The 2014 Winter Olympics will be in Sochi. I’ll be watching it for the sports, of course, but also to see what has changed since I was there in 1987 as part of a high school “People to People Student Ambassador” educational tour. Our group consisted of high school students from Pittsburgh and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We met Dick Thornburgh, Governor of Pennsylvania, before we left.
Sochi is part of Russia, but back then it was the Soviet Union. The Berlin wall would not fall for two more years, so the Cold War is still going. Back then we didn’t worry about terrorism, just nuclear war. Reagan was President, and Gorbachev ran the USSR. When we left for Russia, Oliver North was just beginning to testify before congress about the Iran-Contra scandal. I can remember guys from the Lancaster group running to the news stands to see what he had said as soon as we were back on this side of the Iron Curtain. You see, kids, back then there was no internet. So when we boarded the Aeroflot flight out of Copenhagen, our communication with the free world was effectively severed.
We also didn’t have a say in what cities we were to visit, or how long we would stay in each city. So when we landed, we found out that our final itinerary consisted of Moscow, Baku, Sochi, Lvov, Riga, Vilnuis, and Leningrad (today known again as St. Petersburg). We got nearly a week in Sochi. Here I present some slides I’ve digitized (this was before digital photography, too). Let’s get our bearings. Sochi is on the coast of the Black Sea. It has a subtropical climate. So naturally it became a “vacation” spot for Soviets. Really it was a place to recuperate in one of the spa/hospitals, called “Sanatoriums”. There are mineral springs nearby. It was supposed to be good luck or good for your health if you rinsed off in them, but I recall one girl rinsing her hands and finding her silver jewelry had instantly been tarnished. This is a view from the ski lift that takes you to top of the hill overlooking the sea. That round building in the center was the circus, which was fantastic. The scenery, climate, and and lush vegetation were a complete surprise to all of us.
We rarely met fellow American travelers. But we did meet travelers from around the Soviet Union. Here’s me engaging in some detente with soviet kids on an interior balcony. I’m playing some music on my Walkman -that’s a cassette player, this was pre-digital music. One of us offered them a t-shirt which we had brought to trade for stuff, but their mother wouldn’t let them have it. They didn’t speak English, and my 11th-grade Russian wasn’t great, so I let Madonna do the talking. Meeting other teens our age was interesting because several languages would float around the room at once. A group of Hungarian students was traveling on a similar educational tour, inside the Soviet Union of course, and some of my classmates could speak to them in French.
Across the square from our hotel was the Berioska. This being the Soviet Union, there were no convenience stores or gift shops anywhere, so this is where you bought your souvenirs. Like those cars? Who knows how old there were even then. A group of us took a cab in Moscow once, and I got the front seat. We sped through the city without the benefit of seat belts.
The selection of souvenirs wasn’t great: nesting dolls (the same ones everywhere), cheap lacquer boxes, pins, and the like. Soviet flags were hard to come by, so the black market was where you found interesting stuff. While on a walking tour some kid offered to buy my swatch, but I wouldn’t sell. Foreign currency was in great demand, so we could get better exchange rates on the street. A friend and I arranged to meet a hotel worker after hours to do some trading, but we were stupid. He led us through the kitchen of the hotel. Then somehow we managed to let him lock us in a room in back of the kitchen for a few minutes. When he came back, we traded some t shirts for military hats and things, but he basically helped himself to stuff in my backpack. From then on we did our trading in the open, through mostly at night.
From our hotel we could walk down to the beach.
The beach itself had no sand, just stones. Fashion didn’t exist to speak of in the Soviet Union, and that incldued swimwear. But it wasn’t all plam trees and roses. This shot was taken looking down over the ledge of a bridge.
So, come 2014, I wonder what the place will look like.