'Like the Florida of Russia, but Cheaper'

A fascinating new book offers an inside glimpse of Sochi, which will host the Winter Olympics in February.

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Rob Hornstra

Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen want to explain the Caucasus to us. They've been traveling there off and on since 2009 to tell the story of the war torn, post-Soviet region.

That includes Sochi, the Russian summer resort town suddenly famous for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. Despite winning the bid nearly seven years ago, few outside of Russia or the former USSR territories around it understand Sochi's complicated history and culture. 

Hornstra and van Bruggen have helped put the pieces together for an English-speaking audience with their 392-page book, The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus. Both Dutch, Hornstra's photographs and van Bruggen's writing offer an up-close look at every aspect of daily life in the city, from its old sanatoriums (Lenin's palaces for the proletariat), to the many individuals whose lives have been altered by the constant religious and military conflicts. 

Russia has poured billions of dollars into new infrastructure for the upcoming Games. But despite the Olympic Village, the athletic facilities, and western-friendly restaurants and hotels, Hornstra and van Bruggen say little has changed. They've certainly not seen the kind of sweeping re-branding Vladimir Putin would like for an area that has struggled since the decline of the Soviet Union.

We caught up with the two creators of The Sochi Project, who jointly answered our questions about Sochi and their experiences in the city via email:

How would you explain Sochi to someone who knows nothing about it?

'Like the Florida of Russia, but cheaper,' a Russian lady in the U.S. told us. You have to imagine an old, once glorious bathing and curing town filled with 'Palaces for the Proletariat' where the decline of Communism and the wild 1990s have taken their toll. You have to imagine tourist brochures filled with palm trees and glorious beaches, while in fact you'll be lying down on pebbles against a concrete wall with modern high rises behind you. It can be a fun city though; it's rowdy and it's loud.

The railway line from Sochi to Sukhum in Abkhazia hugs the coast. Behind it rise the sanatoria of Adler, just south of Sochi’s large, famous Stalinist sanatoria. Adler, Sochi region, Russia, 2011. (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

In the south of the city – along the border with Abkhazia – you'll see the new Olympic infrastructure. It looks like six huge spaceships have landed on the coastal plains. It's where there used to be a former state farm, some privately owned hotels and small villages. Now, every road, railway, harbor, hotel, stadium, tunnel, and ski slope is new. No single previously existing facility could pass the IOC's tests. Everything had to be built from scratch.

What have been the city's biggest post-Soviet issues and which ones, if any, could be helped by the Winter Games?

One of the marketing managers of Sanatorium Metallurg, a fantastic Stalin-style sanatorium, told us he was trying to get rid his personnel's Soviet attitude toward customers. It's like that all around Sochi, service levels and the quality of food are generally low.

A lot of hotels and facilities are really worn down and haven't seen any major renovations since the '80s. Since being awarded the games in 2007 there have been new restaurants and hotels opening around the city that operate in a more modern way. But they're still rare.

For Sochi, the Games are like a revolution in many ways. On the one hand, Russia's Summer Capital is being transformed into the Winter Capital. That really feels strange for many inhabitants. They're afraid of rising costs of land and services, a more crowded, unclean city, and the original (historically Russian) tourists not coming back.

Left: Roman Eloev, eighty-eight, lives in a converted barn in South Ossetia. The third war in his lifetime (after 1941–45 and 1991–92) was too much for him. Leningorsky Rayon, South Ossetia, 2011 Right: Hamzad Ivloev, forty-four, was a policeman in Karabulak. One night his checkpoint was attacked. “I sacrificed myself for a bunch of cowards,” he says bitterly. Karabulak, Ingushetia, 2012 (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

On the other hand, $50 billion have been invested in the city (maybe $25 billion if you consider all the corruption involved). A new airport has been built (the original was more like a bus stop), a new freight harbor, an entire skiing area with huge olympic villages have been built, a new area around the stadiums where Formula 1 and the World Cup will take place. These are huge investments for a city this size. But in most parts of Sochi you won't notice it that much beyond the increase in traffic. The Games are quite an isolated event at the edge of the city.

A huge issue for locals has been lack of housing since the 1970s and the sense of anarchy in the city. Many people lived in housing built without residential permits. Houses, hotels and office buildings– all officially non-existing – had to be removed to build the Games, which caused a lot of drama.

In general, Sochi has seen a huge modernization of its infrastructure. That's valuable. They doubled the length of their tourist season, but it has come with many human and environmental costs. Garbage belts have been built and hidden in the city (illegal because it's a mineral water zone) and rivers have been killed by building waste. But, you could argue, it's simply the cost of modernization.

