SOCHI, Russia — There was a sprawling Black Sea beach before the Olympics came, the pebbles on the waterline giving way further up to luxurious sand. Back then, dirt roads crisscrossed the swampy coastal plain, which was a refuge for migrating birds.
President Trump has Mar-a-Lago and all the Trumpian gilded splendor behind the club’s gates.
Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Games, is all about Russian President Vladimir Putin — a place to host foreign envoys and indulge in some Putin-style diversions. At the annual Sochi gala hockey match a few weeks ago, Putin scored nine goals.
Sochi, in many ways, offers a distilled image of the country he wants Russia to be. Multibillion-dollar construction projects by Putin’s friends and oligarchs have created some of Russia’s best — and most expensive — infrastructure.
Sochi was basking in sunshine soon after I arrived to cover Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit in May. It was also a chance to take stock of a changing Sochi, where I covered the Olympics in 2014 and reported on the early preparations for them in 2008.
The Chinese foreign minister had come to see Putin the day before Pompeo, and the Austrian president was due the following day. For Putin, bringing high-level guests to Sochi has become part of the Kremlin’s making-Russia-great-again choreography.
“The message is: ‘You need me more than I need you, and I will receive you where I want to,’ ” Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrei Kolesnikov said.
But Sochi’s pockets of investment also highlight Russia’s staggering inequality. Polls show that trust in Putin is falling across the country. Here, too, residents gripe about poor schools and medical care.
At the old Olympic media center, Hans-Joachim Frey — former opera director of Dresden’s Semperoper and a German acquaintance of Putin — was putting on “The Diary of Anne Frank” in German and Russian. It was part of a series of musical events aimed at turning Sochi into “Salzburg on the Black Sea.”
“They want Russian kids to stay here, in the country,” said Frey, whose new book is called “Learning to Love Russia.”
“Now that you have culture come to them, in all possible colors, one, of course, has a great argument to simply say: ‘Everything comes here. We’re open to the world. We have everything,’ ” he added.
Some residents even think that Putin’s government can control the elements. An environmental activist, Olga Noskovets, said locals believe that Putin’s people deploy cloud-busting chemicals when he is here to drive away possible rain. I figured Noskovets was joking, but she insisted she was not.
“We predict the weather based on when Vladimir Vladimirovich flies in,” she told me, referring to Putin by his patronymic. “If the forecast says rain but the leaders are here, there will be no rain.”
The 2014 Games — at an estimated $50 billion, the most expensive ever — already feel like a pivotal moment in Russian history. What could have been an athletic and organizational triumph turned into a swan song for a country that hadn’t yet annexed part of its neighbor.
I remember my goose bumps at the Opening Ceremonies, when the largely Russian crowd cheered more loudly for the Ukrainian athletes than for any other foreign team. In the weeks that followed, pro-Western protesters were gunned down in Kiev, and Russian soldiers, in unmarked uniforms, swooped into Crimea.
Kolesnikov describes Putin’s investment in Sochi as “import substitution” writ large. It’s a massive effort to reduce Russia’s reliance on the West by creating a tourist destination offering Western-style amenities, a two-hour flight from Moscow.
Sochi’s setting, on a palm-speckled sliver of land between the Black Sea and the Caucasus peaks, is stunning. Along the main roads, the crumbling Soviet apartment blocks still ubiquitous in other Russian cities are few and far between. Cabdrivers zoom at 70 mph up the new highway that connects high-end Western seaside hotels and an ever-expanding ski resort in the mountains.
The ski resort is laid out as a web of European-style town squares and pedestrian streets. The jumble of Roman or gothic-looking columns and building facades houses Western clothing brands and restaurants hawking mussels, shawarma and pho. The oyster origins on restaurant menus trace the fringes of Russia’s reach — from annexed Crimea to the Pacific island of Sakhalin, which was once partly held by Japan.
Frey’s prominence feels symbolic for Sochi, where even more than elsewhere, much depends on the personal influence of the Russian president. Frey bestowed an award on Putin at the Dresden opera’s annual ball in 2009, despite a storm of criticism.
After the ball, Frey says, Putin invited him to join his entourage for a late-night dinner in the president’s hotel suite. They toasted with glasses of Radeberger, an East German beer that Putin enjoyed when he served as a KGB officer in Dresden in the 1980s. More meetings followed, and before long, Frey was touring Russia with Putin’s personal interpreter and profiting from a consulting contract with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Last year, Frey says, he tagged along for World Cup games on the FIFA soccer federation’s private jet.
In 2016, Putin named Frey the artistic director of the Sirius Foundation, which converted many of the facilities in the Olympic Park into a center for gifted children from across Russia. Frey says he’s never seen an accounting of where the money for his foundation comes from. But he does recall that on his first day on the job, Putin gathered 30 of the country’s biggest business magnates and mapped out a multiyear plan for how much each of them would donate.
The foundation plans to erect a 1,300-seat concert hall on the grounds of the Olympic Park. Putin visited in May, Frey says, to decide where exactly the hall would go.
“Russia is the way it is,” Frey told me. “It is led the way it is.”