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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Black Sea Coast
Russia’s Black Sea coastline stretches from the border with Georgia to the border with Ukraine, from the disputed and mountainous Abkhazia to the eerie and flat Taman Peninsula, from the lush sub-tropical south to the cold and foggy north — all in less than 500 kilometers. Since the Bronze Age, this area has seen many invasions and occupations, creating an archaeological and ethnic jigsaw puzzle, and has since the middle of the 20th century, been Russia’s most popular resort area.
Text and photos Piers Gladstone

The Caucasus Mountains looming over the sub-tropical resort of Sochi are framed in a sky of blue and bathed in the glorious golden sunshine of a winter’s late afternoon. From the air they look like a churning sea of cream, frozen in a tempestuous moment of time. From the ground, they are a veritable wall, the top half snow-capped, the bottom half dark rock. Imposing, powerful, impregnable. The air is fragrant and clean. Palm trees and evergreens sit alongside the autumnal rust reds of more northerly species, all the while backdropped by the forested foothills and snowy peaks of monumental mountains that have already welcomed the next season.

A young cyclist in front of Sochi’s Primorsk Hotel

The rays of the setting sun turn the pastel yellow of Sochi’s Primorskaya Hotel to a deep gold. On the promontory in front, overlooking the Black Sea, people sit quietly and contemplatively on benches among the manicured gardens, facing out across the waters. A lone boat slowly slips through the liquid gold. The stillness and tranquility is interrupted by the occasional clank from a nearby construction site. A young woman gently rocks the pushchair next to her bench, while another hurries after a whirring electric mini-car as it veers off towards some bushes. Mauves, crimsons, violets, lilacs, and golds melt and merge above the horizon. Streaks of thin clouds and vapor trails angle across the sky, caught by a remembrance of the colors just seen. The sea becomes an oil slick of color, a mirror of this slow, lingering end-of-day symphony.

Completed in 1952, Sochi Railway Station was designed by Alexander Dushkin, famous for his Moscow metro stations such as Kropotkinskaya and Mayakovskaya. It exudes the same sense of imperial power that many of Sochi’s sanatoria such as Rus and Ordzhonikidze do. Its columned and colonnaded grandeur and magnificence are a fitting welcome to the millions who came, and still come, to Sochi from all over the former Soviet Union for rest and treatments at the plethora of sanatoria nestled along the coastline.

Today, the station is bathed in a winter’s morning sunshine. It is a Saturday and the station is unusually quiet and still. The benches by the terminal building are occupied with those waiting for the Sochi — Kiev express. Feathers flutter down from the roosting pigeons in the basrelief alcoves. A young woman sits on a bench slowly looking through a photo album while the young man on the next bench cleans his shoes. An old man checks and re-packs his food for the journey as pigeons swoop down to feed on pastry crumbs by his feet. When the train arrives, the passengers make their way to their carriages, have their tickets checked by the uniformed attendants, and climb aboard. An old woman waits on the platform, standing in front of the window that her husband sits by. As the train slowly pulls out, she waves until the carriage has passed, then turns and walks slowly toward the exit while pigeons swoop overhead, their shadows sweeping across the platform around her.


Orzhonikidze Sanatorium, Sochi

The Sochi-Touapse train travels at a leisurely pace. To the left of the carriage window is the permanency and tranquility of the glassy Black Sea. To the right, the permanency and power of the Caucasus Mountains. The sea is calm, its non-tidal surface textured in different places by localized breezes. The winter sun coming through the carriage window is warm and the gentle rhythms of the train soothingly hypnotic. The pebbled beach is sparsely populated with the occasional walkers or lone exercise- takers, but every pier extending into the waters is colonized by people fishing, silhouetted and undefi ned in the sun’s reflection on the water.

North of the resort of Dagomys a sense of abandonment appears on the coastline. The train stops at the small station of Anchor Creek, set among the golden autumnal trees. Close to the platform stands Titanic Discotheque, a roof-terraced art deco concrete monument to a time of former glory and social desire, left to its crumbling fate.

Every few kilometers the train crosses small bridges straddling streams that have made their way down to the Black Sea. The train snakes and winds around the curves of coves, hugging the lower reaches of the foothills stretching down to the seashore. High above, lines of trees march over the hilltops while cars parade along the road hewn out of the hillsides. All along the coastline melancholic buildings are crumbling away while new ones are being built. Here, Russia is being given a new lease of life, is being reconstructed away from the past. Destruction and construction coexist, like some kind of Hindu god.

