Inventing the Subtropics: An Environmental History of Sochi, 1929–36
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Inventing the Subtropics
An Environmental History of Sochi, 1929–36

The 1935 Soviet film The Pearl of the Soviet Union (Zhemchuzhina Sovetskogo Soiuza) opens with panoramic views of the Black Sea Coast.1 The film then depicts the draining of wetlands and correction of rivers, the construction of a new water supply system and a broad highway. Following extensive coverage of sanatoriums, sanatorium medicine, and bathhouses, it turns to horticultural themes, to brigades of workers planting palm trees, eucalyptus, and lush flowers along the highway and along a walking path overlooking the sea. The film ends with images of worker brigades.

This article is about the transformation of the landscape of the Sochi region depicted in The Pearl of the Soviet Union, which was tied to a major state project of the Second Five-Year Plan: the creation of a “health resort of world significance” (kurort mirovogo znacheniia), launched by the Politburo on 9 October 1933.2 The Black Sea Coast of the Caucasus was a stretch of coastline marked by wetlands, ravines, landslides, and indigenous evergreen [End Page 91] forests and a climate that was deemed hot and unhealthy and that harbored endemic malaria. From 1933 to 1936, the state undertook to transform this environment into the salubrious, subtropical landscape of a model all-union health resort, marked by a smooth and curving palm-tree-lined highway (appropriate for fast cars), the cultivation of citrus and luxuriant “tropical” flowers, and the development of bathing beaches. The natural environment of this backward and undeveloped malarial region underwent a remarkable transformation. At the same time, the Soviet subtropics were invented.3

The construction of a subtropical health resort in Sochi coincided with the international rise of subtropical seaside resorts around the world. In the interwar period, the rivieras replaced the baths for fashionable customers, and sea bathing, still considered by many to be dangerous and risqué, entered its first mass phase.4 Seaside health resorts developed rapidly around the Mediterranean: the French and Italian rivieras flourished,5 as did Korbous, Tunisia;6 Algiers, Algeria;7 Tel Aviv in Mandate Palestine;8 and farther inland, Helwan, Egypt.9 [End Page 92] Seaside resorts were also host to some of the most experimental modernist architecture of the interwar period.

In the 1920s, the “latest” word in health resort technology and design was Miami Beach, Florida, a resort built during the boom years with modernist hotels and highways and a subtropical landscape of citrus groves, palm trees, flowers, sandy beaches, and glisteningly white modernist hotels. As the example of Miami Beach suggested, the Soviet choice of a coastal, malarial wetland as a setting for a new subtropical resort was hardly anomalous during this period. Indeed, this was a useful way to develop coastal “wastelands,” set in terrain that was difficult to profitably develop for agriculture or industry. Miami, like Sochi, was built on drained wetland (the Everglades).10 In Miami, flora from all over the world was introduced and brought to bloom. Miami was an American achievement of engineering and culture, and one that Soviet scientists openly emulated on the Black Sea. As the director of the Main Administration of Subtropical Agriculture of the Commissariat of Agriculture, A. M. Lezhava, wrote in a popular article titled “We Will Establish a Soviet Florida,” “Our socialist economy should catch and overtake [dognat´ i peregnat´] California and other high-culture subtropical countries.”11 Leading Soviet journalists, too, were eager to boost the project. As the “Stalinist Westernizer” Mikhail Kol´tsov wrote in Pravda, the “Soviet Riviera” in Sochi, then only under construction, promised one day to rival Miami.12 The socialist Black Sea Coast was to be made to compete with the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States for first place among seaside tourist destinations. It was a competition that was to last throughout the 20th century.

As the declared aim to build a “health resort of world significance” suggested, the improvement of the Sochi region took place in a self-consciously international context. Soviet officials and experts borrowed heavily from foreign models in molding the landscape of Sochi. They studied the highway infrastructure, landscape aesthetics and advertising, and...