“It feels like Europe here,” Galina, a pleasant middle-aged woman sporting a stylish purple skiing jacket tells me as we are swept on board a brand new cable car to take us up to the picturesque Aibga Ridge, 2320 meters above sea level.
We are at the heart of Krasnaya Polyana, Russia’s most respectable alpine resort and venue of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The Sochi resort, often referred to as “Russia’s Courshevel,” boasts a uniquely mild climate, strikingly beautiful landscapes and powder snow from December through March.
In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on skiers in the neighboring North Caucasus Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, the security measures here are no laughing matter: armed guards and metal detectors are in full force at the bottom of every ski lift.
“We missed our flight to Moscow yesterday because of a seven-hour traffic jam,” Galina says, putting on an enormous pair of anti-fog goggles. “But I am glad because we got to do some great skiing.”
She and her husband are on their way to ski down the Olympia run, one of the newly opened slopes at Rosa Khutor, Krasnaya Polyana’s most ambitious development projects. Last week it hosted the Alpine FIS European Cup for the first time.
Last Saturday’s traffic jams were caused by a brief visit by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (who reportedly prefers Krasnaya Polyana to all alpine ski resorts) making an appearance for the final verdict of a nationwide SMS-poll to choose the mascot for the Olympics.
I too was happy, even amazed, to finally see the future Olympics venue for myself. “The Future is Beautiful,” read an enormous billboard at the base of another newly-built alpine complex called Mountain Carousel, with a range of extensive ski runs. “Stroika veka,” or “project of the century,” the phrase used to describe the ambitious Soviet Baikal Amur railroad, sprung to mind.
Luc Besson or some other futuristic blockbuster director would definitely find inspiration here: sky-high cranes, mammoth stilts, heavy trucks transporting loads of cement and giant metal blocks, mountain gorges turned into cemeteries of fallen trees and rocks.
But big time investment, Napoleonic planning and global ambition (Krasnaya Polyana is aiming to become one of the world’s most technologically advanced alpine resorts) have not yet overpowered decaying Soviet heritage. Costly state-of-the-art infrastructure and partially completed luxury Swiss-style chalets stand beside shabby, seemingly abandoned wooden huts. Huge billboards advertising apartments and villas for sale stand on poorly lit muddy streets along a dirty mountain river that carries loads of construction garbage (waste processing plants are purportedly to be built here only in 2013).
“Our nature is gone, but we’re so impressed with this construction,” another couple I shared a ski lift with observed. Yury and Irina, both Sochi natives, tell me they have never tried skiing, but still enjoy coming to Krasnaya Polyana every other weekend to spend an easy afternoon together. “The speed with which they’re building here is incredible,” Irina says, rapidly snapping away with her camera.
I had mixed feelings about the place, my patriotic pride verging with concern and skepticism. I wondered if the effort was really worth the cost. But at the same time I was struck by the good nature of the skiers on the slopes. Some time ago, I wrote a column pondering why Russians often aren’t happy to meet their fellow countrymen abroad. Here, it was a completely different story. Everyone at Krasnaya Polyana was open, friendly and ready to help a stranger in need. No signs of arrogance, suspicion or competition, such common traits among Russians abroad. Perhaps we are able to put that defensive mechanism to one side when traveling at home?
Surprisingly, that’s exactly how I, myself a snobby and exigent traveler, felt in Krasnaya Polyana – at home. Just a very expensive one.
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.