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Arts and Culture

The Sochi Project

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Posted on Jan 31, 2014

By Liesl Bradner

“The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus”
A book by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen

“The Sochi Olympic games in the subtropics—it’s a fraud.”

So said liberal Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2009. Nemtsov expresses just one of the many problems plaguing the controversial leader since being awarded the XXII Winter Games in 2007.

Heightened security and threats of boycotts have been an Olympic concern since the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games. The December bombings in Volgograd, about 400 miles from Sochi, along with a recent car explosion and the discovery of six dead bodies in nearby Stavropol province, have the world wondering in particular if Putin can contain the threat of violence. This comes on top of human rights violations, anti-gay laws, displaced citizens and free-speech issues. The tip of the iceberg: the skyrocketing $50 billion price tag, rife with corruption.

Why the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi, a seaside resort in close proximity to the volatile North Caucasus, a poor mountainous region with a history of war and armed conflict, is a mindboggling mystery. I can only surmise the IOC members fell under the charismatic spell of Putin’s gold-medal-worthy pitch speech to them in Guatemala.

The new photo book “The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus” by Dutch journalists Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen tells the comprehensive, grass-roots story of Sochi and its colorful characters.

This remarkable tome is the culmination of an ambitious five-year project examining the impoverished region surrounding Sochi. It reveals a very different reality from the facade presented by Putin’s publicity machine.

After Sochi was awarded the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in 2007, writer van Bruggen approached photographer Hornstra to collaborate on a long-term project on Sochi.

Although Hornstra had recently published two books on Russia, “Communism & Cowgirls” and “101 Billionaires,” he was game.

Their process of “slow journalism” is very similar to documentary filmmaking. “Journalism focuses on what is happening and slow journalism is more about why these things are happening,” Hornstra explained in an interview with Vice

After receiving a grant, a viable plan was hatched. They would revisit the same places and people over the course of five years leading up to the games, creating an in-depth and honest progress report. They broke down the massive project into subcultures and regions.

Through Kickstarter and pre-sales they were able to publish several smaller books on specific topics such as sanitariums, the disputed territory of Abkhazia and Sochi lounge singers, which are included as chapters in the final 6 pound book published by Aperture.

The stories here are not the usual heartwarming athlete profiles that television audiences are used to. Hornstra and van Bruggen focus on the lives of the people and lands affected by the Olympics. Some are hopeful about the prospect of economic prosperity, others disillusioned and angry about the change and corruption.

Hornstra’s portraits combined with van Bruggen’s detailed and often entertaining text put the thoroughly researched history of each category and subject into context. Their first person experiences give a fuller understanding of this complicated region. It’s a masterful achievement.

Along with 311 color photos are interviews, profiles, regional maps and a personal travel log.

There are no action shots of ice skaters landing a Triple Salchow or good-looking snowboarders shredding a half pipe. Instead we have Hornstra’s poignant portraits of the aged faces of proud WWII vets clad in Soviet era uniforms, living out their golden years in rundown buildings, or an image of a courageous policeman who shielded his comrades in a rebel attack leaving him with one arm, one eye and no legs to take care of his family.

On their first trip to Sochi in 2009, Hornstra and van Bruggen began with a look inside sanitariums, an important Russian tradition. It was under Soviet rule that Sochi was transformed into a health mecca for the elite. Cosmonauts, actors and even Leonid Brezhnev were frequent guests to these spas that dotted the Black Sea coast. A holiday trip to Sochi was also considered a reward for laborers for their hard work or to recuperate from an injury.

A photo of a smirking 77-year-old former miner, Mikhail Pavelivich Karabelnikov, in teal Speedos and a captain’s hat, accompanied by his tale of traveling 1,800 miles every year by train to reach Sochi, attests to the continued popularity, among retirees, of the vacation paradise. Younger people, however, see the sanitoria as outmoded and a reminder of old Soviet ways.

In order to fully understand the experience of the sanitoria, Hornstra and van Bruggen went undercover, immersing themselves like actors preparing for a role. For 12 days they mingled among the elderly at the popular neoclassical Sanitarium Metallurg, and were subjected to electric clay treatments, mineral baths, sunbathing days, karaoke nights and gorging on less than healthy fare—meatballs, rice and cake—three times a day.


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