Sochi continues to be a controversial choice for host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. When it was selected by the International Olympic Committee in 2007, the Russian resort town and the surrounding subtropical coastal strip at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains had almost no existing facilities or infrastructure. What’s more, with a price tag of $50bn, these Games are set to be the most expensive ever.
But even more interesting than the vast sums involved, if that's possible, is the context in which they are taking place. The Games have been described as a pet project of Vladimir Putin, and the president acts as if he is personally in charge of their organisation. If successful, they should definitively reclaim Russia’s place on the world stage and make the so-called “humiliation of the 1990s” a thing of the past. But they are being organised in Russia's most unstable region: a few hundred kilometres away are the breakaway republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan; just a few kilometres away is Abkhazia, which is officially a part of Georgia, but which was recognised by Russia and four other countries as independent in 2008.
"How do you map a region so complex that you could spend a lifetime covering it?"
The Games, and the area in which they will take place, offer a lifetime of writing material. Photographer Rob Hornstra and I started The Sochi Project in 2009. We wanted to map, over the course of five years, the region around the Black Sea resort; layer by layer, story by story, we have tried to build up a picture of the whole region. It has been a costly undertaking, so in 2009 we decided to ask photography fans, Russophiles and Caucasus-watchers for financial support. All donors were given access to our website, while those who donated larger amounts also received complimentary copies of our annual publications. Some 631 donors have thus enabled us to fund our project and to generate around €180,000 in revenue through donations and book sales.
Kiev, a sketchbook of Sochi in the summer shot on a 40-year-old Kiev analogue camera. Photograph: © Rob Hornstra / The Sochi Project.
How do you map a region so complex that you could indeed spend a lifetime covering it? Our approach has been to keep the stories small. Our thick book on Abkhazia described a small country rising from the ashes of the war in 1993. We divided Sochi itself into the city of the past in Sanatorium and the noisy, modern metropolis heading towards the Games in Sochi Singers. Through the life story of Khava Gaisanova we described the intensely difficult North Caucasus region, which has resisted Russian domination for almost 200 years and is the birthplace of Russian domestic terrorism.
It was for this same reason that we ended up in Krasny Vostok, a small and utterly inconsequential village featured in an exhibition and publication, both called On the Other Side of the Mountains. It is a village with one foot in the 19th century, still partially without gas and electricity; a village we stumbled across by chance in our search for stories. Barely 200km from Sochi, but yet a world away. Apart from falling for the name — Krasny Vostok literally means “the Red East” — there is no reason to produce an in-depth portrait of this village; and so we did just that. It is a village like so many in Russia, where the population is dwindling; where industry and activity are disappearing; where a handful of people are attempting to prevent the decline; where Moscow’s politics trickle through slowly; where every day is a struggle for survival. Only when you are familiar with this kind of village, we believe, can you get to know the region better.
Wrestling Competition, from the series Life here is serious (2012). Photograph: © Rob Hornstra / The Sochi Project.
We call our approach slow journalism: we have spent a great deal of time on the region (five years), and tried to tell both the large and the small stories. And for every story we have had to ask ourselves which form it’s best suited to. A small book, or perhaps only a small chapter in a book? A larger book that offers more of an overview? A series of photographs? An article? Ultimately, all the different chapters will be combined in our final work, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus, which takes the form of a website, exhibition and a book.
Working in the North Caucasus is not easy. There are countless laws, rules and, above all, bureaucrats and representatives of the security forces that make a journalist’s job virtually impossible. But the obstacles we have faced have only strengthened our resolve to tell these stories. We have been regularly detained, questioned about peculiar violations, and then fined for something completely unrelated. A number of government services in the North Caucasus have said that we are prohibited from entering Russia for the next three years. We have not, however, heard anything official. It is frustrating, but the individual stories we have recorded in the region put everything into perspective. The inhabitants often lead poor, uncertain lives. You do not have to be Islamist, or otherwise disagree with the pro-Russian local governments to disappear, either into a prison camp or a shallow grave.
"The buildings constructed for the Games increasingly resemble an immense fleet of spaceships that have crash-landed"
We are now in the project’s final year. It is wonderful for us to see how in the short space of five years stories have come to a conclusion. Krasny Vostok, for example, has been transformed from a small, post-communist hamlet into a village where Islam plays an increasingly prominent role. The tiny, disputed, territory of Abhkazia — of which we have high expectations in the run-up to the Games — seems to have sunk into a kind of lethargy. And then there is Sochi, the city at the centre of it all, where the buildings constructed for the Games increasingly resemble an immense fleet of spaceships that have crash-landed in the freshly dug soil of the resort, while residents shrug their shoulders and let it all wash over them.
International political decisions, like the decision to let Sochi host the 2014 Winter Olympics, have far-reaching implications for a region. The security and human rights situation in the North Caucasus is worsening as the Games approach. Sochi is being turned upside down for $50bn. We would urge journalists reporting on the Games to be circumspect about going to the city for only a few days to throw together background stories and would advise them to be careful not view the Games as a single, isolated event: the Olympics are directly linked to widespread corruption and human rights violations. In fact, the IOC, and the many representatives of the various countries and sports federations within it, made a gross miscalculation when they selected Sochi in 2007. The IOC claims to be attentive to the legacy of events like these. How true this claim is, we will see; we will certainly continue to be attentive in the coming years. And we will be watching with interest to determine the real effect of the Games on this precarious region.