Sochi 2014: Black Sea Blues

Photos: Dimitry Bum sings ‘Digi Digi’ in restaurant Lilya (© Rob Hornstra/INSTITUTE); Adler, RUSSIA, 2011 – Olympic Stadiums being built at the Black Sea coast in the Imeretin Valley; Roza Khutor, Russia, 2010 – View from the ski lift on Roza Khutor. Roza Khutor is the place where all alpine skiing will be done during the 2014 Winter Olympics, (© Rob Hornstra/INSTITUTE); Gaga gets ready for a show in Mayak nightclub, (Photography © Rob Hornstra); The Beach (Photography © Rob Hornstra). Photos courtesy of The Sochi Project,

Sochi 2014: Black Sea Blues on the Rocks

Is the road to Sochi paved with Olympic Gold? That question remains open until February 7, 2014 when the opening ceremonies commence in Fisht Olympic Stadium — which is still under construction with less than four months to go — at Sochi Olympic Park near the Black Sea coast. When the International Olympic Committee announced on July 4, 2007, in Guatemala City that Russia would be hosting the XXII Winter Olympic Games and XI Paralympic Games in Sochi, the news pinned Moscow’s hopes on elevating its image on the world stage. The Russian Federation has not hosted an Olympics event since the Soviet Union held the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

The initial announcement has emerged as a tall order, too, for the host city of Sochi which had not previously staged an international event on this scale. The 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver and nearby Whistler had venues and infrastructure to accommodate visitors and host the games. And although the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler began under the pall of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal luge accident during a training session, two weeks later, however, the Winter Olympics ended upbeat. The festival atmosphere at BC Place Stadium for the Closing Ceremonies was infectious. How could it not be? Team Canada had just beat the United States in the gold medal hockey final, 3-2, on the last day. And in the city center, a huge public fete that thronged near Vancouver’s Robson Square spilled out in all directions at the intersection of Robson and Granville Streets. The Olympic spirit buoyed with Vancouver’s magnificent Sea-to-Sky setting near English Bay makes for a tough act to follow.

Now that Sochi has picked up the torch, the city has been undergoing a huge urban redevelopment in this once sleepy summer resort community. Construction has been a constant presence in Sochi for the past four years, and not only have new foundations been poured for participating Olympic venues in the Coastal and Mountain Clusters, but construction efforts have also been underway for the new highways and high-speed rail connecting Sochi to the mountain venues for ski, snowboard, and sled events near the town of Krasnaya Polyana, 43.5 miles away in the Caucasus Mountains and over an hour’s drive from Sochi. Other major projects that include the new Sochi International Airport and one privately-invested marina on the Black Sea are timed to receive tourists for the Winter Olympics in February. Overall, the Russian government has invested in an estimated $50 billion in total construction cost, making it the most expensive in Olympics history.

These sweeping changes have been meticulously documented in Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen’s crowd-funded photography and book series The Sochi Project. In anticipation of the Sochi Olympics, both the Dutch photographer and writer have dispatched from Utrecht to Sochi to photograph every angle of the city and its people. They have also ventured south to the conflict zone in Abkhazia nearly twenty kilometers away, and over the mountains to neighboring states in restless Chechnya and Dagestan to provide context of this contrasting region.

The Sochi Project, which Hornstra and van Bruggen describe as “slow journalism,” began in 2007 and established a series of limited print-run book editions, newspapers, and a web site drawn from their work in and around Sochi. Their efforts have proved to be successful, shoring up interest for their books and work across social media channels and through their newly redesigned web site. Their project work has also culminated in a touring exhibition, An Atlas of Tourism and War in the Caucasus, which will be on view at Antwerp’s FotoMuseum in late October 2013. (A major retrospective culled from The Sochi Project was scheduled to open October 17 at Winzawod Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow but the Centre had just recently announced that it would be canceled and has withdrawn support). Through their lens, Sochi’s residents are witness to an unprecedented shift of urban upheaval and development in a four-year period and all of the big changes that the Olympics are delivering.

Sochi’s preparations for the Winter Olympics set for just less than four months away have required a considerable Herculean effort and more than a new coat of paint or a lightbulb change. The entire city has been a vast construction project. Imagine rebuilding modern Vancouver in four years. All Olympic venues in both Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana have been built from scratch and from the ground up which have displaced many of the city’s residents and small local shopkeepers to make room for the towering yellow cranes lofted above the construction workers on scaffolding near surface streets below. Although the cost for relocating Sochi’s residents have totaled $640 million, not everyone has been fully housed in newer apartments set aside for relocation.

