Sochi’s Botanical Heart Not Ready for Putin’s Olympics

SOCHI, February 12 (Howard Amos and Kevin O’Flynn, RIA Novosti) – Russia defied naysayers this month, managing to build its gargantuan 2014 Olympic facilities in time for the Winter Games. But some 30 kilometers away, in the heart of the host city, workers are still touching up statues and laying new paths at Sochi’s arboretum – a massive pre-revolutionary tree garden and a hallmark of the city’s Soviet-era glory.

The restoration work should have been completed at least two months ago, said the park’s deputy director, Galina Soltan. When it will be done isn’t clear. For now, laborers toil among the fountains and neo-classical pavilions, strains of Rihanna blaring from their radios.

If the Olympic stadiums symbolize the new Sochi created by President Vladimir Putin over the last seven years, the gardens, like other former local highlights, are a reminder of past attempts to create and re-create a city that rose out of the swamps.

With the Caucasus Mountains shielding Sochi from cold air from the north, and trapping moisture from the Black Sea, the city has a warm, humid climate that has made it a lush, green holiday destination renowned among former Soviet citizens: the only place in Russia where palm trees are ubiquitous.

But this was far from the case less than a century ago.

In the late 1800s, the area around Sochi was either dense forest or mosquito-ridden swamp where malaria was endemic. Adler, the center of the current Olympics, is believed to mean “rotting bog” in a native local language, Soltan said.

In this wilderness the arboretum was created in 1899 by Sergei Khudekov, a pre-revolutionary Renaissance man who dabbled in choreography, publishing and politics, as well as botany. He filled it with trees from all over Europe as he tried to create a “little corner of Italy” in Russia’s subtropics, said Soltan.

He built a summer home, or dacha, which he named Nadezhda (Hope) in honor of his wife, and dotted the grounds with classical statues. The hilltop gardens are designed to hide their best secrets from ordinary visitors: A bewitching sea view, now obscured by trees and buildings, once opened up from a patio behind the dacha. (Today, the sea and mountains can be seen from a viewing platform accessible by cable car.)

Khudekov was one of the first to battle against nature to create a new Sochi, but certainly not the last.

After the revolution of 1917, the arboretum passed into Soviet hands. When Joseph Stalin took a shine to the tsarist-era resort town and ordered its redevelopment, the gardens played a key role in changing the region’s flora.

The arboretum was used to introduce the palm trees, bamboo and other semi-tropical species, many of which can be seen in Sochi to this day.

Eucalyptus trees were planted to help drain the bog, while authorities attacked the hordes of mosquitos by pouring oil over breeding grounds and introducing a type of small fish that ate the insects.

“Stalin loved [Sochi] like Putin loves it,” said Soltan.

The arboretum, however, has fared differently under the two leaders, though their visions for transforming the surrounding city have been similar in ambition and scope. Under Stalin, the park became one of the city’s key sites – an obligatory sightseeing stop for millions of holidaymakers and ailing Soviets who flocked to Sochi for its sanatoriums.

A scientific research center was added after World War II and, according to Soltan, became known internationally as a center for botany.

But the gardens have been just an afterthought in Putin’s Olympic overhaul.

Despite the flood of senior Russian and foreign officials in Sochi ahead of the Olympics, there have been almost no top-name visitors to the arboretum, said Soltan. (UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made a stopover last May.)

This stands in contrast to previous decades. The arboretum has a lane flanked by palm trees planted in the 1970s by dignitaries from countries as disparate as Mongolia and Britain. The kings of Nepal and Afghanistan visited in Soviet times, and modern Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, toured the gardens as well.

Some restoration work has gone ahead thanks to development money allocated in the run-up to the Olympics, said Soltan. As a result, the arboretum’s central, yellow-and-white pavilion has just undergone its first restoration in 110 years.

But a few of those working in the gardens dismissed the work that’s been done as cosmetic.

“They have done some [repair work], but in the time it took them to do that they could have built a whole city,” said one woman selling souvenirs from a small stall, who declined to give her name.

Employees say the Games have led to a small uptick in visitors in the usually lean winter months, and they are expecting some Olympic-related tours. But the overall effect has been minimal.

The arboretum is not alone among faded Sochi showpieces that have not had their makeovers finished in time for the Olympics. A funicular train from the seashore was supposed to have been restored by the end of last year, but work is far from complete. And one of the city’s most famous sanatoria, the Ordzhonikidze, stands empty and still, waiting for an aborted reconstruction effort to proceed three years after it closed.

Nevertheless, the arboretum remains a unique green oasis in a city that has become notorious for grimy construction and traffic jams. Even in the heart of the Russian winter, the magnolia and mimosa trees were starting to flower – the first sign of spring.

Soltan – who visited the arboretum as a child and has worked there for 25 years – often leads tours of the gardens, ready to identify any of their 1,700 species of trees, shrubs and bushes in Russian and Latin. During a recent tour, she snapped off the leaf of an unremarkable green plant and crumpled it, producing a powerful citrusy aroma.

She remembers the 1990s, when employees were not paid for months but still worked. If no one tends to the trees, she said, they will turn into a forest, wild and unpassable.

Her attachment to the arboretum – which she calls the lungs of the city – has a touch of mysticism. Each plot representing the flora of a different world region has its own energy, Soltan says. When on sick leave from work several years ago with an illness that left her almost unable to walk, she still made it to the gardens: “The positive energy helped me recover.”

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