Le Monde recently featured a series of photos with an article on the 2014 Winter Olympics sites in the northern Caucasus, which many of us will see soon on television.
Photographer Rob Hornstra of the Sochi Project and documentary maker Arnold van Bruggen have been tracking progress since 2009. van Bruggen has made 11 trips there during that time. Much of the fascination surrounds the fact that it is all brand-new infrastructure. He says:
The Russians are proud of their particular competencies in overcoming nature.
The area comprising Sochi, a resort along the Black Sea, and nearby mountains is not unlike the Côte d’Azur. The nation’s leaders have long had holiday homes there, among them Stalin, Brezhnev and Putin.
Of the region, Putin calls it:
A unique place. Along the coastline, you can enjoy a beautiful Spring day, but above, in the mountains, it’s winter. I went to ski there six or seven weeks ago and I know real snow is guaranteed.
Of the upcoming Winter Olympics, he promises:
It will be the greatest event in post-Soviet history.
The Olympic Committee can’t say enough about it. Remy Charmetant, a Committee member, enthuses:
I’ve never seen so many things being built in Europe at the same time.
What they’ve done in seven years took decades in the Savoy region [for France's Winter Olympics, last one in Albertville in 1992].
Jean-Claude Killy — Olympic skier, now 70, and head of the organising committee — says the efforts have been ‘Herculean’.
Among the highlights are the Olympic park, a new stadium, two hockey arenas, two skating rinks, one curling rink, ski jump, a new railway line and the most expensive motorway in the world to date (€6bn).
The initial estimated cost was €8.8bn. Today, it has skyrocketed to €36bn.
Furthermore, reports have emerged about human rights violations and workers going without pay.
Ivan Kharchenko worked for three months on one of the building sites in 2010. After not receiving any pay, he asked when he might expect it. For that, he was sacked.
Human Rights Watch has been investigating. Up to 60,000 labourers can work on the project at any one time. Some, like Kharchenko, aren’t paid at all. Others are underpaid. There are also few, if any, employment contracts as well as a lack of safety precautions. There have also been cases where workers’ passports have been confiscated.
Workers come from Armenia, Uzbekistan or Tajikstan. Average pay is €1.50 an hour.
So why the cost overrun? Boris Nemtsov, originally from Sochi and Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 and 1998, told Le Monde that this is no different from other historic projects:
This is fraud on a scale which surpasses Nikita Khruschev’s wheat planting in the Russian Arctic and Leonid Breshnev’s reversing the flow of Siberian rivers.
He added that a rough estimate of €20bn has gone to the three principal investors. One is the state-owned Olympstroï and the other two are companies which are owned by longtime friends of Putin.
In 2013, Russian courts charged Olympstroï with €388m of unjustified extra costs.
Photographer Rob Hornstra of the Sochi Project and documentary maker Arnold van Bruggen gave the paper more information:
A local entrepreneur explained us how the corruption generally works. In Moscow, the contract is sent out for bids and won by a business close to the government. They, in turn, hire sub-contractors, often Turkish, who are less expensive and more efficient. The principal company then pockets the difference.
As for the choice of location, van Bruggen says that the area:
has an emotional resonance. It’s in the Russian imagination via films and song. The Caucasus is what the Wild West is for Americans, associated with pioneer spirit.
Those living near the ski slopes of Krasnaïa Poliana are not happy that their town will be part-hosting the Winter Olympics. 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the battle that ended the conquest of the Caucasus in 1864, what they term the ‘forgotten genocide’. They do not want the games to overshadow this historic commemoration.
However, Le Monde says that Vladimir Putin has other objectives. For him:
these games are first and foremost the occasion to reaffirm Russia’s power and to show that the region is under control.
The paper mentions the ‘electronic detection system’ in place in the hills around Sochi to monitor any disturbance. So far, only one suspect has come to the authorities’ attention: a wild boar.