Democracy Lab

The Sochi That We've Lost

Most visitors to the Winter Olympics will only see the giant stadiums and overpriced hotels. But some Russians are mourning the lost paradise of childhood.

SOCHI — The morning sun painted the ceiling of our grape gazebo in gentle shades of green. I remember it well. On sunny days, the contours of the cypress trees stood out starkly, as if drawn along the coast: they formed a live fence stretching along the five-kilometer footpath at the bottom of the hill, seaside Sochi's equivalent of a Jersey boardwalk. I liked to climb to the top of a marble statue of a giant lion, where I'd sit and stare out at the gently heaving expanse of the Black Sea, or teeter along the edge of a big fountain decorated with nude statues of goddesses as I watched the East German tourists stroll along the cypress-lined alley in their white linen suits. And then there was that old, heavy grapevine that drooped down next to a pool filled with red fish in the Iskra Spa Hotel. My mother discovered that living armchair when she was a little girl, and later she shared it with me. Her grapevine became my favorite hideaway during the many summers I spent in Sochi as a kid. Swinging on it, I often closed my eyes and said to myself: "Try to remember this moment of ultimate happiness."

These memories came back to me the other day, as we were driving at freeway speed down the coast along a new, perfectly illuminated, and surprisingly empty four-lane road toward the Olympic venues. An unrecognizable new Sochi in asphalt and concrete, now nicknamed "Putin's project," rose before us in the quiet evening light. The dust from Olympic construction had finally settled, along with the clanging, rasping noise of construction equipment, the daily sound track of the past four years. Sochi seemed still and deserted, as if the town itself was startled by its giant new facades, its massive bridges, its tunnels and roads.

This Friday, on the day of Olympic opening, Russia's state-owned Channel One will broadcast a film about the man who has taken full personal responsibility for transforming the city and bringing the world to Sochi: "I'm particularly pleased to see what's happening here because I personally chose this place," says President Vladimir Putin in the film. We have no reason to doubt him. So what are the subtexts, the personal motives, the secret codes revealed to us by the image of this new Sochi that owes its existence to the president?

Until recently, locals referred to Sochi as the country's main zdravnitsa, a healthy place to breathe, sunbathe, soak in sulfur baths, and rest your spirit and soul. Back when Putin's reign was just getting under way, the idea of coming to Sochi, a place strongly associated with Soviet-era tourism, looked relatively unattractive to Russians eager to take their first package trips to Egypt or Turkey. More recently, though, the cash being pumped into the world's most expensive Olympic construction project has drawn huge numbers of migrant workers, swelling the city's population by almost two-thirds, to half a million people. Moscow investors snatched up real estate in the historic downtown area, the suburbs, and the forests, while experts debated what would become of the place.

Local historian Sergei Shcherbakov has never welcomed the invasion of Moscow's money and power into Sochi's dreamy world. "Putin's Sochi has become Russia's Las Vegas, where, as if in a giant smelter, each square meter of Sochi's land has been either lost or turned into dollars," Shcherbakov told me recently. Alla Guseva, a manager of Sochi's historic museum, said that it's too early to forecast the fate of post-Olympic Sochi. "Stalin built a utopian but successful resort to show off Soviet happiness," she told me. "It's too early for us historians to predict Sochi's future. We'll have to let at least five years pass by before we can see whether the city continues to progress. For now its status is unclear."

Stalin had an ideological agenda for Sochi: he built neo-classical palaces in his Soviet Riviera in the 1930s to make the capitalist West green with envy. Local sulfur baths helped the dictator boost his constantly fading health. He ordered his star commissars to plant botanical gardens and create showcase resorts for the working class as way of demonstrating to the world that it was also possible to enjoy the dolce vita under Communism. Any Olympic visitors who want to get a sense of what he created should take a break from sports and take a taxi over to the old Kurortny Prospect, in the old city.