Meanwhile, Sochi’s new skyline at Sochi Olympic Park has started to glimmer with a myriad of organic shapes and sparkling blue glass from the Bolshoy Ice Dome and the Iceberg Skating Palace as ongoing sports venue construction continues. The countdown to the Winter Olympics in February has also produced scores of additional construction projects. Dozens of new resort hotels, conference centers, shopping malls, and new apartments to accommodate residents and visitors have cropped up as the city gets completely transformed as a year-round international recreation destination for sun, ski, and even hosting the city’s first Formula One car racing event next year. And as van Bruggen has noted, “By 2014 the area around Sochi will have been changed beyond recognition.”

Hornstra and van Bruggen’s documentary and editorial focus is honed in on this pivotal point of Sochi’s urban transformation while exploring the city’s contemporary history. Sochi’s sanitoria, the spa-like accommodations and retreats which the city had become famous for during the Soviet era, is the subject of Hornstra and van Bruggen’s book Sanitorium published in 2009. Fondly known as “Summer Capital,” Sochi has been a long-time summer holiday destination attracting Muscovites to shed their heavy coats and lavish at the sanitoria and at modest hotels near the sea. By night, the city lights up with a mix of clubs, bars and restaurants where guests dance and sing late in the evening.

The city’s modern development began in the years following the Russian-Circassian War of 1817-1864 when the Tsar’s Russian army ultimately defeated local resistance and settled in Sochi as part of Russian conquest stretching from the Caucasus Mountains to the Black Sea coast. Inspired by German spa retreats, Hornstra and van Bruggen explain how Sochi’s connection to the sanitoria emerged years after Russian settlement in Sochi 1864. The city attracted Russians from Moscow, Siberia, and St. Petersburg to its sunny, tropical seaside location for rejuvenating spa vacations at several sanitoria. In the decades that followed, these sanitoria have been spring-to-summertime retreats offering restorative therapies to factory workers arriving from the north. Hornstra noted that visitors usually make the journey to Sochi by train — a 37-hour trip from Moscow — through forests and across vast farm lands, plains, and mountains to the palm tree-lined beaches along the Black Sea coast. Now, alongside new hotel construction around Sochi, nearly all of the sanitoria are getting converted into modern hotels to welcome visitors to the Olympics.

Sochi’s social and cultural appeal for the healthy virtues offered at the sanitoria next to the city’s attractive Black Sea location enshrined its position as a destination for recreation and leisure. Hornstra and van Bruggen’s book Sochi Singers published in 2011 documents another facet about Sochi – the city’s competitive nightlife, particularly in the summer. Restaurants and bars stretching throughout Sochi beckon guests with live music and the Russian chansons tradition. Sochi Singers catalogs portraits of Sochi’s chanson singers in front of keyboards and on modest stages at a variety of local restaurants, bars and cafes.

Gay life has also flourished in Sochi, particularly during the Soviet era and for those drawn to its remote location, but the city is far from being Russia’s Amsterdam or Sydney. Hornstra and van Bruggen have visited the club Mayak (meaning “lighthouse” in Russian), Sochi’s only gay bar, a popular cabaret featuring dinner and cocktail hour drag show entertainment. “It’s the only gay club in Sochi, but it’s renowned for its friendly atmosphere and welcoming character,” Hornstra and van Bruggen have noted on their Sochi Project Facebook page.

A recent Associated Press article published by Laura Mills supports this view about Mayak, and provides a colorful glimpse at Sochi’s gay life (“Amid Putin’s Crackdown, Sochi Gay Scene Thrives”, September 29, 2013). Centered around Mayak’s drag show glitter and nightclub glamor, Mills reports that former Muscovite Andrei Tenichev opened Mayak in Sochi eight years ago seeing that the city had room for another gay bar. The club owes its success to a mixed dedicated gay-and-straight patronage for its theatrical cabaret shows. Mayak’s beacon for gay openness makes the club a place where locals and visitors can relax, but President Vladimir Putin’s morality campaign leaves Sochi with a question mark in the countdown to the Olympic Games.

At the end of June this past summer, Putin signed into law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and making it a crime to publish and circulate in both print and digital media information that contains homosexual content. Despite the law’s vague wording, the defensive Russian authorities insist that the law protects minors from exposure to homosexuality. The law has become perceived as “anti-gay” and fostering a climate of intolerance towards lesbian, gay, and transgendered individuals, and out of fear, encouraging lesbians and gays to remain in the closet. In recent months, the law has been the focus of mounting global criticism. As the Winter Olympics calendar ticks closer, the International Olympic Committee has also been subject to criticism for its indifference to the law. The IOC in September has simply offered that the law does not come in conflict with the Olympic Charter regarding human rights.

