How Stalin Planted Seed For Sochi Olympics
Sochi became a health resort destination under dictator Joseph Stalin.
May 21, 2012 --
Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the recently released film, "The Dictator," is an impetuous, outlandish, anti-western tyrant. Cohen's character might be a fictional farce from the invented North African country of Wadiya, but Aladeen is an all-too-familiar figure. In fact, the movie is so true-to-life that Tajikistan, an oppressive Central Asian nation, banned it from distribution. Explore the over-the-top antics of other despots past and present. Despite their often humorous idiosyncrasies, all of these men are guilty of committing grave acts of violence and terror against their own people.
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It's almost a shame -- almost, but not quite -- that former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi did not live long enough to see "The Dictator." He might have found a kindred spirit in Aladeen. Like Aladeen, Gaddafi traveled with an entourage of female bodyguards, some 40 in total and all alleged virgins. He also shipped his pet camels with him wherever he went. Gaddafi's beard might not be quite as full as Aladeen's, but the two clearly shared similar ideas on fashion. From something that looks like it came out of the disco era to the "King of Africa" look to his military uniform, Gaddafi had an assortment of styles for just about any occasion.
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Although Cohen's character is the spitting image of Gaddafi, his movie is actually a loose adaptation of a book, "Zabibah and the King," anonymously published by another fallen tyrant, Saddam Hussein. The romance novel is an anti-western allegory of the relationship between the United States and Iraq. Hussein believed in the power of myth to enhance his own legitimacy while in power in Iraq. He even claimed to be the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian king who built the Hanging Gardens and destroyed the temple of Solomon after razing Jerusalem.
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An entire tome could be dedicated to the pure insanity that was Kim Jong Il. But for the sake of giving other dictators some room to shine, here are just a handful of some of Kim's crazier concepts: -- Like Cohen's character, Kim was one impressive athlete, particularly when it came to golf. He reportedly shot three to four hole-in-ones every time he played. -- When forced to quit smoking for health reasons, Kim banned cigarettes in North Korea. -- "The Dear Leader" claimed he could control the weather. -- The former head of North Korea alleged that he never had to use the bathroom ever. -- Kim was the world's largest single consumer of Hennessy, spending a quarter million dollars on the cognac every year. Feel free to add your favorite Kim moments in the comments section below.
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Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga ruled over what was once known as Zaire (today called the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for more than 30 years until he was overthrown in a rebellion. During his decades in office, he ruled with brutality and made himself rich in the process. He was also paranoid about maintaining his status and nurtured a personality cult by placing his portrait anywhere and everywhere. Every news broadcast in the country would begin featuring him descending from the clouds. During his reign, newscasters were also not permitted to mention anybody else by name except Mobutu. Anyone else had to be referred to by their titles.
President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, Idi Amin was not only brutal, responsible for the deaths of upwards of half a million people; he was also delusional. The self-proclaimed "King of Scotland," for which the film based on his life, "The Last King of Scotland," drew its name, had no shortage of self-appointed honors during his reign. His full title with which he was supposed to be properly addressed was: "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular." If that wasn't enough, rumors even circulated that Amin also practiced cannibalism.
This giant gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, which rotates to follow the path of the sun, is part of the legacy of a man who ruled Turkmenistan for 16 years. During his time in power, Niyazov was behind a number of bizarre laws and decrees, including banning men from growing beards, outlawing women newscasters wearing makeup, and prohibiting people from listening to car radios. In 2004, Niyazov commissioned an ice palace "grand enough for 1,000 people," despite the fact that the desert country has one of the warmest climates on Earth. The palace was intended to be built to supposedly teach children to ski, according to a statement from Niyazov.
Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, president of Haiti for nearly 14 years until his death, claimed he was the physical embodiment of the country he ruled. He is credited with reviving voodoo in the island nation, and went so far as to claim he was a priest chosen by God and spirits. Because he believed his political opponents had the ability to transform into black dogs, he ordered the slaughter of all black canines in the country. That act of cruelty, however, pales in comparison to the some 30,000 Haitians he's responsible for killing for political reasons.
Gnassingbé Eyadéma held onto power for longer than any other dictator on this list, ruling over the African nation of Togo for nearly 38 years. That gave him plenty of time to develop his own eccentric personality cult. Eyadéma commissioned and published a comic book in which he was a superhero with powers akin to Superman. His entourage included 1,000 women who danced for him and sang his praises. When Eyadéma survived an assassination attempt, he declared the day the "Feast of Victory Over Forces of Evil."
