Weird, Wonderful Sochi: Inside Russia’s Own Palm Beach

Sochi Russia January  172014Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort was constructed to help Russia win its bid for the Sochi Games. At a cost of more than $50 billion, these Olympics will be the most expensive ever.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Sochi, Russia, Jan. 17, 2014: Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort was constructed to help Russia win its bid for the Sochi Games. At a cost of more than $50 billion, these Olympics will be the most expensive ever.

The locals in Sochi still use the old Soviet slang – dikari, which means, “the savages” – to describe the tourists who arrive from colder parts of Russia, rent an apartment near the Black Sea coast and spend a week letting the sun wash their pallor away. The word is a reflection of the privileged status (some would say snobbery) that once set the people of Sochi apart from the rest of the toiling masses of the Soviet Union. Their town was the closest thing in the USSR to Monte Carlo or Palm Beach. The markets were packed with exotic fruit. The summer lasted nine months of the year. And the locals knew they lived in the Soviet version of paradise.

To his incalculable luck, Yuri Kozyrev, TIME’s contract photographer, was one of them. His grandparents owned an apartment in the center of Sochi, within view of the sea port’s elegant spire, and he would visit them each year between May and October starting from the age of three.

His grandmother Vera was a curator at a local museum. His grandfather Boris repaired watches in a little workshop and, in his abundant leisure time, rode around on his motorbike and wrote books about history and philosophy. Their balcony looked out over pomegranate and persimmon trees, fruits as rare to the average Soviet as a coconut is to an Eskimo. They bloomed all summer long.

In the early 1990s, not long before he went to photograph the first war in Chechnya, Kozyrev stopped coming to Sochi. His grandparents had passed away just as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the family lost their apartment. So it was only in the last couple of years that he started returning to Sochi on assignment, photographing the preparations for the Winter Olympic Games, which the city will host from February 7 – 23.

What he found on his return was hard to recognize, a provincial town turned into a giant construction site, with hotels, stadiums and highways rising with fantastic speed. “It was all movement and light,” he says. “All of it was new.” On the Black Sea coast, the new Olympic village had been built right over marshlands, its stadiums resembling a convention of alien spaceships gathered from different galaxies.

Such spectacles in Kozyrev’s pictures come through with all their luminescent power. But so does his nostalgia for the town that they replaced. In many of the frames, the remnants of the old creep into the present day, but usually in the form of kitsch, while the new overwhelms with its scale and insistence.

During the first couple of trips, Kozyrev could not bring himself to visit his grandparents’ old apartment building. “I was too afraid,” he says. “I’d heard it was razed to make way for some Olympic construction and I couldn’t bare to see it.” In fact, the building still stood. Except the fruit trees were gone, and someone had decided to paint it pink.

Wherever he could find the remains of the old Sochi– its sanatoriums and its bazaars – Kozyrev sought them out, but they usually seemed anachronistic in the context of the Olympic boom, somehow out of place in their native environment. “The arrival of a new epoch will do that,” he says with a laugh.

Only once during his visits did he come across an image of the town as he remembers it. Sitting by the shore, he found an older couple from Siberia getting a spa treatment, their legs submerged in plastic tubs of water so that little fish could nibble on their feet. Grinning as he stopped to talk to them, he had to keep himself from shouting, dikari!

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @shustry.

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