Travelers in the old Soviet Union noted the almost inhuman aspects of the hotels. Under communism comfort was not just an afterthought — it was actively disparaged. Today, as reports arise on the disastrous accommodations awaiting Olympic guests and athletes, it is almost as if the old standard of comfort, or discomfort, was being directed by Mr. Putin, and if we were back in the USSR.
As a Sochi hotelier, Mr. Putin is a failure. The beds are too short, the electricity is unreliable, some of the floors are missing, and so on. There’s no Hotel Putin, exactly, but the name may stick as a sulfurous joke since there are reports of a picture of Alfred E. Putin glowering in every room. Frequently the WiFi doesn’t work. In many hotels the water is orange when there is water.
The beds in some of the athletes’ quarters have been measured to be 5 feet long. Hot water is sporadic and the lighting is marginal. The games themselves began in the midst of construction confusion. The reports of hotel horrors are downplayed by the Russian press officials, a sure sign that the reports are true.
Mr. Putin seems to remember the Soviet era as some of Russia’s best times. They were his formative years. His cold stare longs for those gray authoritative decades when, as the movie title had it, Moscow did not believe in tears. Complaints about the hotels are answered with a bitter laugh and a hang-up. None of your Western weaknesses, spasibo!
But we may be talking of lingering tradition. In 1999, I was traveling with the International Red Cross and wound up in Sukhumi, just a little south of Sochi in Abkhazia, along the Black Sea Riviera. We traveled through some of the then-current conflicts to check on how the Geneva Conventions had been observed. I was taken along to draw people and places because the Red Cross minimizes the presence of cameras in war zones.
Sukhumi, like Sochi, was a resort and workers’ vacation paradise. It was a favorite of the apparatchiks and party functionaries. Rows of hotels lined the shore, with parks and amusement arcades, Ferris wheels and roller-coasters. There were even — that rarest of enterprises in the Soviet Union then — restaurants.
But the USSR was falling apart, and there had been, in the early ’90s, a vicious war in Abkhazia. The resorts were largely abandoned. Weeds and spindly birches grew up through the rides. The Ferris wheel had tilted to the side. The boardwalk had rotted and collapsed. Most of the city of Sukhumi was being fed by the Red Cross, and the staffers were put up in the hotels, at least in the portion that hadn’t been wrecked by the fighting.
The design of a Soviet hotel was different from that of a Western hotel. I think that’s fair to say. And unexplainably perverse. The halls were large and wide, but the rooms were small and cramped. The beds were inhuman and made you want to get out of them as soon as possible. The mattresses were narrow and hard, usable only by the extremely tired, or those with no other choice. Remember, this was a hotel in a vacation resort. God knows what went on back on the job.
My room must have been enviable for the time. I had a view of the Black Sea and the sad amusement park. But the one chair was unusable, and the light on the desk had no bulb. I was awoken in the morning by the sound of the water coming on, a rattling and gurgling in the toilet, a kind of alarm clock I have not experienced anywhere else.
There was no hot water, but a local hotel lady would bring up some hot tea water that you could drink or shave with. Then another hotel lady showed up. She banged on the door in what I think is a unique Russian tattoo and waited until I answered. She was a large specimen with several gold teeth, dressed in a sort of hospital smock, and she did not smile. She had a sphygmomanometer and grabbed my arm, strapped on the cuff, took my blood pressure, wrote it in a book and then left, wordlessly.
She did this every morning without explanation. The hotel, I was later told, had been a Soviet sanatorium for officials and big shots, escaping the pressures of office since way back in the Khrushchev era. The local government was falling apart, but no one had told the lady to stop taking the guests’ blood pressure every morning. So she kept at it. Somewhere, a history of my systolic and diastolic readings remains in the archives of Abkhazia, together with the history of other important people’s vital signs.
The Sochi hotels to the north along the beach were much the same. It now appears that the new hotels, for the Olympic crowd, haven’t improved much. Door knobs are missing from some rooms, and in some cases, so are the doors. Mr. Putin has a lot riding on the Sochi events showing that Russia is a fully modern country capable of putting on a show equal to the best of the West, and of course the Chinese. And yet his hotels and dormitories have 5-foot beds, leaving many Western observers perplexed.
You could hazard a theory that a half century of Communist discomfort is not overcome in a few decades. Nor does a leader like Putin, whose values were formed during those good old times in the KGB, insist upon luxurious surroundings and big soft beds. He doesn’t smile very much, either. He seems if not angry, at best moody.
Values are lodged in the soul, and most people try to advance their own on others. Putin no doubt remembers the life that made him what he is as being hard, unforgiving and unadorned.
Thus, pampered athletes and the decadent press who are in Sochi for Russia’s big show should be made to see that the legendary Spartan toughness still lives and breathes, though the USSR may be gone. Whatever doesn’t surround you with disgusting comfort and security makes you stronger.
The Olympic motto is “Faster, higher, stronger,” to which the Russian accommodations add, “more uncomfortable.” This is not going to get Mr. Putin what he wants from the whole Olympic experience. But it may make him feel better, somewhere way deep inside. He may even risk a slight dyspeptic smile.
Jeff Danziger is a political cartoonist and former Vermont resident.
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