Putin’s Olympics: heading for a fall?
Vladimir Putin chose Sochi as the venue and stepped in to help Russia win its bid for the 2014 winter games. But with building taking its toll on locals and the environment, and opposition to his new anti-gay laws, the president faces mounting pressure
Collision course: Fisht Olympic stadium under construction in Sochi, seen through the window of a derelict house. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty
Collision course?: skaters perform at an Olympic ceremony at Bolshoi Ice Dome, in Sochi. Photograph: James Hill/New York Times
Collision course?: Spanish protesters campaign against anti-gay laws outside the Russian embassy in Madrid. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty
Collision course?: workers take a break as building continues on Fisht Olympic stadium, in Sochi. Photograph: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty
From her house on a Russian hillside Tatyana Skiba can see President Vladimir Putin’s dream coming true. Down below, where the city of Sochi meets the Black Sea, an army of workers, excavators, cranes and trucks swarms around the glittering new stadiums, apartments and hotels that will host next February’s winter Olympics and thousands of visiting athletes, officials and fans.
In the hazy distance behind Skiba’s house, bound to the coast by dozens of kilometres of freshly laid roads and railways, hang the high peaks of the Caucasus mountains. There, swathes of forest have been cleared for ski slopes, chalets, a ski jump and a bobsleigh run. Cable cars already glide between the facilities, and vast mounds of last year’s snow lie stored under silver tarpaulins that reflect the summer sun.
Less than 150 days remain until Sochi and the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana stage Russia’s biggest sporting event since the 1980 summer Olympics, in the then Soviet capital of Moscow. It is Putin’s personal project, and he wants to promote Russia as a modern, dynamic nation with the wealth, know-how and natural beauty to stage the greatest winter Olympics in history. It is also something of a dress rehearsal for Russia’s 2018 football World Cup.
But as the lighting of the Olympic flame draws closer and builders toil against a looming deadline, so the list of problems facing Sochi seems to grow ever longer.
The most expensive Olympics ever – summer or winter – is beset by claims of enormous environmental damage, rampant corruption and flagrant abuse of workers’ rights; Islamist militants have vowed to attack the event; and protests are planned by gay-rights groups and campaigners for the Circassian people who were massacred and expelled from this region 150 years ago.
This intended celebration of the state Putin has built since taking power, in 2000, could become a €35 billion embarrassment, an event that does not symbolise a new and successful Russia but exposes chronic ills behind a gilded facade.
Death of the dream
For Skiba, the Olympic dream died in April 2011, when she woke in the middle of the night to something that “felt and sounded like an earthquake”. The wooden house she and her family had lived in for decades had suddenly shifted and slid down the hill. Her neighbours had experienced the same thing, and some couldn’t open their windows or doors to escape their creaking homes.
Now two small apartment blocks on Skiba’s street lean drunkenly together. Her old wooden house is uninhabitable, and the new concrete house she had built next door is like a scene from an unsettling dream: the floors are wavy, the walls cracked and uneven, all the angles slightly off and the planes tilted; doors swing open and children’s toys roll across the floor of their own accord.
Environmental experts told Skiba and her neighbours that the main cause of the landslide that damaged their homes was an unauthorised dump higher up the hillside. Building firms had used it to dispose of large quantities of concrete and metal, causing the ground to give way after rain.
Though a local court ordered officials to fully investigate the cause of the landslide, no one has been held to account for the dump, and Skiba has been offered only temporary accommodation in a dormitory that is notorious for its poor conditions.
“The slightest earth tremor could bring the house down. It could collapse anytime,” she says. “All I want is somewhere to live safely – some compensation or a small house. But we mean nothing to this state. We have approached our political representatives. They do nothing. We only have democracy on paper. It doesn’t work for ordinary people. Why do we pay our taxes? Why do we send our kids to the army for this state?”
Thousands of people have been evicted to make room for the Olympic infrastructure that has turned Sochi and the surrounding area into the world’s biggest building site. Most have been given compensation or new houses, but they had no choice but to leave once their properties were earmarked for destruction.
Even supporters of the Olympics, of which there are many in Sochi, bemoan the upheaval involved in transforming this slightly shabby stretch of seaside into an Olympic host city. They talk of chaotic building programmes, with some roads lifted and relaid several times, horrendous traffic jams and choking dust from construction that has taken place around the clock for several years.