Out of Georgia: Sun, sea and sex keep Lenin dream alive and well

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The Independent Online
SOCHI - Visitors emerging from 'Riviera Park', the delightfully optimistic name given to a patch of weeds and concrete, confront an unnerving apparition. There, on the other side of the road, is Satan. At least it looks like him. It is in fact a large red and orange stone mosaic of Lenin, his skeletal head tongued by flame, beady eyes flickering with fire. Nor was the artist kind in the choice of clothing: an ugly red tie and a black coat with a thick, upturned collar. Hardly beach wear. Perhaps it was to remind holidaymakers that the hard, icy struggle rages on even as they stroll about in T-shirts.

When the mosaic went up, some 15 years ago judging from its political tone and dirt stains on the base, I doubt anyone ever imagined that Lenin, if he were to visit Sochi from the grave, might actually find a winter coat useful - to shield the modesty of topless sunbathers and young men with swimming trunks smaller than their gold medalions, no longer a freak phenomenon on the pebbly shores at Sochi, and already commonplace at the more raucous, risque - but sadly, no less pebble-plagued - resort of Dagomys 12km (8 miles) up the Black Sea coast.

Lenin always had trouble with holidays. How to square the circle between fun and fervour? His solution was brilliant and germinated what may be the defining text of Soviet socialism. The text in question is an April 1919 decree: On Health Resorts of All-State Importance. With the stroke of a pen Lenin nationalised spas and resorts across Russia (the medicinal muds, minerals springs and salt lakes in other bits of the Soviet Union were covered by later decrees). He had also given officials free rein to seize any property they liked - just declare it good for the people's health.

And he, most importantly, had planted that most tenacious and ultimately destructive of revolutionary habits: malingering. Workers never took holidays, they took health cures. Sunbathing came with a doctor's note. Laziness became mandatory, righteous and good-for-you.

Sochi is a magnificent, enchanting monument to this great Soviet scam. Its oldest holiday villas predate the Revolution, built by nobles and industrialists after the completion of a road along the coast in 1892. The first hotel, 'The Caucasian Riviera' opened in 1909. Lenin's decree turned all such property over to the new Soviet state, ostensibly to keep workers fit, mostly to create grace-and-favour-homes and well-guarded hideaways for bureaucrats.

Some who came really were sick, like the writer Nikolai Ostrovski, author of Stalin's favourite revolutionary paen, Thus the Steel was Tempered. Ostrovski spent six years in Sochi, nursing a host of horrible illnesses. After his death in 1936, his home was turned into a shrine and a museum built next door, said to have been visited by more than 5 million people. When I stopped by, the house was deserted, the museum rented out to an art gallery. The curator had no illusions: 'Who wants to spend their holiday looking at pictures of a sick Communist.'

Much of Sochi, though, still thrives on illness, or approximations thereof. The hilltop dacha to which Stalin retired for 10 weeks in 1945 to recharge himself from the strain of the Second World War is still standing and still dedicated to stoking the spirits of weary big shots. It is part of the lugubriously named 'Green Grove Rest Home', a formerly state-run outfit recently privatised, which in this case, as in many others, means divvied up between state concerns whose bosses like to stay there. Outside guests are officially welcome. I paid a visit to the director, Svetlana Suslova, to ask for a room: 'All booked up until next year, sorry.' She promptly returned to a phone conversation about the trim for a new Mercedes limousine.

In Soviet days, every ministry had a spa in Sochi and some still do. In all, according to the last full count made in 1990, Sochi had 53 sanatoriums, 5 spa clinics, and 27 hotels. Few seem eager to admit strangers with nothing to recommend them other than a readiness to pay. Even so, more than 4 million people take their holidays here - or as the 'Sochi Handbook' prefers to put it - 'cure themselves and rest'.

Rules and tastes are changing. The old Soviet spas are passe. The place to be for members of Russia's new business class - in part because it is the only place they can be - are the Intourist Hotels built for foreigners but ready to take anyone with money. The Dagomys Tourist Complex, headquarters for the Black Sea's beautiful people, offers two strip-shows a night: 'Travel into a New Erotic World', urge posters in the lobby.

At the Zhemchuzhina Intourist in Sochi, Lenin's mania for keep-fit holidays does get an oblique nod in the form of a multi-lingual warning given all guests: 'Be sure not to swim beyond the limiting buoys. You can find yourself under a passing launch.' It need to be updated. Or a passing jetski, luxury yacht or casino ship.