Don’t let the glorious white snow fool you—Sochi is Russia’s largest resort town.
Located on the Black Sea, near the border between Georgia and Russia, Sochi has a subtropical climate. A summer getaway for many Russians, the city is a favorite of President Putin himself.
“This is the warmest place ever where the Olympic Winter games have taken place,” said Valentina Zaitseva, a Sochi native and Slavic languages and literatures lecturer at the University of Washington.
“We have banana trees, we have palm trees—the climate is very much almost like Hawaii,” she said. “And when people think of Russia, people never imagine anything like Hawaii.”
During the Soviet period, it was a resort town for the elite of the Communist party. Both Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin spent time in Sochi.
Sochi was a symbol of Stalin’s achievements, according to Glennys Young, a history professor at the University of Washington. “And, for his detractors,” she continued, Sochi was associated “with all that was the dark side of the Stalin era: the purges from 1936-1939, the Gulag, the persecution of some ethnic minorities, and violation of human rights.”
The Soviet era is not Sochi’s only dark mark. The Russian conquest of north Caucasia in 1864 has stirred controversy for centuries, prompting protests leading up to and during the Olympics.
Circassians, a largely Muslim people native to the Caucasus, used to call Sochi home, but now very few of these indigenous inhabitants remain. The site of the last battle of the war, Sochi is holy ground for Circassians.
Young says Putin was very aware of these facts in choosing Sochi to host the Winter games.
In an email, she described Sochi as “a place connected in Russians’ (and Ukrainians’) minds with the display and performance of power over the twentieth century, as well as the fragility of power.”
Not unlike Putin’s current push for control in Crimea.
Still, Zaitseyza is proud of what the Olympics did for her hometown.
“When you see that someone has put so much time and effort to achieve and show that achievement and then you see that incredible happy face, it is uplifting not only for the person who won it but also for all of us,” she said. “So, no matter what else happens, this is what will still be with us.”