Questions and debate about the law continue, drawing divisive reactions from both inside and outside of Russia as well as whether to call for an Olympic boycott. Sochi Club Mayak Owner Andrei Tenichev has said his customers are against any boycott, and encourages Olympic athletes to show symbolic support for lesbian and gay Russians. Veteran Olympic athletes like speed skater Blake Skjellerup, diver Greg Louganis, and figure skater Johnny Weir have also expressed support for the Olympics and are staunchly opposed to the idea of a boycott. All agree that visibility offer opportunities for dialogue, and a boycott would hurt participating athletes. New York-based artist and Russian exile Slava Mogutin, whose art and photography focuses on male sexual identities in portraiture, disagrees. Mogutin has dismissed the Winter Olympics as President Putin’s “pet project and propaganda vehicle.” Even so, from the top of the rugged Caucasus Mountain peaks looking down towards the shimmering city lights below, it may be Putin’s attempt at recreating Sochi as a trophy city studded with world-class accommodations, conference centers, ski areas, and Olympic venues. It’s also a city with a tolerant population towards its small but vibrant gay community.

Meanwhile, events from recent months have broadened the question about journalistic freedom, free expression and human rights issues in Russia. In late July, documentary filmmakers from the Dutch city of Gronigen were arrested in Murmansk, Gronigen’s sister city, while working on a production about homosexuality in Russia and lesbian and gay youth. Their film’s title 5,000 Roebel (5,000 Rubles) refers to the administrative fine that is leveled against citizens charged in violation of Article 6.13.1, the “homosexual propaganda” law that took effect a month earlier in late June. The production team were cited by Russian authorities for breaking that law when interviewing a 17-year-old youth at the House of Equality, a human rights center in Murmansk, and had to pay a 3,000 ruble fine. The filmmakers were also the first foreigners charged in violation of the new law. Although filmmaker Kris van der Veen has been denied to return to Russia for the next three years, he is currently crowd-funding continued production of the documentary.

In late September, thirty Greenpeace activists were arrested by Russian security officers at gunpoint aboard the Arctic Sunrise, a Dutch-registered vessel, in international waters near Gazprom’s Prirazlomnay offshore oil platform in the Pechora Sea. Legal battles continue for the Greenpeace activists who are currently held in custody in the port city of Murmansk in advance of a court trial, and are facing piracy charges which carries a maximum 15-year sentence. At the issue’s center is a conflict about environmental activism versus how the Russian government’s unease with free speech is convoluted with piracy allegations on the high seas.

Esteemed democratic values like speech and activism may be increasingly tested in Russia by the time the Winter Olympics arrives in Sochi. Earlier this month The Guardian reports that all telephone and digital communications, web traffic and social media will be subject to scrutiny under Russia’s Federal Security Service surveillance system “branded as ‘Prism on steroids'” (“Russia to monitor ‘all communications’ at Winter Olympics in Sochi”, The Guardian, October 6, 2013). The SORM (an acronym that stands for “System for Operative Investigative Activities”) surveillance system that is getting installed in Sochi will track and tag individuals based on keywords detected across communications. The system which was created by the former Soviet Union’s KGB is considered to be even more invasive than surveillance systems used at previous Olympics events.

In the interim, Dutch photographer Hornstra will not be able to produce new photography for The Sochi Project after having his journalist visa revoked by Russian authorities this past July. Co-creator and writer van Bruggen also had his visa denied in September in the run up to a retrospective of their project originally set to open later this month at the Winzawod Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow but has since been canceled. Despite these setbacks, both Hornstra and van Bruggen have shed much light on a region and the cusp of change through several books and limited editions including Sochi Singers, Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land, and their latest volume, An Atlas for War and Tourism in the Caucasus which will accompany their touring exhibition from the series. The Sochi Project’s survey of the Winter Olympics’ economic and environmental impact on Sochi and exposure of nearby conflict zones in neighboring Abkhazia and Dagestan have revealed a fresh perspective about life along the Black Sea coast. As Hornstra and van Bruggen describe it, “Russia’s summer capital is being transformed into the world’s winter capital. Under an authoritarian regime awash with oil and gas money, anything is possible.”

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