The Russian prime minister’s Sochi residence isn’t marked on city maps, but everybody knows that it’s situated behind a clump of trees in Riviera Park. On one tourist map, a pictogram of a roll of toilet paper occupies the approximate location, presumably to symbolize the availability of public toilets.
Next to the park entrance stands a big mosaic of Lenin against a revolutionary red background. At the end of a concrete walkway is a monument to the staff of Sochi’s hospitals, who saved the lives of half a million Red Army soldiers during World War II. Just beyond the memorial is Residence Riviera, or Riviera-6, as the estate is officially known.
During the four years that Vladimir Putin served as prime minister – the Russian constitution bans three consecutive presidential terms – he vacated the president’s Sochi residence farther down the coast and turned Riviera-6 into his haven. It became a welcome retreat not only from Moscow’s stifling summers, but its frigid winters.
Putin’s love of Sochi is the sole reason that Russia’s only subtropical city will host the Winter Olympics. Like Peter the Great, who willed the creation of St. Petersburg on bleak swampland, Putin is determined to turn Sochi into a world-class resort.
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Residence Riviera is a white, three-story mansion in the “new Russian” style, the mish-mash of architectural references favored by a ruling elite untroubled by aesthetics. While there are Art Nouveau flourishes on the facade, the interior is neo-baroque, propped up by decorative columns and accented with gold. Construction on Riviera-6 was completed in 2006.
I visited Putin’s dacha several times while covering him as a reporter for Bloomberg News. Although Dmitry Medvedev was formally president at the time and held court at the grander Bocharov Ruchei residence, everybody understood that real power rested with Putin.
After passing through the security check at the guardhouse, journalists in Putin’s press pool would be escorted to the main building. The guards looked thuggish but were always polite. One of them wore a black leather trench coat and had a buzz cut.
We would enter through a side entrance, descend a flight of stairs and walk down a couple of corridors until we reached a long room where uniformed service staff had laid out buterbrody (open-face sandwiches), cake and juice. It was always a good idea to stock up, since Putin was typically hours behind schedule and the food went fast.
A marble tile floor, a big flat-screen TV and empty bookshelves lent the room a nouveau-riche air. A couple of armchairs were shaped like seashells; green bunches of glass grapes dangled from chandeliers decorated with gold leaves. The gilded taps in the bathroom were labeled “hot” and “cold” in English, perhaps explaining why they’d been installed in the reverse positions.
After hours of waiting, we’d finally be alerted by the friendly junior members of Putin’s press service that it was time. The press scrum would troop up the main, circular staircase to a second-floor meeting room with gilt wallpaper accented by white borders. A set of French doors opened onto a terrace facing the Black Sea.
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The first time I was in Putin’s dacha was to report on a visit by Jean-Claude Killy, the International Olympic Committee’s point-man on the Sochi games. They were supposed to meet at 9 p.m., but we weren’t led into the meeting room until 11.
Sharpened pencils and notepads with the double-eagled seal lay out at each place around a white, round table. Killy entered, then various deputies, assistants and translators. The men stood behind their assigned seats, chatting awkwardly and shifting from foot to foot.
Finally Dmitry Kozak entered the room. A short, compact man with a gravely voice, he is one of Russia’s most competent ministers and the man Putin entrusted with the thankless job of overseeing Olympic preparations. Putin followed shortly afterwards. It was 11:30 p.m. Dinner had lasted a little longer than expected.
The room was stuffy from the scrum of overheated journalists. Somebody switched on the air conditioner.
Putin read his opening statement, reassuring Killy – and himself – that everything was on track. As is his habit, Putin went into excruciating detail, reeling off how many tons of building materials were to be offloaded at the new port terminal or the specifications of a tunnel. The emphasis on just how well everything was going seemed slightly alarming.
Killy replied in the groveling manner that western European emissaries have addressed Russian czars for centuries. I wrote down only six words that I heard Killy say: “total transparence,” “totally positive” and “total confidence.”
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When things got too tight at Putin’s dacha, the press service would reserve the conference center at the Radisson, the first international hotel to open in Sochi. With its tennis courts and cypress trees, the Radisson was an island of refinement. But even here, a red-and-white striped smokestack spoiled the view of the sea.
Once I witnessed Putin’s meeting with his good friend, Silvio Berlusconi, at the Radisson. Gazprom and Eni, the Italian oil company, were making a joint announcement. The two men used the occasion to have a chat in a room attached to the restaurant.
Italy had just been jarred by the devastating earthquake in L’Aquila. As the two men sat in armchairs surrounded by journalists, Putin spoke words of condolences. During the translation, he touched the leaves of the flowers on the coffee table, as if to check whether they were real.
Berlusconi looked distinctly unreal in his dyed hair and make-up.
The next day, Putin received Reccep Tayyip Erdogan at his residence. As the Turkish prime minister was running late, Putin let Andrei Kolesnikov, the favored court reporter, take a spin in his Lada Niva off-road vehicle around the driveway. This little drive would make far more news than anything Erdogan said.
A Russian colleague who worked for a big international news agency half-jokingly told Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, that he wanted to ask about the banning of a gay pride parade in Moscow. Peskov replied that such a question might very well get him kicked out of the press pool.
When the two prime ministers finally appeared before the pack of waiting journalists, Erdogan remarked how small the meeting room was.
“At least they didn’t break anything,” Putin said.