Left: Abkhazian hospitality in the country. The tamada and Valentina start singing the Soviet song “Heart,” from the film Jolly Fellows, which was shot in Abkhazia. Everyone joins in Vladimirovka, Abkhazia, 2009 Right: Striptease dancer Aliona waits outside the restaurant in Zhemchuzhina Hotel, while a mediocre singer entertains the audience with Russian chansons. Sochi, Russia, 2011  (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

Who are the people or institutions that see the Games as an economic benefit?

People in the tourist industry see some opportunity of course. Despite being one of the biggest tourist resorts of Russia, not a single existing hotel at the time of Sochi's bid was good enough for Olympic standards, so a lot of hotels were either completely renovated or built from scratch.

Many people in this industry are afraid that the relaxedness for which Sochi used to be famous for has disappeared because as one person told us, 'crooks from Moscow' have taken over the city, speculated on land prices and hotels, and have made the city more dense.

People in the building industry must have had seven fantastic years; they've been working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We spoke to some entrepreneurs in Krasnaya Polyana up in the mountains for instance; they've had a good time, but they've also told us that they see how utterly corrupt the whole process has been.

Since starting The Sochi Project, how much has the city changed beyond new buildings?

People have always been skeptical about the costs and the traffic jams and about the whole idea of changing this city. But they've seen the benefits too. Most of all, they've seen that it's an unstoppable giant machine that keeps on rolling. All of the protests have been hopeless and almost entirely without results. Of course, people are proud that now, the whole world knows where Sochi is. But they'll be really happy when everything is over and they can clean up the mess and get back to being a relaxed summer town again.

In the 19th century, as now, Gimry was a center of resistance to Russian hegemony in the North Caucasus. Gimry, Dagestan, 2012 (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

Culturally, what were the most surprising or difficult things to understand when you were there?

The way we worked, we saw the whole region as one; Sochi, Abkhazia, North Caucasus. All of the problems and really, everything there, is connected to each other. Despite that, many Russians in Sochi don't see themselves as part of the Caucasus, they stand with their back against the mountains and look towards Moscow.

Sochi pretends to be more like a Moscow suburb than a part of this wild, violent region. You never read about Sochi and the Caucasus as colonial territories. But they are. When the Russians finally conquered Sochi in 1864, they chased all the original inhabitants away to Turkey or other parts of the Caucasus. The site where the skiing events will be taking place is where the last battle of the big Caucasian War was.

Left: A cultural center displays a tribute to war casualties. Sukhum, Abkhazia, 2010. Right: Two brothers pose proudly with Kalashnikovs on the sofa in their grandfather’s house. They live in a remote mountainous region on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. Kodori, Abkhazia, 2009 (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

When we presented our view on Sochi and the surrounding regions, one Russian commented in a blog post “if you really love Russia you don't show it as it is.” That says it all for us.

After so many visits, do you guys have a strong sense of how the Games will go or if the city could ever become the kind of place Putin wants it to be?

We've always said that Russia will be ready on time and it will be a glamorous Winter Games. Some of the Olympic tourists won't even see Sochi because many events will be taking place 15 miles north.

In the center of the seaside resort Pitsunda, between the ramshackle high-rise hotels and pine trees, is a long-abandoned ballroom. It epitomizes the romance of decay. “Not for long,” the mayor assured us. Sochi 2014 will put Abkhazia on the tourist map. Pitsunda, Abkhazia, 2010 (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

If people do explore Sochi, they'll see a different place, a city full of ramshackle neighborhoods, poverty and rundown Soviet-era districts. That's the real Russia. You can see it all over the former Soviet Union. Putin's Sochi is only the Olympic part of the city, and if you look at the context of the whole region, these are really nothing more than Potemkin Games – the most expensive Olympics ever, organized in Russia's poorest and most violent region.

And of course, there are huge security risks. It would be very surprising if insurgent groups from the North Caucasus don't end up trying to disturb the Games via a terror attack, a suicide bomb or something else. It's their main goal: to disturb Putin's show. If not in Sochi, then another city. 

Top image: Olga, twenty-nine, is the manager of a strip club in Zhemchuzhina Hotel (meaning "pearl") in the center of Sochi. 2012. (Copyright Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery)

All images copyright Rob Hornstra and courtesy Flatland Gallery. The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is published by Aperture and currently available for purchase. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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