SOCHI – Nestled high in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and surrounded by coniferous, cypress-tree forest, is a house. A sprawling, multi-roomed mansion that must be seen to be believed. If you can see it at all. For decades, its odd green walls have provided a chameleon style defence to prying eyes. Yet even in Russia, a nation whose history is storied and violent, this unassuming house holds much.
With the dappled light from the Northern Hemisphere sun pushing through the thick foliage above and the Black Sea resort of Sochi below, it is perfectly placed to recede. Not only from view. But from memory. A footnote in the brief and seemingly unremarkable history of Sochi – a town brought to life by histories most remarkable. Not once. But twice. Mention Sochi to the West and it conjures up the image of the 2014 Winter Olympics. $51 billion funnelled into a town not only devoid of infrastructure and prestige. But of snow. It’s Black Sea beaches and sub-tropical climate a seaside paradise for Russian elite since the turn of the 20th century. And that’s all thanks to Trump’s mate Vladimir Putin.
But to those in the East, the history of this seaside resort goes back further. Because Putin’s power wasn’t the first to bring Sochi screaming towards modernity. Long before the Olympic rings graced this Southern Russian port, it was a subtle yet key locale. In a time before the United Nations. Before Hitler’s Blitzkrieg swept Europe. This house was there. And its owner, the man for whom this ‘dacha’ was built, was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. Better known in history as Joseph Stalin.
– Check out Inked and Abroad’s previous Russian adventures here –
“How did I get here?” I asked myself. My green VB shirt, an icon of my Australian heritage, soaked in sweat. My undiagnosed illness drawing at my shallow reserves of strength. And this question wasn’t rhetorical. It was quite literal. This house was bloody hard to find. My brother and I had spent the previous half an hour in the back of a Russian Uber trying to communicate our preferred destination using the same two words ad nauseum. “Stalin House”. I can only imagine that’s like jumping in a Berlin taxi and shouting “HITLER BUNKER” in the driver’s ear. Annoying and probably offensive.
Poor communication aside, we’d found ourselves miles outside Sochi and heading higher into the mountains with each passing minute. Our phones were useless and we were lost the moment the Wi-Fi was out of reach (which is perhaps the worst indictment on modern travel there is).
“We’ll just get out here mate, this is fine” my brother had said as he lent towards our increasingly frustrated driver. But you don’t build an impenetrable mountain fortress with that type of attitude just like you don’t drop a sweaty Aussie tourist and his brother to said impenetrable mountain fortress with that attitude. And whether he was looking for a 5-star rating or a quiet place to dump our bodies, he continued up the winding, deserted road until this house in the hills was finally in view.
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The house itself was one of seven retreats owned by Stalin. Each summer house, or ‘dacha’ was modelled in spacious luxury. A curious choice given the harsh conditions imposed on his people following his ascension to power in the mid 1920’s. Following the death of Lenin and the exile of his former Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, Stalin found himself at the head of a Russian Federation consisting of roughly 160 million people. His paranoia, a combination of contextual realities and deep-seated fears of ‘counter-revolutionary infiltrators’ led to the consolidation of his power in what came to be known as, The Great Purge.
A staggering number of deaths occurred in making sure there was no one left to oppose him. Historical sources differ, but between 700,000 and 1.2 million deaths between 1936 and 1938 are widely accepted. While Stalin himself had signed 357 proscription lists, or decrees allowing banishment and death, that authorised the shooting of at least 40,000. And why does all that matter? Because Stalin’s dacha, the very same house I was headed to, was built in 1937.
Which means this house was not just in the symbolic centre of Stalin’s purge, but a haunting physical reminder tied to Stalin’s role in what later became known as ‘the Great Terror’. The suffering and torment of countless souls. Forced under torture to admit to crimes against Stalin’s regime. Along with those murdered to solidify the power of a despot. All condemned to their fate by a single man. A man who was reported to have looked at a list of names sentenced to death and said “who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one”. A man who ordered the deaths of millions before reclining in the cool confines of a Sochi summer house, surrounded by coniferous, cypress-tree forest, high in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. And I was knocking on the front door.
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It was haunting, truly haunting. Not the house itself or the grisly history it represented. But the dead eyed fish stare the Russian speaking guide gave us when we enquired about going inside. Motioning to his watch, the sky and then his clipboard like that was a universal symbol I’d know. But if that gesture was vague there’s always one failsafe in these situations. Sit on the ground and wait until another tour group goes by to tag along with.
