If you really want to see the scope and extent of Vladimir's Putin's soft power, come to Sochi. It's a town of palm trees and sunshine, heat and humidity, a resort on the Black Sea that Russians (and those from neighbouring (and friendly) countries visit to escape colder climes. A shorts-and-sandals place.
Yet in July 2007, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to give Sochi the 2014 Winter Olympics. Imagine that: A beach resort hosting the winter Games. It's a subtropical climate, the same as Delhi, Patna and Guwahati. Sure, the mountains nearby do have slopes and are popular with Russian skiers but it required a leap of imagination - and a persuasive in-person speech by Putin, unusually peppered with English sentences - for Sochi to get the vote. And yet it did, and later it also got an F1 race and is now a World Cup venue.
That's a pretty heavy load for a city of approximately 400,000 to bear, but it has broad shoulders to bear it all. Sochi is the name for a sprawl that extends around 150 km in length between the Black Sea shoreline and the Caucasus, home to the ski slopes. It's a bit like Delhi and all its ancillary towns, though possibly with a different kind of exoticness. At one end is Sochi town, home to the Riviera; that's where the proletariat came to recharge their batteries, staying in the towering apartments that are built to catch the sea breeze. At the other is Adler, home to the sports complex housing the Fisht Stadium and the F1 track. In between are miles of rocky beach and brilliantly clear water, and the sloping woodlands.
The best way to get from one to the other is by train; it's a 40-minute ride that runs right along the coastline, a bit like the track from Colombo to Galle. The trains are spanking clean, largely empty on the day I use them, and have large windows looking out onto the Black Sea, and the families who are spending their day swimming. The only downside, of course, is that you realise pretty fast that you'd rather be out there than in here, but you've got a job to do.
Sochi is an odd mix of palm and pine. The story is that the Soviet leaders wanted to develop the town as an Iron Curtain rival to the beaches of the west - Miami is the name that most frequently crops up. But the spruce-and-fir vegetation was distinctly un-beach-like; so, the story goes, the palm trees were imported and dot the town's roads and promenades. It now has restaurants, cafes, all sorts of souvenir stalls and lots of carts selling kvass, the mildly alcoholic drink that is a big hit in summer. And, of course, F1 and the World Cup.
If Putin brought modern-day commerce and opportunity here, it was another strong-handed leader who was the first benefactor and, in fact, still the unseen presiding deity over this place. Stalin determined that Sochi, with its weather, mineral-rich waters and woodlands, is where he would holiday. And so he built his dacha (country house) here, in the Matsesta area. Not to appear too selfish, he also ordered sanatoria - vast holiday homes - to be built for the proletariat to rest from their labours.
Finding Stalin's dacha was a bit of an ordeal. First, the philosophical questions, given Stalin's divisive status today - should I seek it out, what would the reaction be? Next, actually finding it, because it's off the Adler-Sochi highway. I could have taken a cab but, never one to do the simple thing when a more complicated alternative presented itself, I decided to go by bus. I knew the bus number and I eventually found the bus stop by the train station. Now to explain to the driver where I wanted to go. "Stalin Dacha", I said tentatively, hoping he wouldn't go all judgmental. He grunted, motioned me in, and we were off. Twenty minutes later we were at a bus stop on the highway; "Stalin Dacha", he grunted, and I got off.
There was a huge gate and a path leading up; not a soul in sight. On the way up you pass tennis courts and other sundry dachas before reaching 'Zelenaya Roscha", the Green Grove. One version has it that it was green to symbolise Stalin's love of nature; another was that it provided camouflage. The house itself is massive, with three wings and a formidable and forbidding front gate, all in green. Inside, the walls are wood-panelled; even the light switches are wooden. The exception is the huge sunken bath, with beautiful mosaic work, where the water level was apparently always fixed with Stalin's relatively short stature in mind.
Our guide, a lovely lady who spoke only Russian (but lots of it, which meant I was missing out on potentially juicy stories) showed us a few rooms. The bath, the study with a massive chessboard and a wind-up gramophone (she even put on a record of patriotic singing) and a huge dining room with a fireplace. We were all invited to sit at the table, but some of us got up rapidly after she said that it was exactly as it was in his day.
It's fair to say he lived in some style; a billiards room, a study with a massive leather "divan" and a cinema where he would either watch movies for fun or to vet their contents. The booklet we were given has lots of interesting information about the building and its chief occupant and, as a bonus, his favourite recipes (fish with eggplant, anyone?). There is no way, though, to confirm the story that Stalin did away with carpets so he could hear footsteps approaching. But the booklet does tell us that it was here that "often the country's destiny was settled". It was from here in 1936 that he sent a telegram appointing Nikolai Ezhov as the People's Commissar of Home Affairs, heading the NKVD - the KGB's predecessor - under whose office thousands were killed during the Great Purge.
I came away a bit unsettled; the really beautiful surroundings are so out of sync with the terrible deeds that emanated from here. I walked down, headed to the station for the ride back to Adler. It was a long wait, which was good; there, looking out at the vast expanse of water, at the families enjoying themselves in the sunshine, setting up their barbecues... that was restorative. Maybe there is something in the Black Sea air after all.