Democracy Lab

Russia's Olympic City

Russia is pushing ahead with its projects for the 2014 Winter Olympics. But not everyone is happy.

SOCHI, Russia — Six-year-old Kirill Dragan looked on silently as the wall grew. Just a few days earlier the spot where workers were stacking up cinderblocks on layers of mortar had been a roadway lined with the flowerbeds and grape trellises owned by Kirill's parents and 12 other families. But then the bulldozers and trucks moved in, submerging it all in dust and concrete. The boy watched as heavy machines dug holes, dumped mounds of gravel and sand, and unloaded more and more concrete blocks. The giant construction site for the 2014 Winter Olympics spreads all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains on the horizon.

"Help! SOS! They're walling off people alive in here," reads a red banner stretched across the roof of Kirill's apartment building on Acacia Street.

For months, this neighborhood of dilapidated houses has been trying to fight back the tide of construction and cynical threats from officialdom. If you were wondering why a topless, obscenity-yelling woman protestor saw the need to confront Russia's president about human rights violations during his trip to Germany earlier this week, all you have to do is come to Sochi.

You'll find many people with reasons to yell at Putin here. The rising concrete wall (set to be 12 feet high upon completion) is about to cut off Acacia Street's view of the mountains -- and, indeed, of the rest of the world. During rainstorms, bulldozers push mud into residential courtyards, where the dirty water floods residents' basements, destroying floors and furniture. Mold is creeping up the walls in homes, filling the air with a rotten-garbage smell. Last month, Sochi City Hall filed a lawsuit against Acacia Street inhabitants who haven't been willing to demolish their own outhouses, kitchens, and water pumps that happen to be in the way of the construction of a new federal highway.

Russian authorities are resettling over 2,000 families who happened to live in the path of huge Olympic projects. But there are many others who have received zero compensation, and continue to wait in vain for new apartments from the state. The people whose lives have been turned upside down by Olympic development have been given no alternatives. They've never received a word of explanation from government officials about the rationale for destroying their homes. On Ternovaya Street in nearby Chereshnya, construction of Olympics-related power lines has triggered landslides, resulting in severe damage to homes, including collapsed walls and cracks in foundations. No one has ever apologized. People were expected to submit to this treatment without a squeak. "We're concerned that all of the authorities involved on both the local and federal level are not respecting the basic rights and human dignity of these families, including many small children," said Jane Buchanan, a Human Rights Watch representative who recently visited Sochi.

"We're stuck in a ghetto between two highways and a railroad without water, without fresh air, without a single patch of land for our kids to play on," Sochi resident Nadezhda Kurovskaya told me. "And then, on top of all that, they sue us, the poorest of the poor." Last week, Kurovskaya's grandson accidently fell up to his shoulders in a pond of liquid concrete. Luckily, neighbors pulled the child out before he sank -- though his rubber boots remained buried in the gray mush.

So what precisely is happening to Sochi, a place of palm trees and beaches that generations of Russians once viewed as the ultimate spot to get away from it all? Back in Soviet days, thousands of people escaped here from the dark Siberian winters and colorless industrial cities to see magnolias in bloom, listen to birds sing, relax on the beach, and recover their health and psychological well-being in Russia's only tropical resort. State-funded vacations typically lasted for weeks. And though not many local residents of Sochi had stable jobs, they were proud to hear visitors even from places like Moscow and St. Petersburg sigh and pronounce: "It's like paradise." (You might ask why a place with such a balmy climate was chosen precisely for the Winter Olympics. Russian officials respond by pointing to the nearby Caucasus Mountains, which boast considerable snowfall during the winters. If natural winter proves insufficient, the authorities have promised unspecified "innovative technical solutions" to make up the slack.)

As I visited Sochi this week -- a city where I, too, spent every summer of my childhood -- I found a city choked by traffic jams, dust, and construction. The seaside embankment of the once proud Soviet Riviera is now crowded by small shops selling low-quality goods. The lush gardens along the seashore have given way to monstrous, half-built skyscrapers.

For years I've been watching the demolition of old neighborhoods in Moscow and in my hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. But it's in Sochi that the change is most shocking of all. I almost screamed when I saw my favorite beach: The tropical park has been replaced by sky-high piles of concrete blocks. "This city is pure hell now," my friend Galia told me. "Money has taken over Sochi. They've beaten all the beauty and the love out of our city." A professional tour guide who's dedicated her life to attracting tourists to Sochi, Galia now wants to run away from home. 

Even the birds have changed their mind about Sochi. In spite of the endless protests of ecologists, the central government in Moscow is building an Olympic Park for next February's games in Imeretinskaya Valley, a marshy flatland by the sea that offers a unique habitat to more than 200 species of migrating birds. Every year, swans, storks, and pelicans come here to enjoy the clear water of the lakes. Now, the lakes -- which are internationally recognized as a crucial ecological site -- are disappearing beneath the mud and noise and messy turmoil of Olympic Park construction. Both Greenpeace  and the World Wildlife Fund  have protested the damage to the area; three years ago a United Nations body expressed concern about the construction's effect on the local environment. Young Sochi activists have already documented the ecological consequences of Olympic development: dead dolphins on the beaches, trout dying in the rivers, swans swimming in the sea instead of their lake. But their whistle-blowing goes unheard, since many in Sochi (above all officials and businesses) profiting from the city's Olympic status the city. The government says that of the $30 billion poured into Sochi, only $6.6 billion is going straight into Olympic construction. The rest is supposed to benefit the city as a whole. And it's certainly true that there are new apartment buildings, shopping malls, and stores spring up wherever you look. But critics believe that as much as half of the money is going into the pockets of corrupt officials and businessmen.

Unlike the migrating birds, the families of Acacia Street have no other place to go. In vain they've sent letters to President Vladimir Putin, posted petitions on his Facebook page, and even trooped off to protest at his well-guarded official residence in Sochi. Their letters to the Kremlin were sent back to officials in the local, Moscow-appointed government. Those officials told them: "The more you complain, the worse you'll have it." Putin never responded, and the construction has continued, unimpeded.

Last weekend, with the initial phase of construction underway for a new federal highway running right on their property, Kirill's family called the police. "Somebody should stop them, they're destroying our property!" they reported. But the message the Acacia Street community received from the police was more than clear, as resident Yulia Saltykova told me: "He told us that this Putin is holding is hand over everything that's happening here. This is what Putin wants."    

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

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