mattered here. If you’re going to do winter, where better than Russia for the full beyond the wall, dodging White Walkers experience, right?
The second reaction was to the actual place. As in, where the hell is Sochi? Moscow, people would understand. Most would understand St. Petersburg. Sochi though? I imagine, “must be in Siberia” was the logical follow up to hearing the name. And that would have been fantastic. I couldn’t care less about the Olympics, and yes I’ve already been assured at eloquent length that this means I’m a terrible human being, but I might just tune in if they staged them in real Russian winter. I want to see ice hockey outside at negative fifty degrees. I want to see snowboarding through a hurricane of ice. Speed skating down the frozen rivers, cross-country skiing across a continent of tundra.
But Sochi? It’s on the Black Sea. It’s a resort town. The average high for the Olympics is in the mid-fifties, and Thursday it should reach a balmy sixty degrees. The lows aren’t even getting within ten degrees of freezing. That’s about as winter as April in Tallahassee.
People hear about this, and they wonder, why in the world there? Why this more or less dinky town in the outskirts of Russia, vaguely near Chechnya and all those other wild mountain places that we only hear about when a sufficient number of people blow up?
So, Sochi, just what is that place?
In the beginning, there was nature. Then human beings showed up, as they are wont to do. Technically, they were natural too, but they tend to get offended when told so and think both that it implies their grandmothers were chimpanzees, and that such a comment would be a downgrading of what we really think about their grandmothers. The first hundred thousand years were relatively boring, the evidence being that no one wrote down a single thing that happened. Epic societal writer’s block. So consumed were they by ennui, that they failed to even note when the world was created in 4000 BC. The human beings in question were Turkic of a sort, which is what we more or less call everybody between China and Europe who isn’t Russian.
Various empires invaded at one point or another, this little picturesque strand of land running along the Black Sea. Murder, wars, death. Pretty standard fare, really. Then the Mongols. But then, having half your people used to make pyramids of skulls by horsemen from the East was practically a rite of passage for anyone who was anyone in the thirteenth century.
Eventually the area settled on the name Circassia, which in some yet undiscovered language probably means “Land Where Russians and Turks Fight.” Something like twenty major wars over five hundred years, as the Russians and Turks swung back and forth over what we’d now call Caucasia or southern Russia more generally. As the Russians gradually pushed southwards, there was a final series of wars in the 19th century, highlighted by neither side having any inclination towards taking prisoners and a rather famous historical leader named Shamil who led a dashing resistance against the Russians, and filled entire books with legendary exploits.
The new lands were problematic for the Russians, largely because they were filled with people who weren’t Russians. We shouldn’t judge too harshly outside of historical context. It was a generation later when the British invented concentration camps, so while the step the Russians took was certainly not progressive, it was understandable, especially to the other countries of the time. The Russians lit upon the idea of solving the problem of Circassia being filled with Turks, by just kicking them all out and shipping them to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans themselves were initially in cautious favor of the idea, after all people were useful for drafting into armies, which did things like fight the Russians.
Implementation fell slightly short of expectation, if you were still in the camp that thought this might go well. See, somewhere around six hundred thousand of the Circassians died, since the Russians gave little thought towards things like: food, water, and not packing the population into ships in ways that made the Atlantic slave trade look like sedate vacation cruises. A whole lot of the Circassians did in fact make it to Turkey proper, but only about ten percent of the original population was left behind, and enough died that calls to classify it as a genocide still sound in some corners of the world.
Russian development flooded in, especially into Sochi, which was the historical capital of the now depopulated area. In the true spirit of historical conquest, the capital of the vanquished enemy was turned into a seaside spa and vacation spot. Stalin built his favorite dacha there, because the best views tend to be the ones on top of mass graves. And except for a timeout during World War II when the city was used as a mass military hospital for the entire Eastern front of the war, it continued to grow and settle into a role as Russian South Beach.
See, the five million tourists per year dropped off by ninety percent when the Soviet Union fell and its economy disintegrated. If only, Putin undoubtedly thought on one of his many vacations to Sochi, if only this area could be made attractive again, draw in Western tourists and the like. And so the Olympic bidding began.
But, you know, Bob Costas’ eye infection is important too.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.