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Although the Russians are not claiming to have originated the Riviera idea, they are sparing no effort in making theirs as good as anyone else's. Like postage stamps, a foreign policy, and a nuclear reactor, a Riviera is a basic appendage which no self-respecting country should be without.
The Soviet Union's own palmy playground is a Communist C�te d'Azur that stretches across the northern coast of the Black Sea from Odessa in the Ukraine, near Rumania, to Batum in Georgia, near the eastern end of Turkey. The sun beats down along much of the workers' Waikiki, palms shade it, the sea washes it and in some places there is sand to border it. Although there is little doubt that Russia, which spends a considerable time each year in a considerable drift of snow, has probably more need of a sun-swept strand than anyone else, its Riviera would hardly be Russian unless it was a good deal different from the standard model. When a Russian goes off on a holiday, he will, more than likely, choose not a hotel but a sanatorium, staffed by white-coated physicians and operated by his trade union or the government ministry which oversees his industry.
When he strolls the seaside walks, the Soviet sojourner will don striped pajamas, an item which he never wears to bed. He will, indeed, as the rumors have correctly had it, swim nude from the beach, but the sanatorium sands are segregated by sex. Although he is on vacation, he submits readily to full medical care, is served five meals a day, often sleeps in a room either in the former palace of a nobleman or in one of the massive new rest homes which are being built now, festooned with cornucopias of cement grapes and plaster mermaids, as garish as any den along the capitalistic coast of Miami Beach. Each resort has a few hotels set aside for the hard-headed Russian individualists who still prefer that their vacations be a treat instead of a treatment. And there is at least one inn at each seacoast city for foreign tourists.
Along this broad tiara is the whole Crimean peninsula with its old czarist watering places of Yalta and historical Sevastopol; down to the east are the resorts of Khosta, Gagry, Sukhumi and Russia's pride, Sochi. With its broad avenues, its manicured lawns, its trimmed green trees, Sochi could be Saratoga or White Sulphur. Its brand new cinema, patterned after the Parthenon, faces a park planted with speckled plane trees and palms, lined with pink gravel walks and decorated with a white statue of Lenin. It has a theater that looks like the Parthenon too, and in the summertime troupes come down from Moscow to play the Soviet straw-hat circuit.
It is quite obvious that Sochi, which Russia took over from independent mountain rule in 1864, has been tapped for development as the nation's prime resort. Although it was a favorite of Stalin's, it probably won't be downgraded. For one thing, it has natural therapeutic waters, the 20-year building program begun in 1935 is almost finished, and besides, the weather is too good.
In 1952 the Kremlin dispatched the Soviet architect Dushkin, a designer of the Moscow subway, to create a new railroad station. He obliged with a depot marked by a spired tower which grows out of a clump of palms. A clock clanks out the time while the trains rumble in from Moscow, 1,250 miles and 49 rail hours away. Aeroflot's two-motored Convair-type aircraft can make it in six hours, landing at nearby Adler, an airport still equipped with a wartime steel landing mat, and decorated with an avenue of palms, life-sized, silver-coated statues of an aviator and an aviatress flanking the door, and a pre-revolution vintage doorman with an immense handle-bar mustache.
Tourists who take one of the six new cruise ships that ply the ports of the Black Sea can debark at Sochi's brand new quay, marked by a stained-glass spire. Outside, gunboats bob in the sea, freighters from Odessa slip silently into port, blue speedboats filled with vacationers churn out of the harbor and Soviet citizens clutching net bags filled with black bread and Bulgarian oranges stop to watch the sea gulls.
The ships that cruise the Black Sea are new. They were built in East Germany since the war, apparently as reparations. Each carries about 400 passengers who in summer lounge in deck chairs, swim in the open-air pool and dance away the nights under a canvas roof. In the gigantic dining room a Marxist society pervades, but the sleeping quarters are divided by classes. The 13 de luxe suites come equipped with phone, radio, couch and chairs and a tiled bath complete with toilet, bidet, bathtub and washstand. The 23 first-class cabins have washstands but no toilet. Stops are made at Odessa, Yevpatoriya, Sevastopol, Yalta, Novorossisk, Tuapse, Sochi, Sukhumi, Poti and Batum.
The Riviera notion began in Sochi as early as 1905 when the resort built its first hotel and called it the Casino Riviera. In 1919 Lenin signed a decree asking for the development of health resorts all over the Soviet Union and turning summer villas and hotels over to the state. Sochi's first sanatorium, built in 1925, was called Red Moscow. There are now four hotels in town and no fewer than 58 sanatoriums. Although some are christened after such Russian heroes as Voroshilov, the newer ones have been given more restful names such as the Caucasian Riviera and the New Riviera. A coal miner, for instance, can vacation at 1,600 rubles ($400 at the present rate of exchange) for 24 days in a giant phantasmagoria of arches and porches. In the center of the sanatorium of the Ministry of Coal Mining, four mermaids clutch their cement bosoms while supporting a fountain on which six nude nymphs cavort. Cypress trees and a funicular run down to the segregated sea. On a nearby slope is the sanatorium for tired workers of Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper.
Not nearly such grand quarters are as yet available for the tourist. A site has been chosen—a block from the sea—for a new 200-room Intourist hotel in Sochi. The first 100 rooms will be built this year. In the meantime foreign visitors are being billeted in the Primorsky (Seaside) Hotel which was finished in 1952 and has 80 rooms, 20 of them with bath. A jerry-built affair that has aged long before its time, the Primorsky is, all the same, adequate and passably comfortable, with terraces that look to the sea and a walk leading down to a small stone beach. Swimming in Sochi begins in mid-May, but July and August are called the silk season, and the fall—swimming is good until October—is the velvet season.