The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus

The railway line from Sochi, Russia, to Sukhum in Abkhazia hugs the coast. The hotel-style sanatoriums of Adler rise behind it.
More than 70,000 laborers—among them tens of thousands of migrant workers—have built the Winter Olympic venues, including these two ice hockey stadiums in the Coastal Cluster of Sochi.
Matsesta, a village just inland from Sochi, is renowned for its sulphur baths—its name means “fire water.” There is a treatment for every ailment, and busloads of visitors arrive each day to improve their health.
Olga, 29, is the manager of a strip club in the Zhemchuzhina (“Pearl”) Hotel in the center of Sochi. She hates it when people don’t understand that dancing is a form of art as well.
Hamzad Ivloev, 44, was a policeman in Karabulak, Russia. One night he discovered a booby trap: a grenade had been lodged in a glass in such a way that the slightest movement would have set it off. He decided to throw himself on the grenade.
This monument to Russian-Georgian friendship, lonely and run down, towers above the military highway, a feat of engineering at the time of its construction between 1799 and 1817.

The Winter Olympics in a subtropical resort. Surrounded by conflict zones. The most expensive games ever. This is the idea being realized in Sochi. In a mere six years, an entire "world-class" sporting spectacle has been built from scratch.

In the same time, photographer Rob Hornstra and author Arnold van Bruggen have worked non-stop on a comprehensive documentary about this controversial conflict area. The Sochi Project is a gritty portrait of life and a lesson on the turbulent history of this small but complex region. Tales of corruption, violence and terrorism plague its chapters, alongside an intriguing photographic introspective.
In 2007, much to Vladimir Putin’s delight, Russia won the Olympic bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. He went on to state, "The Olympic Family is going to feel at home in Sochi."

The decision to hold the Winter Games in a subtropical resort town—ice-skating under palm trees—is daring to say the least. But to do so on the border of a conflict zone is even bolder. Not to mention on the other side of the mountains is the North Caucasus, where a war between separatists and pro-Russian security forces has been raging for years; and terrorism and female suicide bombers are commonplace. Sochi is far south Russia, located on the Black Sea coast near to the border of Georgia/Abkhazia. Under the Soviet Union, this once Czar-worthy seaside resort became a sanatorium or spa town, where workers would be rewarded with a trip here, as a pat on the back for hard work or for a period of recuperation from injury or illness. For many years it was viewed as a paradise, until the collapse of the Soviet Union led to its slow demise. The early capitalist agenda could not afford to keep it maintained, and the buildings therefore began to decay and this once prestigious resort became a tacky holiday destination wrought with organized crime and prostitution.

Now, the most expensive games ever have attracted people’s attention. More than $50 billion has been syphoned through various contractors, and people are wondering how much of that is in the form of kickbacks, bribes and shake-downs. Putin is aware that a successful games will mean good things for Russia, hence the creation of a sporting paradise in such a short time. Van Bruggen writes, "If the games are successful, one anticipated byproduct is that this would help reclaim Russia’s place on the world stage and make the so-called ‘humiliation of the 1990s,’ when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia lost its status as a world power, a thing of the past." The people of Sochi, however, compare the arrival of the games to an enormous spaceship that has descended on the plains of Sovkhoz Rossiya, so alien it is to them. They complain of dust, noise and anti-environmental construction. Their homeland has been turned into a giant game park—and fast. 

Hornstra and van Bruggen knew that they were embarking on a dangerous mission, and it was obvious that eventually they would clash with the interests of the Russian government: “We were constantly covered by Russian authorities and the secret service. The more we got into the stories and the material, the more difficult they became, the more difficult it was to handle this situation. We were arrested multiple times in the North Caucasus."

Recently, both Van Bruggen and Hornstra were denied visas to enter Russia, and their exhibition in Moscow has been canceled.

Photography by Rob Hornstra

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