Sochi 2014:
Outside the Arena

Story by Tom Balmforth
Photos by Abbas Atilay

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When the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi on February 7, the world will see sparkling new stadiums, state-of-the-art ski lifts, and freshly paved roads. But scratching this glitzy facade reveals another — darker — reality. Local residents have seen their homes upended and lives devastated. Migrant workers have been mercilessly exploited in the construction boom. And Sochi's unique — and once pristine — ecosystem has sustained significant damage. The true cost of Russia's first Olympics in more than three decades, and the most expensive games ever, goes well beyond the hefty $51 billion price tag. RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth traveled to Sochi to look beyond the glitter.

Part 1

On The Wrong Side Of The Tracks

It began with roof tiles sliding off in the night. Within days, Dmitry Abzhan's family home was being upended in slow-motion by the earth beneath it.

The cause was a landslide triggered by trucks illegally dumping waste on a slope above their street — part of the preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi that are set to begin on February 7.

A court ruled that Abzhan was entitled to compensation, but the order was never executed, leaving him and his extended family struggling to live in a dilapidated, crooked, and often dizzying home. Abzhan, 27, jokes laconically that it is like being "in outer space," adding that his appeals to the authorities have gone unanswered.

“There has been no action whatsoever. We don’t know what to do, who we should appeal to and what more we can do. The children are getting older. There should be some future ahead, but the fact is we — local residents who were born here and grew up here — have effectively been left homeless,” Abzhan says.

Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks in the Olympic city of Sochi. Preparations for the games have cost a record $51 billion. But beyond throwing up shiny stadiums and ski lifts, Sochi's makeover has turned the lives of hundreds of residents like Abzhan upside-down — sometimes almost literally — in recent years.

The gulf between Sochi's winners and losers is particularly stark on the road linking the seacoast to the showcase ski resort at Krasnaya Polyana, where many Olympic events are due to take place. The 50-kilometer car and rail link cost more than $8 billion to build, prompting the Russian-language edition of "Esquire" magazine to quip that for that price tag, it could have been paved with shredded Louis Vuitton handbags, caviar, or foie gras.

Less than a kilometer from the road, the village of Akhshtyr has been shrouded in thick white dust since preparation for the games kicked off. The wells here have run dry. There is no gas. Residents can’t sell their homegrown persimmons because they are blanketed in cement dust. Moreover, the road to Krasnaya Polyana has cut off Akhshtyr's access to public transportation to Sochi's southern Adler district. The authorities never built an access road to the new highway, as locals say they promised.

This is a major concern for people like Viktor Kolenin, a 65-year-old pensioner who is disabled due to his work following the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. He worries about how he will get to the hospital and about the strain on his lungs from the plumes of construction dust.

Another local, 53-year-old Yelena Runovich, says she had to give up her job in order to walk her young daughter back from school through construction sites and across two highways.

Kolenin, Runovich, and other villagers recently gathered around an old roadside well in Akhshtyr and spoke to RFE/RL about the impact of the Olympic bid on their community.

“You have to ask: Why is it that some people get everything and for the remaining residents there is nothing?” Runovich says.

“This was the cleanest village in the Adler region of Greater Sochi. They've turned it into a garbage dump. The administration knows this perfectly well — and not a peep from them,” Kolenin says.

Back on Baku Street where Abzhan lives, many also blame the local authorities. Next-door neighbor Polina Kalayzhan, 85, lives in a house that tilts precariously and is slowly sliding down the hill. She lives there with nine relatives including her 89-year old husband. They also are due compensation, but seem powerless to obtain it.

“We wrote to [President Vladimir] Putin, wrote to [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, wrote to the Krasnodar [administration], we've written everywhere,” Kalayzhan says. “They reply: Let the local authorities deal with it. But the local authorities don't pay any attention. They say we can't help you."

Across the city, the massive scale of construction has caused regular electricity cuts that are often extended beyond their planned duration. One blogger, Olga Agalakova, wrote that the moon in Sochi has taken on a new significance.

“It's not just the moon!” she says. “It’s our main source of light in Izmailovsk and Semyonovsk! It’s already been two months every day that they have turned off the electricity for twelve hours or more. Sometimes, for two days!”

Some look forward to the return of regular electricity and dust-free air after the Olympics. But those like Abzhan, who have suffered material damages, fear their plights will be forgotten.

“In fairness, we didn’t just come here for a couple of days — we were born here, grew up here. And not just us. Our grandfathers and great grandfathers were born and grew up here. And we end up homeless and can’t do anything about it,” Abzhan says.

“And it’s not our fault. In ways, we are happy that the Olympics are here — it’s the Olympics after all and they built some roads and all that. But just don’t insult the local people. If you take something away, then give them something back. And don’t destroy things, leaving locals homeless, hold the Olympics and then leave, forgetting about everything.”

Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Part 2

The Garbage Dump Under The Torch

The Kremlin vowed that the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be the most eco-friendly ever. But locals say that instead, the games have spoiled the area's most prized asset: its unique environment.
Rita Kravchenko once loved to swim in the Black Sea — but hasn't done so for quite a while. After taking a dip three years ago, red blotches broke out on her body.

Kravchenko is a native of Uch-Dere, a village 18 kilometers north of Sochi. And she is convinced that the skin reaction she endured was caused by pollution flowing into the sea from a nearby garbage dump that activists say was due to be closed six years ago.

But instead, with the construction boom that ensued as Sochi prepared to host the Winter Olympics this year, it grew vertiginously.

Self-combusting waste smolders on the heap. Village residents worry about long-term health consequences. Families have abandoned homes. The frothing water in the nearby Bytkha River, which flows into the Black Sea, is the color of cola.

This reality contrasts sharply with the Kremlin's rosy promises that the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be the most environmentally friendly in history. This promise has been repeated like a mantra by officials and dutifully repeated in Russian state-controlled media.

Yulia Naberezhnaya, an activist with North Caucasus Environmental Watch, which has been monitoring the ecological degradation in and around Sochi for years, says the government's promises have proved empty.

“It's simply PR. It's pretty bookkeeping prepared for the international community that shows a nice facade. But it's just a slogan," Naberezhnaya says.

But pointing out the environmental damage wrought by President Vladimir Putin's prestige project is a risky undertaking, as local green activists know all too well. Many report constant harassment. One has fled the country. And another has been jailed.

But nevertheless, they persist. For these activists, the Kremlin's drive to use the Olympics to resurrect this fading resort town and turn it into a winter ski destination comes at the cost of the area's most prize asset: its unique environment.

Sochi came into its own as a resort town in the 1930s under Josef Stalin's rule. It cemented its reputation as the pristine vacation spot where the Soviet everyman holidayed and convalesced in its sanatoriums. Wild boar scampered in the highlands; dolphins swam in the sea.

A Soviet promotional video for Sochi, produced in 1979

Mikhail Plotnikov of Sochi’s Russian Geographical Society believes those times are gone for good.

“I think we can forget about this city as a resort. Who will travel to relax in such a noisy, bustling city clogged up with cars where you have to sit in a two-hour traffic jam to get to the sea? Of course, many sanatoriums remain, but millions [of people] used to travel here to Sochi on holiday without it having an impact on the environment,” Plotnikov says. “Now, we don’t have millions [of people] and at the same time the environment has been very seriously damaged."

Speaking to RFE/RL at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in a valley flanked by snowcapped mountains, North Caucasus Environmental Watch's Naberezhnaya points to a new 48-kilometer road, ski lifts scarring the mountainside, and sprawling hotel complexes as evidence of failed commitments to preserve biodiversity and conduct construction with minimum impact on the environment.

Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Locals tell stories about bears — confused without their habitat — wandering into nearby villages. Feliks Ivanenko, chairman of the Sochi branch of the Russian Geographical Society, says the environment has sustained “pretty significant” damage and that approximately 10,000 hectares of Sochi’s National Park have been affected.

Russia's "zero waste" program has come in for particular criticism. While Sochi 2014 has trumpeted this far-reaching pledge to minimize waste and introduce recycling, there have been numerous documented cases of illegal dumping in several spots across the area.

These include places like the garbage dump in Uch-Dere, which continued taking trash well into 2013, even though the site was officially closed in June 2012. In the village of Akhshtyr, environmentalists in November filed official complaints about dumped industrial waste in a water protection zone.

Waste is currently transported out of Sochi to a landfill 250 kilometers to the north in Belorechensk — a costly, temporary solution that environmentalists fear will be abandoned as unsustainable as soon as the games wind up.

These tales, which deviate starkly from the official narrative, would never have come to light without local activists.

They all tell stories of harassment ranging from phone-lines that mysteriously go dead in mid-conversation to police searches to prosecutions.

Local environmentalist Vladimir Kimayev says he was searched at his home by police in the spring. On October 31, Andrei Rudomakha, of North Caucasus Environmental Watch was briefly detained for purportedly slandering a judge, in what he called a pressure tactic.

Days later, another activist, Dmitry Shevchenko, was detained by Federal Security Service officers for four hours after flying back from St. Petersburg to the regional capital of Krasnodar, purportedly for matching the description of a terrorist.

The harassment has forced the environmentalists to stick together.

Before sunrise in late November, Naberezhnaya and another Sochi-based activist, Olga Noskovets, caught an early morning train up the coast to the city of Tuapse to attend the trial of environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, who was accused of violating the terms of his parole.