The five-kilometer long pedestrian footpath is still there, hidden behind the forest of rapidly growing skyscrapers. Most of the old romantic corners of the city, though, have fallen victim to the Olympic boom -- along with the milk factory that was once one of the city's proudest landmarks. It was especially appreciated by French visitors, who were big lovers of its delicious ice cream. (Yes, there were Western tourists even in the old days, too.) In spite of public protests by residents, the wave of construction has also rolled over Gastronom No. 1, the city's most famous Soviet-era grocery store. On a recent afternoon, Magomed and Ali, two Dagestani construction workers who've been participating in a makeover of the Iskra Hotel, showed me what has become of my once favorite hideaway. The building looks much the same, but my favorite grapevine has vanished, along with the red fish.

As the Olympic deadline neared, the authorities, resorting to their traditional habits, used colorful sheet metal walls to cover the signs of decay along the newly opened freeway to the site of the Games. Even the huge sulfur baths of the old Matsesta Resort, ruined by a flooding river some 20 years ago, were wrapped up in a surreal curtain adorned with paintings of mountains. The Ordzhonikidze Resort, a magnificent palace that once served as the city's calling card, continues to fall apart -- except for the two freshly painted statues at the entrance facing the road. (The rumor is that the Kremlin took over the palace as a vacation retreat for the president's staff, but ran out of money before the project was completed.) Most local people have long since had enough of Putin's Project: the endless Olympic construction, accompanied by corruption, displacement, and environmental damage. Over and over I've heard the same sentiment from the mouths of the residents: "We're tired," they say. "We just wish the Games were over."

"Waiting for the Olympics" has been Sochi's mantra for the past eight years. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, meanwhile, there is much speculation that the end of the Olympics will mark the start of a new official onslaught against the opposition. In the North Caucasus republics adjoining Sochi, the fear is of something even more sinister: a big military crackdown. Kheda Saratova, an activist in the Chechen capital of Grozny, told me that she and many others are deeply worried by the prospect of a terrorist attack at the Games. "If, God forbid, insurgents blow up a bomb in Sochi, we're afraid there will be another war," she said. "So many people are delaying their business investments until after the Olympics."

Not everyone is worried, though. On the day the Olympic torch relay neared Sochi, I paid a visit to the home of a happy family of Olympic fans. I found Anastasia Vinogradova and her family on Aviatsionnaya Avenue, just 15 minutes from the Olympic Park by car. Since the late 1970s, the Vinogradovs and their neighbors have been living in railroad cars that have been turned into houses. Surviving together in poor conditions, without central heating or hot water, the Aviatsionnaya neighborhood created a warm community of good friends and faithful troopers.

Over the years the Vinogradovs have appealed to the authorities to improve their living conditions. They've gone to court to obtain proof that their railroad car home actually belongs to them. But the courts lost their paperwork, and the case fell apart. These days the Vinogradovs have decided to simply enjoy what life is offering them. The family introduced themselves to me as tough Sochi survivors, people who don't expect the state to provide them with compensation for the hardships the Olympics have brought to their city. They've chosen to embrace the Games out of a sincere love of sports. As Anastasia and her husband proudly showed me the Russian flag they're planning to bring to the Olympic figure skating competition, their daughter climbed out of bed into her father's arms. In a few days she'll be sitting between her parents on a stadium bench, watching the best skaters in the world do their thing. I wish her the sort of memories that last a lifetime.

Mikhail Mordasov

Democracy Lab

Sochi's Bitter Medicine

Why the controversy around the Sochi Olympics could turn out to be a good thing for Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government organized the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in a way that draws international attention to the most serious problems in Russian politics. None of these problems is new. In fact, for many years these exact issues have been the focus of democracy promotion work by Russia's beleaguered civil society. While Olympic press coverage to date has focused on the potential for catastrophe, there is also the possibility that the Games will have a significant positive impact. In a best-case scenario, the Olympics will bring global scrutiny to Russia's greatest political shortcomings and energize Russian organizations working on those issues, pressuring the Russian government to begin a more open dialogue with its citizens and, eventually, to address its long-suppressed challenges.

