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Ever since Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s successful bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the people of Sochi have been under siege from planners and politicians who insist the transformation of the city will improve their lives and be a massive boost for the Russian economy. Not all of them believe it. Photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen, both from the Netherlands, have spent the past six years in the northern Caucasus. These photographs from their Sochi Project, taken between 2009 and 2013, together with their captions, give a glimpse of the place and its people
The protesters, 2009
Geologists, lawyers, environmentalists and concerned citizens, photographed at the city’s Geographic Society. At this fortnightly gathering, discussions ranged over the latest Olympic plans and how to limit the environmental damage, contest the forced removals – and ultimately keep the Games out of Sochi, at least partially. They talked hopefully about the possibility of moving the ice-skating rinks further north, at least to a city where it is cold in the winter. Then off they would go, carrying files bulging with cases on land ownership, expropriation, protected trees and theories about underground lakes that in due course would swallow the skating rinks whole.
Katya Primakova, Adler, Sochi region, 2009
Katya was one of the first people we met in Sochi. She was our guide and driver in this changing city – and she hated the change. While driving us around she would make cynical comments on the developments taking place in Sochi, always directed at the government and the Olympic Games. Before 2007 there had been a semblance of a protest against the havoc that the Games threatened to bring, Katya said. Then Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov arrived. He placated the protesters and the initial momentum was never regained. Katya had worked her way up from a florist to a journalist at the local paper, and had gone on to study law.
Fast-forward to 2013. The infrastructure for the Games is almost complete. Katya has just had her fourth child, and now works for the Games: she has an administrative job at one of the larger companies operating in the area. She looks at us slyly as she admits her change of direction. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” she says.
Natalya Shorogova, Sochi, 2011
Each level in Sochi’s high-rise Hotel Zhemchuzhina has its own floor lady, who oversees the correct use of the rooms, monitors which guests come and go, and takes laundry home to supplement her income. Natalya was our favourite, not only because of her eye-catching appearance but also because she had turned her floor into a second living room, with warm words on arrival and motherly advice on departure. One evening we decided to go to the 24-hour restaurant. A middle-aged Russian crooner sang until 11.30pm, then seven striptease dancers took over. We were surprised that the women in the audience (there were many married couples) were not at all offended. When we got back, Natalya was waiting. Seeing that we had been drinking, she nodded amiably to us. “Good night!” we called back exuberantly as we staggered into our wood-panelled rooms.
Ivan, Adler, Sochi region, 2010
While the cost of the Olympics is expected to rise to a staggering $50bn, the Games’ lowliest employees are barely paid. Riots broke out in 2010 and movies shot on mobile phones, showing the appalling conditions in the workers’ villages, went viral on YouTube. Ivan had slept in a cowshed next to a construction site for weeks. “Our boss changes every month,” he said. “He receives a certain amount from his superiors, or one of their subcontractors, and makes sure most of it goes into his own pocket. So it’s completely unclear to us where we should collect our pay.” He was trying to buy a bus ticket back to his family in Azov, a nearby town. Most of the victims of poor treatment were migrant workers from central Asia with fewer rights and less courage to stand up for themselves. They continued working, in the hope that everything would be all right.
The beach, Adler, Sochi region, 2011
The railway line from Sochi to Sukhum in Abkhazia hugs the coast. Behind it rise the hotel-style sanatoriums of Adler. Ordinary hotel rooms are marginally cheaper, which is immediately apparent on Adler’s seafront. The beach is full of overweight bodies sweating beer and spirits, bare torsos, noisy eaters surrounded by drunken bluster and tacky music. The locals have little choice but to put up with the visitors. Well-heeled Russians take refuge in Sochi’s fancier hotels or opt for Italy, Turkey or Thailand. The Games may bring a level of quality that will discourage cheap tourism, but more likely the city will just become more expensive, chaotic and crowded.
Sanatorium, Matsesta, Sochi region, 2009
Matsesta, a village just inland from Sochi, is renowned for its sulphur baths – its name means “fire water”. There is a treatment for every ailment and busloads of visitors arrive each day to improve their health. Outside the sanatorium an entire industry has developed of old ladies selling honey, herbal teas and birch-bark scenes. Young Dima had burned his legs at his parents’ barbecue party and his doctor prescribed a visit to Matsesta. The treatment involved sitting with his burned legs under running sulphurous water for six minutes, three times a day. His nurse said that any longer and the remedial effects of the water would be worse than the complaint.
Stadiums, Adler, Sochi region, 2012
More than 70,000 labourers – among them tens of thousands of migrant workers – have built the Winter Olympic venues, including these two ice-hockey stadiums in the Coastal Cluster of Sochi.
Rosa Khutor, Sochi region, 2013
Rosa Khutor is an alpine ski resort in the Krasnaya Polyana valley, 25 miles from Sochi. Its main investor is Vladimir Potanin, an oligarch who has put $2.2bn into the development.
‘The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus’, by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen (Aperture, £50), launches at the Paris Photo fair this weekend; photographs from the book are on display at the FotoMuseum, Antwerp, Belgium, until March 2 2014.
For more information visit www.thesochiproject.org