Vitishko, a prominent critic of the Olympic preparations and a leading member of North Caucasus Environmental Watch, had received a suspended three-year jail term for vandalism in 2012. The wall of the Krasnodar governor’s residence was defaced during a protest he helped organize, although he says he was not responsible for the spraying.

Photo by Andrei Korolev, RFE/RL

Suren Gazaryan, another ecologist who faced the same charges, earlier fled the country — first to Estonia and then to Georgia. Vitishko stayed and was accused of violating the terms of his probation. And on December 21, a judge sentenced him to a three-year prison term.

Speaking to RFE/RL during his trial, Vitishko exuded optimism but had no doubt that the legal action against him was an attempt to silence him ahead of the games.

“You can link the activity that I have systematically carried out with the fact that the authorities here want to show that they are in charge and to silence me,” Vitishko says.

Meanwhile, dejected residents of the region like Kravchenko are left to contemplate life next to a garbage dump.

“The only hope is that they won’t bring any more [rubbish] here and leave this dump. But if it falls to one side, then it will cover the river and then it’ll all end up in the sea. And there can be no hope at all,” Kravchenko says.

Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Part 3

The Exploited: Sochi's Fleeced Migrants

Massive construction projects in Sochi made the Winter Olympics host city look like a promised land for migrant workers, but the streets turned out not to have been paved with gold.
Strapped for cash and in debt, Yevgeny Podrezov traveled from his native Rostov two years ago to work on an Olympic building site in Sochi. But what looked like an opportunity for fast cash has left him in even more debt. The reason: Podrezov, 28, was never paid his wages. And the more he looked into the matter and tried to get paid, the more he wandered into a hall of mirrors.

The private construction company that Podrezov worked for, which is purportedly registered in Tomsk, had been mysteriously liquidated. And the man who had posed as its general director turned out to be only an intermediary. He then disappeared.

And everybody in the 108-man construction crew is in the same boat. Between them, they are owed 3.5 million rubles ($106,000), Podrezov says.

Another worker, Roman Kuznetsov from Orenburg, was so desperate to recoup unpaid wages that he sewed his mouth shut in an act of protest in October.

Tales like this are common as the dust settles on the helter-skelter preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Huge sums of money designated for construction coupled with tight deadlines presented a golden opportunity for fly-by-night firms to take advantage of the chaos and fleece their workers.

As tens of thousands of labor migrants poured into Sochi from all corners of Russia and from neighboring countries to make money on Olympic construction sites, thousands fell victim to criminality and corruption.

Some, like Podrezov and Kuznetsov, are Russians. But many are foreign migrants who in addition to not being paid were sometimes also summarily deported after completing their jobs.

Simyon Simonov, the director of the Sochi branch of Migration and Law, a support group for Central Asian migrant workers and refugees, says now that everything is built, the companies are getting rid of the workers. “First, they don't pay them wages. Second, they deport them or pressure them so they leave of their own accord even though their documents are in order," Simonov says.

Simonov says his organization has been inundated with thousands of appeals for legal support since opening in July, mostly from foreign migrants.

But Aleksandr Popkov, a lawyer who represents workers in Sochi, says it is difficult to mount a watertight legal case when companies use intermediaries like “matryoshka dolls inside a matryoshka doll.”

Bakhshylo Bozorov, 48, is an Uzbek migrant who has worked in Russia for several years and came to Sochi in the spring. He worked for two months on a hotel in the Olympic Village but quit after his employer — a private Moscow firm — paid him only half his wages.

He hoped to mount a legal challenge to recoup his wage arrears with Simonov’s help. But he has left Sochi for the duration of the Olympics. Despite having legal working papers, he says he feared harassment or even deportation — which would have incurred a five-year ban on reentry into Russia. He says simply: “Migrants can’t be here now.”

In September, the Krasnodar regional government launched a campaign against “illegal migrants,” which coincided with a populist national campaign. Locals say immigration police went door-to-door, accompanied by Cossacks, checking documents.

Migrants, who helped build the infrastructure for the most expensive Olympics ever, have become the invisible victims — many have left without being paid.

In the final months of 2013, thousands of migrants were rounded up, detained at police stations, and many of them deported — some of them without their wages. The rest of them went into hiding, and many chose to leave of their own accord.

Bozorov says he and his compatriots are not taking any chances. He speaks to RFE/RL the day before flying out.

“Many have been deported. One of the people we worked with was deported the day before yesterday and flown out. That’s why we are afraid to be out on the streets,” Bozorov says.


Written and reported by Tom Balmforth. Photos by Abbas Atilay of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. Videos by Javanshir Aghamaliyev of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, and Lyubov Chizhova and Nikita Tatarsky of RFE/RL's Russian Service. Photo production by Lucie Steinzova and video production by Pavel Butorin. Map data by Story package produced by Glenn Kates. Designed by Jan Radl.

© 2014 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, inc.