People are saying the same things about Sochi as they would have said about the founding of imperial Petersburg over 300 years ago. And look at how that turned out.
A torchbearer near Saint Isaac's Cathedral during the Sochi-2014 Olympic torch relay in St. Petersburg. Photo: Igor Russak / RIA Novosti
History, as they say, rarely repeats itself, but it always rhymes. And that’s why it’s so interesting to examine the many parallels between the founding of Russia’s imperial city of Petersburg in 1703, and the vast transformation of the Winter Olympic city of Sochi almost exactly 300 years later.
While Peter the Great carved an imperial city out of the Baltic swamps in the extreme northwest of Russia, Vladimir Putin seems just as determined to carve out a winter wonderland along the Black Sea in the extreme southwest of the country.
Here are five reasons why Sochi sounds like something Peter the Great would have built if he had been around today.
Both Sochi and Petersburg are the result of the singular vision of a strong-willed leader
There’s no denying that Peter the Great was a larger-than-life personality who was almost single-handedly responsible for creating the vision for the imperial city of Petersburg. Peter was a seven-foot giant of remarkable energy who borrowed liberally from the playbook of Ivan the Terrible (a tsar he admired) to do pretty much whatever he wanted.
And Petersburg was next on his to-do list as soon as he made it to the tsarist throne and started pushing around the Swedes near the Gulf of Finland. And, when he wasn’t busy drawing up plans for Petersburg, he was busy cutting off beards and introducing Western conventions like newspapers into Russian society.
In the same way, Vladimir Putin has made the hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi a personal vanity project. He may not be cutting off beards, but he’s taming the Oligarchs the same way Peter tamed the Streltsy.
With three months to go before the Opening Ceremony, Putin’s now making regular appearances in Sochi. Before that, he put his personal reputation and prestige at stake in helping Sochi to win its Olympic bid back in 2007, even going so far as to test out his English language skills at a key IOC event that sealed the deal for Russia.
Time and time again, it was Putin who gave his guarantee that Russia could pull off the Winter Games, and that he could corral the Russian oligarchs to finance it all. Sochi, in many ways, is a referendum on Putin’s command-and-control approach to economic development.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving a speech in front of the IOC for allowing Sochi to host the Olympic Games in 2014.
Both cities are, to put it nicely, geographically challenged
If, 300 years ago, a real estate developer had come up with the idea of creating a new imperial city far from Moscow, in a swampy region of the Baltics prone to flooding, the idea would have seemed insane, a tsarist whim.
Building the imperial city was a massive undertaking that took place over a period of more than a decade, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of conscripted peasants and prisoners of war, and at today’s current costs, would have easily topped $50 billion. The building of elaborate canals and bridges throughout the city earned the city the moniker “Venice of the North.”
Which sounds a lot like the biggest gripe about Sochi – that we’re holding the Winter Olympics in a location that doesn’t make any sense.
Thanks to Sochi’s subtropical climate along the Black Sea, we might not even get any (natural) snow in the mountains surrounding the city for events like skiing and snowboarding. You might say Sochi seems like a $50 billion folly along the lines of a Petersburg 300 years ago, a tsarist whimsy to build a Winter Olympic resort in a location best known by summertime vacationers as the heart of the Russian Riviera.
Both cities were built and developed during a time of war and military uncertainty
At the time of the building Petersburg, Russia’s neighbors to the North – Sweden, Saxony and Poland – weren’t exactly friendly with imperial Russia. Peter had been waging war against Sweden, and the conflict eventually turned into the Great Northern War, in which Russia was forced to go to war with Sweden.
If you’ve ever seen Eisenstein’s brilliant film “Alexander Nevsky,” you can get a sense of what went down on the Russian-Swedish border 300 years ago. Petersburg was built amidst a constant threat of war and military invasion, not exactly the place you’d place an imperial capital if you intended to keep it free from ravaging hordes and armies across Northern Europe.
That starts to sound an awful lot like the experience in Sochi, which is located in the bitterly divisive North Caucasus. The Caucasus Wars are Putin’s Great Northern War. Constant worries about ethnic tensions, border disputes with Georgia over Abkhazia, and the potential import of terrorist cells from other regions of the Caucasus all cast a pall over the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Just look at how the recent Volgograd bus attack got people talking about Sochi’s susceptibility to a mass terror attack. However, the hope is that a massive economic revitalization of the region around Sochi will lead to a calming of tensions.
Sochi and Petersburg are shameless attempts to out-West the West
The creation of a majestic imperial Petersburg was an attempt to prove that Russia was the equal of the West. The creation of the “Venice of the North” and the “Window to the West” was exactly that – an all-out effort to bring in Europe’s top architects, designers and builders to create something that could equal anything in Italy or Western Europe.
Peter the Great didn’t bring in Russian architects and designers to create something uniquely “Russian” – he cherry picked the best of the best in Europe to be his designers, consultants and architects for neoclassical architectural wonders.
Which sounds a bit like what Putin is doing with Sochi. All of those brand-new alpine ski resorts in Krasnaya Polyana? Yes, that’s right, they’re built with the expertise of people from Vail (in the U.S.) and Whistler (in Canada).
The Sanki Sliding Center for luge, bobsled and skeleton is almost entirely a French import. Oh, and that Fisht Olympic Stadium everyone’s worried about these days? That’s actually a project of a global design firm that also did London’s Olympic Stadium in 2012.
Olympic facilities and the schedule of competitions available in Sochi. Infographic by Gaia Russo
Both cities are viewed even by Russians as being exotic additions to the Russian historical experience
Fans of Russian literature will appreciate the degree to which Petersburg has figured as a character of its own in some of the masterworks of the Russian literary tradition – from Gogol’s “Nose” taking a stroll down Nevsky Prospekt to Bely’s “Petersburg,” in which an anarchist is driven to insanity after joining a terrorist cell.
Most famously, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” celebrated the strange, bizarre reality of an equestrian statue of Peter the Great that appears to come to life during a flooding of Petersburg. You can’t imagine a work like “Diary of a Madman” without first thinking of the foggy prospects of Petersburg.
Petersburg has always been Western as much as Russian, a favorite of Westernizers but not Slavophiles.
While there hasn’t been much written about Sochi recently, the city is at least geographically part of the literary tradition of the Caucasus. Go back to the mid-nineteenth century and works by Lermontov. That’s where we start to see the Northern Caucasus as part of Russia’s exotic fascination with the region.
There are few places in Russia like Sochi where you can see palm trees in wintertime, and even fewer with the ethnic diversity of the mountainous Caucasus.
Walk the streets of central Sochi, and you get a flavor for the various influences on the city – Turkish, Uzbek and Georgian. Indigenous mountain tribes were the ones that founded the city, not Russians.
Sochi is not so much Russia as a playland for Russians. When Russian authors visited the Caucasus, it was due to their fascination with the rugged mountainous culture of the region. And it’s stayed largely the same in the current Russian mindset – Sochi is the “other” that’s more Caucasian than Russian.
So is Sochi the next Petersburg?
All of the above is not to say that Sochi is going to turn out in the same brilliant way as Petersburg has over the past 300 years. However, it may point to the fact that there’s a lot less to worry about than the Western media is making out right now about Sochi.
Just imagine the headlines of a foreign newspaper 300 years ago in describing the folly of Peter the Great for attempting to move the Russian capital to a vast, uninhabitable territory in the north of the country, all the while sparing no expense to hire Europe’s top architects and designers to create something to outdo anything that had yet existed in Western Europe.