It should have been the busiest day of the season. The weather was perfect. The snow at the Mountain Carousel, one of Russia's newest skiing resorts, had been groomed like a Japanese sand garden. The slopes were kitted out with the best ski lifts money can buy. Thousands of foreign visitors had descended on the area two days earlier for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in nearby Sochi, and on Sunday, while all the other resorts in the area were hosting Olympic events, the Mountain Carousel was the only ridge open to the general public. But the crowds never came.
“I don't know what went wrong,” says Vladimir Drevyatnikov, a skiing instructor at the resort who was looking around for students at the top of the mountain on Sunday afternoon. “This was supposed to be our big debut.” More than that, it was supposed to help introduce the world to a new skiing destination, one that Russia hopes to rival the European Alps one day or, at the very least, prevent the pampered mountains near Sochi from becoming Olympic white elephants after the Games leave town.
That has been a central part of President Vladimir Putin's grand, decadelong design for these Olympics and, more broadly, for the restive mountain range where they are being held. The North Caucasus, a strip of highlands on Russia's southern edge, is by far the most volatile part of the country, home to an active Islamist insurgency that wants to break the region off into an independent state. No amount of military force has yet been able to subdue these rebel fighters, who continue to carry out terrorist attacks as far afield as Moscow with stunning regularity. So Putin came up with a new approach to the Caucasus dilemma — turn the region into a giant ski resort.
In July 2010, Putin announced plans to create a “mountain tourism cluster” stretching across the North Caucasus from the Black Sea to the Caspian. It would create 160,000 jobs throughout the region, he said, jobs that would break the cycle of poverty that has pulled the region's men into Islamic extremism for years. “We're talking about a living, absolutely real business idea,” Putin said, insisting that investors would gladly finance the project in order to reap the profits from tourism later on.
It did not take long for the local insurgents to give their response. In February 2011, a group of masked gunmen stopped a minibus full of skiers holidaying in the North Caucasus mountain of Elbrus and shot three of them dead. Tourism to the region slowed to a trickle, while Putin's critics said he was delusional for trying to turn a war zone into a holiday destination. But the Kremlin pushed ahead with its plan.
A new state corporation was founded, Northern Caucasus Resorts, to help develop not only the future Olympic sites around Sochi but other skiing destinations across the region. The firm was put in charge of developing the Mountain Carousel resort for amateur skiers and, on the same ridge, a world-class set of ski jumps and bobsleigh tracks for the Sochi Olympics. Putin kept tabs on the project personally, and when it fell behind schedule in February 2012, he came to the Mountain Carousel resort and fired the official in charge of the project on the spot.
“That put some fear into the rest of the bureaucrats, and things started moving,” says Vladislav Ovsyannikov, a local historian who has studied the development of the ski resorts around Sochi for most of his life. The region's original skiing infrastructure had not been built to appeal to European tastes, he says. In 1978, the Soviet government in Moscow sent Ovsyannikov's father Vladimir to develop a training base for the Soviet national ski team in Krasnaya Polyana, a mountain town above Sochi. What emerged was a bare-bones operation called Alpika (a Russian play on the word alps) with rudimentary lifts and hotels that looked more like barracks.
It remained that way until around 2005, the start of Putin's second term as President, when state-connected billionaires and corporations started building ski resorts in the area, partly to prepare for Russia's Olympic bid. When that bid won out in 2007, “a lot of people around here panicked,” Ovsyannikov says. The locals were afraid the mammoth construction project would destroy the small mountain community of ski buffs and outdoorsmen in Krasnaya Polyana.
Those fears were justified. During the first five years of construction, water and electricity supplies were constantly disrupted, roads dug up and houses demolished, says Ovsyannikov, who has lived in the town ever since his father was sent to develop it. "The construction dust was so thick you couldn't see the sun," he says. "So believe me, people here cursed these Olympics a thousand times before they finished building them.”
But when they were finished, locals could see that the result was remarkable. The skiing village at the bottom of the Mountain Carousel now looks like a mock-up of an alpine resort, impressive for its gargantuan scale if not exactly for the grace of its design. In the brand-new Gorki Plaza hotel, where the first gondola begins to take skiers up the mountain, no effort or expense has been spared in trying to appeal to foreigner visitors. “We speak every language,” chirped one of the six waitresses who fluttered around me at the door of the hotel's restaurant when I came in off the street to have breakfast on Sunday. The obsequious attention was no surprise; I was the only person in the place.
The rental office and the ski runs felt equally deserted, and the handful of foreigners I met throughout the day were all there not to ski or watch the Games but to do some form of Olympic business. Gilles Maynard, a Frenchman, charters airplanes, and his firm is running six jumbo-jet flights from Paris to Sochi every four days during the Olympics, mostly carrying journalists, athletes, businessmen and government officials. But will that flood of Frenchmen continue when the Games are over? “They won't come,” Maynard flatly says. “Why would they come from Europe when they have the Alps next door for less money?” And as for Russia's efforts to clone French ski resorts in the Caucasus Mountains, Maynard didn't seem impressed. “It's built a bit tacky, you know? All the bling-bling, Russian style. That's not very nice.”
The only draw, both for the locals and the foreigners, seemed to be the summit of the Rosa Khutor resort where the Olympic events are playing out, which has been closed to amateur skiers during the Games. The Olympic staff had a chance to ski its pristine runs before the Games began, and some of them described it as a skiers' Shangri-la. “The summit is 2,000 m, and from there you can watch the sunset over the Black Sea as you go down,” says Danilo Batinich, an Olympic security contractor from Serbia. “It's just amazing,” he says. Amazing enough, hopefully, to breathe some life into Putin's vision for these mountains. But if its big debut is any indication, building a grand resort is one thing. Attracting the world to its slopes is another.