Most prominently, the Sochi games have highlighted Russia's ongoing failure to find a solution to the deadly conflict in the North Caucasus. As police scoured Sochi last week for a suspected suicide bomber, and after the recent deadly terrorist attacks in Volgograd (a major railway hub for Russians traveling to the Olympics), the problem of unresolved ethnic and religious violence looms the largest. Following two wars between Russia and Chechnya in 1994-1996 and 1999-2005, an armed resistance movement has spread throughout Russia's North Caucasus Federal District, which is adjacent to the city of Sochi. Insurgent fighters in this region, professing a jihadi ideology, have mounted attacks resulting in hundreds of casualties among Russian security services each year, and have claimed responsibility for several major terrorist attacks, including the Beslan school massacre in 2004, the 2011 suicide bombing in a Moscow airport, and the bombings last month in Volgograd. Despite the massive resources the Russian government has devoted to counterinsurgency efforts, casualties remain high as brutal counterterrorist tactics, extreme poverty and unemployment, and official religious persecution continue to motivate new insurgent recruits.

The Olympics' timing seems almost designed to exacerbate these tensions: 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Russian empire's forced expulsion of the local Circassian people, and the Feb. 23 closing ceremonies mark to the day 70 years since Stalin government's ordered the deportation of Chechens and Ingush. (Both of these incidents caused mass deaths and are widely considered acts of genocide.)

When Putin selected Sochi for an Olympic bid in 2006, the intent behind choosing such an unsuitable site -- a subtropical resort town with minimal infrastructure in place -- was to send the confident message that Russia had pacified the North Caucasus. Subsequent events have shown the opposite to be true. Putin's strategy of resolving Chechnya's conflict through the massive use of force merely displaced the violence to neighboring regions. Now, as tens of thousands of soldiers and police turn Sochi into a fortress, the result is the same, with terrorists instead striking targets outside the Sochi security perimeter.

This is just one of many examples of how the Olympics have cast a bright light on problems they were intended to overshadow. Construction for the Games -- which included a new, 31-mile road between the two Olympic complexes, built at a cost of $8.7 billion -- has created evocative symbols of Russia's pervasive corruption. The corruption has been so blatant and extensive that even a member of the International Olympic Committee felt compelled to publicly speculate that a third of the Games' record $51 billion tag has gone to lining the pockets of Russian government officials and their cronies.

Such kleptocratic behavior is complemented by the Russian government's apparent disregard for its citizens' wellbeing, already on full display in Sochi. In building the Olympic infrastructure, the government has seized private homes, devastated the local environment, and left communities without access to regular supplies of electricity, heat, and clean drinking water. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of construction workers building stadiums, hotels, and roads have been subjected to abusive working conditions, cheated out of wages, and in the case of thousands of migrant workers, summarily deported once construction was completed.

The Russian government's response to these criticisms demonstrates yet another underlying problem: namely, its lack of respect for freedom of expression. Russian authorities have jailed environmental activists exposing Sochi's massive ecological damage, and targeted NGOs seeking to document human rights abuses connected to Olympic preparations. Fearing pushback over its recent laws institutionalizing homophobia, the government restricted permits for protest activity to a small zone in a village seven miles from any Olympic event. This repression has not been limited to Russian citizens. In November 2013, local police detained and threatened a Norwegian television crew reporting critically on Sochi, and the American journalist David Satter was banned from entering Russia for five years, a decision he attributes to his investigative reporting on wrongdoings by the Russian security services.

Much of the coverage leading up to the Olympics has questioned whether these Games, originally intended to boost Russia's reputation internationally and Putin's reputation domestically, will instead turn out to be an embarrassing failure. In fact, they could already be considered an embarrassment, given the extent to which they have highlighted the Putin regime's diverse and pervasive failings.

Yet that same embarrassment comes with some upsides: the Games have energized Russian civil society groups and given them a platform from which they can tell the world about Russia's problems, from the exposé by Alexey Navalny's organization detailing specific incidents of corruption, to the work of local environmental activists from the Sochi region. The political controversy surrounding the Games is a tribute to the hard work and courage of activists who have made these Olympics about politics as well as sports. International attention to the issues raised by Russian civil society is already yielding results: in the months before the Games, the government has pardoned some of the country's highest-profile political prisoners (including the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned members of the punk group Pussy Riot, and several defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya Case"). The increased exposure may yet help Russian activists bring about still more tangible improvements in the future.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images