The Sochi Project By Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen

Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have been working together since 2007 to tell the story of Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. They have returned repeatedly to this region as committed practitioners of “slow journalism,” establishing a solid foundation of research on and engagement with this small yet incredibly complicated region before it finds itself in the glare of international media attention. As van Bruggen writes,

Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi. Just twenty kilometers away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east, the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished breakaway republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya. On the coast, old Soviet-era sanatoria stand shoulder to shoulder with the most expensive hotels and clubs of the Russian Riviera. By 2014 the area around Sochi will have been changed beyond recognition.

Hornstra’s photographic approach combines the best of documentary storytelling with contemporary portraiture, found photographs, and other visual elements collected over the course of their travels. Van Bruggen contributes a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its turbulent history. Together, the images and texts unpack the complex, multivalent story of this contested region, shining a harsh light on Vladimir Putin’s claim that, “The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.” Designed by long-standing collaborators Kummer & Herrman, The Sochi Project book, website and exhibition: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is the culmination of this five year project, a contemporary masterpiece of photography and journalism in the collaborative tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.

Text by Aperture Foundation, New York.

The subtropical Winter Olympics

Sochi is the Florida of Russia, but cheaper. It is famous for its subtropical vegetation, hotels and sanatoria. People from all over the Soviet Union associate the coastal city with beach holidays and first loves. The smell of sunscreen, sweat, alcohol and roasting meat pervades the air. Nothing happens here in the winter. But that’s about to change. The Winter Games are coming to town.

To the bombastic first bars of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin steps forward in early July 2007, his characteristic rigid posture seeming to combine toughness and extreme discomfort in equal measure. The location is Guatemala City, the occasion is the annual meeting of the International Olympic Committee. Russia has reached the final round in its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, together with South Korea’s Pyeongchang and Austria’s Salzburg. “Sochi is a unique place,” Putin says in carefully rehearsed English. “On the seashore you can enjoy a fine spring day, but up in the mountains it’s winter. I went skiing there six or seven weeks ago and I know, real snow is guaranteed.” President Vladimir Putin“Real snow is guaranteed.”He concludes his speech with a few sentences in French, smiles to the room and returns to his seat visibly satisfied. Salzburg is eliminated in the first round of voting, putting Pyeongchang in first place. Sochi wins in the second round. Putin’s diplomacy has worked. Spontaneous celebrations erupt and fireworks are set off in cities across Russia, state media reports.

Sochi is a remarkable choice. The train journey from Moscow to Sochi takes 37 hours. Thirty-seven unbroken hours of birch forests, wheat fields, farms, factories, abandoned land and here and there a village or town. Drifts of snow lie everywhere. The local people trudge through them, blowing clouds of steam, dressed in black trousers, jumpers, coats with fur collars and warm hats. We pass Tula, Voronezh, Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar and still snow lies everywhere. Then, at 5 o’clock in the morning, we rush past the mountains, the north-western foothills of the Caucasus, and the snow vanishes under the warm sun. Suddenly there are palm trees, a calm, rippling sea plays with the pebble beach and sanatoria rise above the railway track that runs right next to the coast. And here, in this small piece Russia of subtropical Russia where no snow falls in the winter, the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held.

A forgotten genocide

Sochi has always been a plaything in Moscow’s hands. Sochi’s modern history begins in 1864, when the tsar’s army concluded the long war of conquest in the Caucasus and up in what will be the Olympic ski resorts of Krasnaya Polyana, defeated the last organised Caucasian army. Thousands of Caucasians, from Dagestan to Sochi, crossed the sea to present-day Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire. The crossing was sometimes a self-organised escape, but just as often it was facilitated by the Russian army, in preparation for Russian colonisation of parts of the Caucasus. This ‘Circassian Genocide’ is commemorated each year on 21 May in Turkey and across the Caucasian diaspora. The descendants of Caucasian refugees are still guards of honour in the armies of Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Syria.

In the remotest corners of Turkey you can find Caucasian associations where members valiantly attempt to uphold traditions from the motherland. In a bend in the road to Krasnaya Polyana ski resorts, a small monument recalls the Russian victory there. At the time some parts of the Black Sea coast was impassable, where the steep, densely wooded foothills of the Caucasus plunged into the sea. Other parts, like those around Sochi, consisted mainly of coastal marshes where malaria was rife. Forts were built along the coast, which fell alternately into the hands of the Ottomans and Russians. After 1864, however, the Russians began developing their newly acquired colony in earnest. The mineral baths in the Caucasus, such as those in Matsesta, were built and civilised. Riviera Park, now a famous amusement park, was the first hotel-cum-sanatorium in what would become Sochi. Sanatoria are part of a grand Russian tradition. Inspired by German spas like those at Baden-Baden, where famous Russian writers including Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov conversed with the European elite, tsarist Russia began erecting its own retreats on the shores of the Black Sea, around Sochi, in the Crimea and south towards Georgia.

