The Sochi Project: Documenting the run up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in a city with no snow


by Sally Ashley-Cound

Building of Olympic Stadium, Sochi

Building of Olympic Stadium, Sochi

In 2007, what would become the most expensive Olympic Games in history was announced. Sochi, on the banks of the Black Sea and known as the Florida of Russia – complete with palm trees and sandy beaches – would host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

The story caught the attention of filmmaker and writer Arnold van Bruggen and photographer Rob Hornstra and over the last four years they have produced The Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucausus, as well as an extensive document online – The Sochi Project – which is published in Dutch, English and Russian. In a discussion with BBC Radio Current Affairs presenter Lucy Ash at the Frontline Club on Friday 1 November, van Bruggen and Hornstra spoke about why they were attracted to documenting the area of Sochi.

“It was flabbergasting,” van Bruggen said:

“. . . a modern winter games on a subtropical sea coast right next to Abkhazia, this desolate ruined country. Right right on the other side of the mountains you have all these other republics where there’s an insurgency going on . . . it’s a region full of contrast.

 

“Everything had to be built from scratch, so they built a new airport, they built a new freight harbour, new roads, new tunnels, all the stadiums, the media village, the sports village, the hotels – everything had to be built from scratch. . . . In the end there has been built a new city next to old Sochi.

 

“The most expensive road in the world – $8 billion. Russian Esquire made this brilliant graphic that you can also make the road in 13cm of Hennessy Cognac or 10cm of Louis Vuitton bags, or black caviar.”

But what do the people living in Sochi think about the huge investment? Van Bruggen:

“They were surprised as well and proud of course, but . . . in 2009 already people were bothered by huge traffic jams, huge construction and huge amount of noise and dust. . . . One side was quite positive, ‘This is our chance – there will be billions of dollars invested in our town.’ The other side is, ‘Will we be destroyed by too much success?’”

Over the mountains the story is very different as the games have had no effect, except for an increase in violence and retaliation against North Caucasus-based separatist groups.

Hornstra:

“The Russians try to put a lot of pressure on these insurgents and on this whole situation . . . but there was probably [an] unexpected counter reaction which only increased the violence.”

Police check points, raids, arrests, imprisonments and evidence of torture on captives have led to a rise in retaliation against the forces, Hornstra said:

“At a certain point you understand why people are so angry over there, why they are so desperate, why they probably so desperate that they think like ‘I don’t care about anything anymore’.”

With the Olympics taking place just a day’s drive away, Ash asked: Was there any hope that they could help tourism, trade and increase jobs in the North Caucasus too?

“No.” Van Bruggen said categorically. “I never heard that Sochi Olympics are an opportunity for the North Caucasus.” Similarly, Abkhazia will not profit from the Games so close to its borders, because:

“They didn’t promote themselves. They didn’t try to get any further diplomatic recognition for anything connected to these games, somehow to profile themselves as ‘We’re the country bordering the Olympic Games.’ . . . And of course maybe they already knew that during the games their country will be completely cut off from Sochi because the border will be closed [for security reasons].”

Despite the physical obstacles between Sochi in Russia and the country of Abkhazia, The Sochi Project treats both areas as part of the same region, something that many Russians don’t. Van Bruggen said:

“Some people in Sochi said ‘How can you insert the North Caucuses in the Sochi Project? We’re like the southern suburb of Moscow and they’re a wild rural, strange, violent region, which is completely not connected to us.’ But of course there’s only one mountain between these two regions and we see it as one. . . . In Russia that’s not a normal thing to do. . . . That’s one of the main discussion points around the project.”

Watch the full discussion below.