Mao Zedong may still have a reputation as a hero among the People's Republic, but history tells a different tale. Fashioning himself as a kind of great philosopher, Mao's ideas and policies make him responsible for more deaths of his own people than any other leader in the 20th century, with upwards of 70 million deaths caused by his two greatest disasters: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Instituted between 1958 and 1961, the Great Leap Forward was intended to turn China from an agricultural nation to an industrial nation virtually overnight. Farmers were taken from fields and placed into steel mills. As a result, the effort only yielded low-quality iron, and the country suffered from widespread famine. This catastrophic failure marginalized Mao's position, but thanks to the popularity he enjoyed among younger generations, he came back with another major policy campaign, the Cultural Revolution. Essentially, Mao declared war on intellectuals and economic elites, pushing them into prisons and forced labor camps. Mao was the head of the country's political establishment for over 30 years. He believed the secret to longevity was having sex with virgins and regularly shipped women in from all over the country. Over his lifetime, he is believed to have slept with over 1,000 young women to increase his own life span.
Unlike most despot who were thrown out of power or died in office, Ne Win, who ruled Burma for 26 years, is a rarity in that he actually resigned from office. That one moment of self-insight doesn't make him any less delusional, however. Ne Win believed that the secret to regaining his youth was to bath in dolphin blood. He was so superstitious and such a strong believer in numerology that his views affected the country's currency. The country's banknotes, the kyat, were issued in denominations that were multiples of nine, his lucky number. His resignation didn't improve conditions for the Burmese, however. In fact, protests followed his retirement, and some 10,000 Burmese were killed in a brutal act of suppression.
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A Russian leader embarks on a crash-course program to transform a sleepy Black Sea town into a world-class resort. Billions of rubles are spent on remaking the city and the landscape in just a few years. Elites flock to the region, while local residents complain they are pushed aside. Sochi 2014? How about Sochi 1936?
It was actually Josef Stalin who put Sochi on the map back in the 1930s. Back then it was a quiet town where he kept a private house, or dacha. Stalin liked Sochi's sub-tropical climate so much that he decided to make it into the Soviet Union’s premier health resort.
During his nearly 30-year rule, he poured in millions of rubles to lay down sewage and electricity lines, a tree-lined boulevard (named Stalin Prospect) a new theater and dozens of spa facilities housing more than 9,000 tourists, according to historian Anne Gorsuch at the University of British Columbia.
"It had everything to be a prime health resort," Gorsuch said. "It was a spa, a healing location."
Sochi was a spa in the European tradition, a destination where people flocked to cure ailments like rheumatism or tuberculosis, hoping that mineral water and mud baths, fresh air, exercise and sunshine would cure what modern medicine could not.
Stalin's private home, like Putin's getaway mansions in Sochi, was a place to escape the cold weather and political pressures of Moscow. Gorsuch said that Stalin was nervous about his security and build a bullet-proof, high-backed couch where he would relax in safety.
Stalin's mid-1930s Sochi building boom could also be seen as a way to develop one of the Soviet Union’s poorest regions. Sound familiar?
Some observers believe current Russian president Vladimir Putin is doing the same thing, turning the world’s spotlight on Sochi's Olympic Games as a way of claiming domination over the troubled Chechen republic, where Islamic militants have been battling Russian forces for the past decade and which is just a few hundred miles away.
"Putin would like to return Russia to the top table of European and world powers," said James Harris, history professor at the University of Leeds in England. "It's important to him that Russia participate politically (less so in sporting terms) among leading powers and be perceived as doing so. For him, that is worth spending billions."
In the years after Stalin's reign, which ended upon his death in 1953, Sochi became a Soviet resort for the masses. Pensioners and the elderly received subsidized air fare and hotel visits for the baths and beaches.
And today under Putin, Sochi again has gotten a huge influx of construction money, world attention and perhaps a legacy for a Russian leader, according to David Brandenberger, associate professor of history at the University of Richmond. He says Putin is following the path of a long line of Soviet and Russian leaders who see their legacy as massive building projects or infrastructure, rather than social welfare of the Russian people. Costs at Sochi have topped $51 billion, more than all previous Winter Olympics combined.
"The frantic and shock pace which Sochi was developed in the late 1920s and 1930s, we can see an echo of it now," Brandenburg said. "The initial stages went sluggishly, then as soon as it became a state priority for Putin, huge state resources thrown at it. Many of these ideas about majesty and triumphalism and mass experience remain. It's a good excuse to refit Sochi for the next century."