Palaces for the proletariat

When the October Revolution caught Russia by surprise, Sochi still had relatively little to recommend it. The city had just outgrown its status as the last stronghold against the Caucasians and Turks. The marshes were barely dry before Lenin, in the early years of his regime, issued a decree stating that the entire coastline around Sochi, including the healing sulphur springs of Matsesta, should be opened to the Russian proletariat. He called them palaces for the proletariat, and a handful of them can still be found in Sochi today.
All the ministries, army units, unions and factories erected holiday accommodations and remedial resorts for their employees. Small, young Sochi grew into a grand dame. Its palm trees, flowers and tepid waters were immortalised in hundreds of songs.

A trip to Sochi as a reward for hard work or to recuperate from an injury or illness was the best thing that could happen to a Soviet at the time. Sanatoria were built in all shapes and sizes: from the hyper-modern Red Army Sanatorium to neo-classical confections such as Metallurg (for metalworkers), Ordzhonikidze (for miners) and Rossiya (for the party elite).

Sochi also became a refuge for Soviet leaders, acclaimed cosmonauts, actors and other members of the Soviet jet set. Jozef Stalin is known to have regularly spent months at a time here, with his daughter at his side and party faithful like security chief Lavrentiy Beria nearby. This was where Stalin made decisions about life and death during the Great Terror and the famines in Ukraine. His dacha – country house – in Sochi can still be admired, painted a subdued camouflage green so as to be invisible from the air. In the small museum, a waxwork Stalin sits at his desk, looking out sympathetically from behind a bushy moustache. The bedrooms and meeting rooms can still be hired as a hotel and conference centre. It was said that the indefatigable communist leader Leonid Brezhnev could never have stayed in power for so long had he not immersed himself in Matsesta’s medicinal baths for several weeks each year. Brezhnev’s small dacha still stands next to the large, pompous Matsesta building.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also heralded the decline of the sanatoria. Under capitalism, the palaces for the proletariat were no longer profitable. Today, valiant attempts are being made to preserve the sanatoria in their original state. They remain fully booked year round. Workers arrive in the summer; retired and infirm employees fill up the rest of the seasons. It is a hopeless cause, however. The often poorly constructed buildings are too large to be maintained with the paltry income generated by the guests. Most Russians with a little more money to spend stay in private hotels or fly to Turkey, Egypt and beyond. While the sanatoria’s patrons lament the visible decay, the managers bemoan the fact that their palaces are not yet five-star facilities. But who knows? The International Olympic Committee was lured to Sochi for these facilities and this spa history, and the Olympic bidbook, which contains the promises made by the candidate city, lists a number of sanatoria as accommodation for guests and athletes – following extensive refurbishment.

Bandits from Moscow

On the small private beach, at the bottom of a steep staircase where our putyovkas are checked, we meet Viktor Alexeyevich. A retired shipbuilder from Murmansk,  he has happily made use of the gratis opportunity to relax in Sochi for years. “Sochi used to be much prettier,” he says. “These days crooks from Moscow come here to build and sell skyscrapers and apartments, although it used to be such a small, lovely town. You can’t even see the sanatorium from the beach anymore. Still, it’s better than Murmansk.”

“Don’t you find it terribly boring here, with all those old people and outdated treatments?” Siray Sartakati, the 28-year-old marketing manager of Metallurg, asks us. “Look at this beautiful building. Shouldn’t there be clubs, bars and terraces?” On the contrary, we have been in the monumental sanatorium for a week and are having a great time among Russia’s elderly and infirm. Every day we are massaged, drink mineral water and revolting tea and bathe for 20 minutes in a radon bath. Wonderful. In the evening the sanatorium organises a disco and karaoke. Then all hell breaks loose, as the elderly guests throw themselves around the dance floor as if possessed. It is an entertaining spectacle.

A miniature Versailles

“Everything has to be luxuriously finished,” says Siray, “made from real European materials. The atmosphere has to remain the same, but the quality has to be significantly improved.” He taps the window frames, walls and bronze doorknobs. The owner, the Association of Unions, has appointed him to overhaul the institution. “It all has to be finished by 2014, in time for the Winter Olympics. We’ll then no longer be a sanatorium but a five-star hotel.” Siray is sitting on a gold mine. Metallurg is a miniature Versailles, where one can descend through extensive gardens, down endless steps past fountains and ponds to the private beach. The canteen is a stately ballroom. It is still a palace for the proletariat, as it was once intended, but not for much longer if Siray has his way.

Now that new managers are trying to save the buildings and parks and to tap additional sources of tourism, the old proletariat may well miss out. If the transition continues, Russia’s growing middle class and elite will holiday here in the future. Without wanting to damage the old image, incidentally. For that the Sochi brand is still rock solid. Sanatorium USSR is already making a brave attempt, and has retranslated the four letters from Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to make it mean Friendly, Service Oriented, and One Hundred Per Cent Relaxing. Siraj Sartakati”For 2014 we’ve changed this town beyond recognition.”But most Russians with money – not to mention foreigners – prefer cheap, exotic destinations such as Turkey and Egypt over the Black Sea coast. “The Soviet mentality and rudeness that still prevail here scare people away,” says Siray. “If the staff can’t adapt, they’ll be fired. But for 2014 we’ve changed this town beyond recognition.”

