Life in Sochi: From lush resort to Olympic construction site

The Russian city set to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games has been known as a lush resort community on the Black Sea, but residents of Sochi are now wrestling with living amid the preparations and the legacy next year's event will leave.
The Dzerjinsky health spa, one of the oldest in Sochi, along with other spas and the lush greenery in the city helped make it a resort destination on the Black Sea. (Courtesy Oksana Negorutsa)

When I was growing up in Sochi, it felt like it was the best place on Earth.

The resort community on the coast of the Black Sea in Russia was very calm, very beautiful and overwhelmingly green.

Its beautiful parks with their lush, tropical greenery, along with the warm, clean waters of the Black Sea and the monumental health resorts, were so impressive that 20 years later, they still stand out in my mind.

Oksana Negorutsa is a 34-year-old Toronto AutoCAD technician who spent 10 years of her childhood in Sochi. Her parents and grandparents live there and she has returned to visit many times.

Now, though, the city where my family still lives is a giant construction site filled with dirt and noise, and residents are wrestling with the legacy the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games will leave.

Sochi sits at the same latitude as the Greater Toronto Area, where I now live, but the climate is very different thanks to the sea and the mountains.

It is very warm, humid and favourable. The average temperature in Sochi is about 14 C, with January and February being the coldest months, at about 6 C. That climate made Sochi the largest resort in Russia and even gave it the unofficial name of "summer capital" of the country.

The first health resort, Kavkazskaya Riviera, was opened in 1909, about the same time development of the mineral water spring, Matsesta, began. Sochi's popularity as a resort destination started to grow in the 1930s when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin turned his eye to this gem nestled below the Caucasus Mountains.

After the Second World War, the modern Sochi appeared. A new architectural style emerged and became the signature look of Sochi. Majestic buildings resembling Greek temples featured high ceilings, tall columns and sculptures. They were surrounded by parks, fountains and wide walkways. A lot of health resorts, an art museum, theatres and several hotels were built. The town became a resort destination.

Road to the Olympics

CBC is the official Canadian broadcaster for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia. This week, has been bringing you indepth coverage of the preparations for the Games and life in Russia today. will have full coverage leading up to Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, 2014.

Later on, the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana was established in the Caucasus Mountains above the town.

After the announcement in 2007 that Sochi would host the Olympics, people were divided.

Some were excited that Sochi would be hosting an important international event. They saw a lot of opportunities and were waiting for positive outcomes for the city and for its population.

Others believed that the idea was a disaster, that Sochi was not ready for it and that the Olympics would destroy the resort.

It was hard to tell which group was larger; there were numerous discussions on the internet and the media was filled with reports expressing a wide range of opinions. It was really difficult for people to make up their minds.

Nonetheless, the preparation had begun.

The scale of the changes that are happening in Sochi is really hard to imagine.

Now, with only one year left, Sochi looks like an enormous beehive. It is one giant construction site.

Most of the Olympic facilities are completed. However, the main issue with hosting the Olympic Games is that the existing infrastructure was not sufficient for hosting a world-class event.

So much needed to be built or renovated, including roads, bridges, public transportation, sewers and waste facilities.

At the same time, municipal buildings have been renovated, public areas have been landscaped and playgrounds were installed. Several large hospitals were built; the number of schools and daycares is also going to increase.

On top of that activity, many new condos and private sector developments are underway.

Many people are not too happy about changes that are happening to Sochi but there is another aspect that raises more concern. The environmental impact of the Olympic construction in a national park area that is a world heritage site is hard to underestimate.

The World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have said that unique habitats have been destroyed. Pollution has been reported in the Mzymta River that flows into the Black Sea and numerous mature trees are being chopped down in the city and outside it.

Of course, compensatory planting is taking place, but it will take many years for those trees to grow and for the environment to rebound.

It is easy to understand why all this construction activity is very frustrating for local people. It is difficult to live in a construction site, amid constant noise, dust and dirt, spending hours in traffic and suffering from power outages. 

Officials are trying to convince people that it is all going to be over soon and it seems like people do believe them. Nobody openly protests against the Olympics or against all the activity that is taking place. 

At the same time, however, the lifestyle in Sochi is painfully and slowly changing from a health-oriented resort community to something different.

Everybody understands that old Sochi is lost forever, but it does not mean that the new one will be worse.

It will be different and it is not easy to embrace. Many younger people realize that all these changes should help to revitalize Sochi, bring investors, draw international attention and make it a better place to live.

On the other hand, the older generation does not accept changes easily. But everyone is united by one desire: to see this difficult period come to an end.

It would be hard to talk about results at this point. I would say it might take another 10 to 20 years to fully evaluate all the changes and the aftermath of this massive redevelopment of the whole town.

What is obvious right now is that this construction is going to be the largest in Russia since the Baikal-Amur railway line in Siberia.

Many people who are living through this transformation fear the worst but hope for the best.

They hope that Sochi will get a new life, becoming a world-class resort that can offer relaxation and the best service possible to visitors.

But at the same time, the outcome of these massive changes is so unclear that the fear of losing the feeling of home overpowers everything else.

Nevertheless, as of now, there is just mostly noise, dust and construction.