A Russian leader embarks on a crash-course program to transform a sleepy Black Sea town into a world-class resort. Billions of rubles are spent on remaking the city and the landscape in just a few years. Elites flock to the region, while local residents complain they are pushed aside. Sochi 2014? How about Sochi 1936?
It was actually Josef Stalin who put Sochi on the map back in the 1930s. Back then it was a quiet town where he kept a private house, or dacha. Stalin liked Sochi's sub-tropical climate so much that he decided to make it into the Soviet Union’s premier health resort.
During his nearly 30-year rule, he poured in millions of rubles to lay down sewage and electricity lines, a tree-lined boulevard (named Stalin Prospect) a new theater and dozens of spa facilities housing more than 9,000 tourists, according to historian Anne Gorsuch at the University of British Columbia.
"It had everything to be a prime health resort," Gorsuch said. "It was a spa, a healing location."
Sochi was a spa in the European tradition, a destination where people flocked to cure ailments like rheumatism or tuberculosis, hoping that mineral water and mud baths, fresh air, exercise and sunshine would cure what modern medicine could not.
Stalin's private home, like Putin's getaway mansions in Sochi, was a place to escape the cold weather and political pressures of Moscow. Gorsuch said that Stalin was nervous about his security and build a bullet-proof, high-backed couch where he would relax in safety.
Stalin's mid-1930s Sochi building boom could also be seen as a way to develop one of the Soviet Union’s poorest regions. Sound familiar?
Some observers believe current Russian president Vladimir Putin is doing the same thing, turning the world’s spotlight on Sochi's Olympic Games as a way of claiming domination over the troubled Chechen republic, where Islamic militants have been battling Russian forces for the past decade and which is just a few hundred miles away.
"Putin would like to return Russia to the top table of European and world powers," said James Harris, history professor at the University of Leeds in England. "It's important to him that Russia participate politically (less so in sporting terms) among leading powers and be perceived as doing so. For him, that is worth spending billions."
In the years after Stalin's reign, which ended upon his death in 1953, Sochi became a Soviet resort for the masses. Pensioners and the elderly received subsidized air fare and hotel visits for the baths and beaches.
And today under Putin, Sochi again has gotten a huge influx of construction money, world attention and perhaps a legacy for a Russian leader, according to David Brandenberger, associate professor of history at the University of Richmond. He says Putin is following the path of a long line of Soviet and Russian leaders who see their legacy as massive building projects or infrastructure, rather than social welfare of the Russian people. Costs at Sochi have topped $51 billion, more than all previous Winter Olympics combined.
"The frantic and shock pace which Sochi was developed in the late 1920s and 1930s, we can see an echo of it now," Brandenburg said. "The initial stages went sluggishly, then as soon as it became a state priority for Putin, huge state resources thrown at it. Many of these ideas about majesty and triumphalism and mass experience remain. It's a good excuse to refit Sochi for the next century."