Gebouwd in 1978, hotel Zhemchuzhina (Parel) is een gigantisch hotel, een wereld in zichzelf. Het hotel heeft 956 kamer, 8 restaurants, 2 nachtclubs, winkels en een gigantisch zoutwaterzwembad.

The Florida of Russia

A young man named Vasya is sitting on a concrete seawall dotted with pebbles and rusty piers that run into the water. A cameraman from Moscow, he has just completed an assignment in Abkhazia, farther to the south. He is now enjoying a short holiday in Adler, on the Russian side of the border. His older girlfriend, Yulia, has come with him. Her nipples are covered with two silver stars; topless sunbathing in Russia is not permitted. “Look around you,” Vasya points to the stone desert. “It’s fantastic.” The waves break on the beach, making a magical sound as they retreat and drag the pebbles with them. The sound almost drowns out the popsa (Russian pop) and house music coming from various telephones and ghetto blasters. “There aren’t many good nightclubs, but hey, we Muscovites are spoiled.” Yulia’s only reservation is “all the Caucasians” who live here. “We’re from Moscow and the culture here is very different. There are more Muslims.”

Our conversation is cut short by a passing train. The woman next to us introduces herself as Ekaterina. “Sochi is the Florida of Russia, but cheaper,” she says. Ekaterina“Sochi is the Florida of Russia, but cheaper.”

Adler, Sochi region, 2009“My daughter lives in Kansas and we bought an apartment together in Sochi, for me to retire to. It’s heavenly. The climate is subtropical but you can hike in the cool mountains whenever you want.” The average tourist we speak to comes from far-flung places like Murmansk, Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Tagil or Novosibirsk. Yelena is from Novy Urengoy. She has spent days on end lying motionless on the beach. She occasionally rotates her arms in order to distribute as much sun over her body as evenly as possible. “My parents work in the gas industry. In my village our summer lasts three months; there’s snow and ice until late May. And when summer finally arrives, so do the mosquitoes. We spend three weeks slapping ourselves and itching.” Sochi is paradise in comparison. In the gardens behind the promenades, far from the incessant stream of tourists, are Sochi’s inhabitants. These are the people who describe the tourists as Bzdykhs, a stinging term unknown outside Sochi. But anyone who has been to a beach resort knows what it means: the overweight beer and spirit drinkers, the bare bodies in sandals, the noisy eaters with their drunken bluster and tacky music. The locals have little choice. Well-heeled Russians take refuge in the fancier hotels or more often opt to holiday in Italy, France, Turkey, Spain, Thailand and Vietnam. The Olympic Games may give Sochi the quality injection that would keep the Bzdykhs away. But it is more likely that as a result the city will become more expensive, chaotic and crowded, making it difficult even for the Bzdykhs to listen to their favourite chansons or popsa hits here.

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En Moscú, la Galería PhotoDoc presenta la controvertida exposición “Proyecto Sochi”, sobre la transformación de la ciudad ante los Juegos Olímpicos de Invierno de 2014. Sin embargo a la muestra no ha asistido el fotógrafo holandés Rob Hornstra, laureado con el premio World Press Photo, ni el autor de los textos Arnold van Bruggen.

A ambos se les ha negado el visado necesario. Un nuevo capítulo en las tensas relaciones diplomáticas entre Rusia y los Países Bajos. Alexander Sorin, de la Galería PhotoDoc, explica que la exposición original fue cancelada : “En la galería Winzavod se supone que todo estaba preparado para esta exposición, que se canceló una semana antes de su inauguración oficial. Éste es un sustituto de la verdadera exposición que debería haber tenido lugar.”

El documental despierta traumas históricos y revela los contrastes económicos de la región donde cohabitan costosos hoteles y discotecas con viejos sanatorios soviéticos. Rusia ha invertido más de 36 billones de euros en la preparación de estos Juegos Olímpicos. Yuri Saprykin es periodista y comisario de la exposición: “Ahora que las relaciones entre Rusia y Holanda están tan tensas, es evidente que los principales testigos de lo que está sucediendo en Sochi representan una zona gris, un punto negro sobre el que resulta difícil obtener cualquier información.

El hecho de que sean dos ciudadanos holandeses ha provocado además una reacción tensa, tanto en el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores ruso, como en la galería Winzavod y en otros lugares. “ El proyecto multimedia “Sochi Project” revela la complejidad de la región del Norte del Cáucaso, a sólo 20 km de la zona de conflicto Abjasia, y junto a las zonas empobrecidas de Osetia de Norte y Chechenia.


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