And sure, that tour group we joined was made up exclusively of Russians. Speaking exclusively Russian. So, I didn’t understand a word but that meant I could really soak up the experience without all that ‘knowledge’ and those ‘facts’ everyone else was drowning in. With the guide able to offer me nothing (outside his seductive dead fish eyes) it was time to explore Stalin’s cheeky summer getaway on my own. Slipping away from the group and exploring this historical curiosity.
The dacha itself is an enigma. Much like the man who lived there every summer, for 3 or 4 months, from the late 1930’s to 1941. It was only when Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and attached the Soviet Union in 1941 that Stalin moved permanently to Moscow, although he returned to his Sochi summer pad following the end of the war. This context is important. Paranoia lingers in every room. The uncarpeted floors which allowed approaching footsteps to be heard. Numerous bedrooms, as it was said Stalin slept in several rooms a night to satisfy his paranoid mind. And numerous bedrooms more for his various body doubles.
Stalin’s personal billiards table still stands too, waiting for the next game to be racked. But there’s something off about it. It sits oddly low to the ground and feels unusually built. Representative of Stalin’s moderately short 5’5” frame and his permanently damaged left arm – the result of a childhood accident. The cues that wait on the walls not modern additions to this living museum, but the very same ones used by one of the 21st centuries worst mass murderers.
Not that this place would tell you of those crimes. The smooth faced wax statue that sits, eyes ever staring, at Stalin’s original desk bears only a vague resemblance to the man himself. The real Stalin was left scarred due to childhood smallpox and had several artists shot for their unflattering depictions. And there’s no mention of the decrees allowing the Great Purge, nor the scribbled order to “beat, beat” next to the names. Even the photos on the wall show a happy family. A man in control of his world. When in reality his second wife committed suicide.
And the man himself? Well, he was very fond of chess. And although he couldn’t swim he enjoyed walking around in a swimming pool filled with neck high sea water. Which really comes across as the behaviour of someone a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But then again, this bloke also ordered his guards to stay out of his bedroom. Then, by screaming his lungs out and convincing them to enter, he had them executed for breaking his rules. So, was sanity ever really on the table?
There is a haunting quality to this house. But not in the traditional haunted house way. There are no cheap thrills to be had here or even grisly stories to tell. Its horror comes from its beauty. Surrounded by a rich, far reaching forest and with sweeping views down towards the Black Sea it is the perfect spot for a summer getaway. And yet, inside these walls the deaths of millions was sealed. Signed with a pen. A callous indifference to human life, given fleeting attention before the focus was once again returned to the beauty of the surroundings.
It’s a house of horrors not for what it once held, but for who it once held. And that stigma, that association with the 20th centuries nadir, is reinforced by the fact Vladimir Putin has never set foot here. Stalin’s legacy so confronting and divisive that Putin himself must avoid the symbolism of this house in the hills.
After a couple of hours wandering the grounds of this dilapidated mansion, with its courtyard palm trees offering up an odd Mediterranean feel deep in Russia, it was time to go. A luxury not afforded to millions during Stalin’s reign. As a history major this site was as fascinating as it was horrifying. And as a cancer survivor it was a powerful reminder that life has always been fleeting. That my struggles with health, while devastating at times, still place me squarely in the ‘lucky’ column. Especially when contrasted with the millions of deaths handed down by the man who built this curious, imposing and unforgettable mountain retreat.
This jaunt to Stalin’s dacha would signal the end of my time in Sochi. A town that’s been written about extensively since it popped up on the world’s radar during the Winter 2014 Olympics. But probably shouldn’t be. It redefines the word ‘uninspiring’. And if Dulux is ever looking to name a new brand of grey paint, they’d do well to call it Sochi, such is the drab monotone design of a town given all the resources to succeed and still managing to fail. I consider Sochi to be the Paris Hilton of the world’s cities. Relevant only in past tense. So much promise, so much hype, so little delivered.
The people walk around like zombies, feeding on a diet of apathy and boredom. Rain fell every day. Which is hardly the fault of Sochi. But somehow, it still felt like it. And as uninspired buildings stood meekly, crumbling at times, in the shadows of the impressive Caucasus Mountains, it was a reminder that not all travel makes you want to stay on the road. When it came to Sochi, I couldn’t wait to leave. It had only been a few days since my latest adventures in St. Petersburg, but with the White Nights festival about to begin it was time to head back and see what else my Russian Odyssey had in store.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Inked and Abroad’s Russian Odyssey continues when an icon of the Northern Hemisphere summer, the White Nights Festival, swings into action.