The train passes Mediterraneanstyle stations, one bearing the name and a bust of Ivan Lazarev (1820-1878), “the Conqueror of the Caucasus.” The bust is flanked by four palm trees that appear to be guarding him, while he faces the passing trains imperiously and impassively. On the other side of the tracks, people chop wood in a ramshackle village. Immediately after, the train crosses a series of iron bridges spanning stony riverbeds and flood plains; the rivers meander, as if in no hurry to end their journeys. Men shovel silt from beside a river into a trailer attached to their car. A man in swimming trunks juggles large pebbles on the beach while two little girls inspect rock pools. High above, brightly colored houses with traditional white trim look out over the scene.


Soviet monument, Sochi

At first light fishermen arrive at the sea wall at Touapse, all wrapped up against the cold, carrying their rods, fold-up seats, and small boxes to hold their catch. They line the length of the promenade, silhouetted against the early morning sun, their long rods moving rhythmically up and down like some strange multi-legged spider. They are featureless in this light and blend into an inhuman mass, becoming a giant sea urchin whose tentacles are constantly moving.

The line of men faces out to sea, as if in worship, the bowing of their heads as they remove the small fish from their lines accentuating this devotional image. Their breath and exhalations of smoke rise up above them. Behind them two young boys ride their bikes, pedaling furiously, while an old woman sweeps the pavement with a bird’s nest broom. At regular intervals the coal train bisects the promenade from the rest of Touapse as it makes its gradual way towards the port and the slow industrial ballet of cranes that hang like fingers broken at the knuckle. This is a working city, but with a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.

In 1943, a small landing party of Soviet soldiers arrived at the port city of Novorossiysk, holding up the German offensive for 225 days before a decisive counter-offensive was launched by the Soviet army. As a consequence, Novorossiysk was almost entirely destroyed, and today the city that now nestles between the mountains and the deepwater port is modern and heavily industrial. Everything is covered in a thin film of gray dust courtesy of a cement factory. Even the air smells of cement.

Novorossiysk not only houses part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it is also one of the country’s most important ports, feeding much of southern Russia with the goods it requires. Huge ships in dock are unloaded, while others dot the horizon, waiting their turn. Empty trucks wait to be loaded, while others labor away with a container to unknown destinations. Busloads of workers arrive for the nightshift, while those who have finished their day’s work stare with the blankness of exhaustion, their faces framed by the bus window and illuminated by the light inside.

Touapse cranes

Taman ice

Even in the fading light, Novorossiysk train station stands out as an anomaly in this gray, industrial, and dirty city. It is clean, freshly painted in a white and blue livery and, more surprisingly, it dates from before the city was razed to the ground during World War II. A series of monolithic grain silos stand behind the station, domineeringly overlooking it and the goods yard where track upon track is lined with freight wagons. Plumes of smoke from Novorossiysk’s factories drift across the city in unison, mirrored by the smaller chimneys of the coal boilers in each carriage of the Novorossiysk — Vladikavkaz express.

It immediately feels colder on entering the Taman peninsula. The landscape becomes shrouded in dense fog. Out of this blanket of fog appears a magical and fairy tale sight: rows of trees entirely covered in a cryogenic frost. Up to 10 centimeters of ice has accumulated on the trees’ branches, streamlined like airplanes’ wings sheering off in the slipstream of the thin branches. Large branches sway awkwardly and stiffly in the damp wind, creaking and cracking. The weight of these beautiful and surreal ice formations is such that branches break off under their unnatural burden. Stark contrasts abound: bright green and dark brown freshly plowed fields, sand-colored grass, black asphalt, and the white frozen trees, all in a succession of symmetrical lines of color. As the temperature slowly rises, the ice melts, losing its grip, and falls softly in piles around the base of the trees.

Lenin in a sub-tropical setting, Sochi

The Taman Peninsula is a desolately haunting place. Vast swathes of it are seemingly devoid of humanity, with the occasional Cossack settlement scattered here and there, its houses painted in traditional blue and white with ornately decorated window frames. The streets are clean and the houses well kept, their fences decorated and their gardens planted with flowers. There is a sense of community, a pride in where and how they live, in the independent spirit that has always been the hallmark of the Cossack way of life.

The opening sentence to Lermontov’s Taman states, “Taman is the foulest hole among all the sea-coast towns of Russia.” While the modern-day town of Taman seems to have changed since the 1830s, the peninsula’s haunting atmosphere and last-outpost feel, captured by Lermontov, has not. As the freight-only train line travels down the narrowing spit toward the last stop at Port Kavkaz, it passes communities seemingly untouched by time; stations such as Taman have not seen passengers for years. The spit’s finger touches two seas, the Sea of Azov on one side and the Black Sea on the other. It is a fitting place for a border zone between Russia and Ukraine. A no-man’s land, disconnected and strange, yet with a unique magic.

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