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The Sochi Project

Posted on Jan 31, 2014

By Liesl Bradner

(Page 2)

Their study of Abkhazia, just five miles from the Olympic village, was far from a relaxing retreat. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, several ethnic conflicts broke out in the former republics, including the 2008 war between Georgia and separatists Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have since gained their own de facto independence.

Bombed out hotels and apartments—many with no gas, running water or electricity—remain standing. Families continue to live in these crumbling structures. Because the buildings have been deemed habitable, the residents have been unable to collect compensation from the Russian government.

“In Stalin’s days everything was well organized,” 77-year South Ossetia resident Zaur Bigulaev recounts in “The Sochi Project,” sharing his nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Many villages in the seven republics that comprise the troubled Northern Caucasus, a day’s drive over the mountains from Sochi, suffer high unemployment, isolation and an eroding infrastructure. Despite serene landscapes with waterfalls and sweeping valleys, the region is a well-known breeding ground for terrorists and Islamic separatists groups. In the plains below lie Chechnya and Dagestan, from where Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hail. One of the female bombers responsible for the 2010 Moscow subway attacks was from a nearby village. Residents are afraid to go out after dark. Fathers and sons are taken from their homes never to be seen again.

Closer to Sochi, construction on Olympic facilities was slow and disorganized. Workers, consisting of a large contingent of migrants, spoke of being owed six months’ back pay and living in deplorable conditions. One photo shows a dilapidated cow shed where some slept, while others were forced to sleep in fields. Many were afraid to speak up and were not even sure who was in charge.

In 2009 van Bruggen described the Sochi airport “like a bus stop. … A single busy coastal road not designed to handle the traffic, resulting in daily gridlock and endless traffic jams.” Since then the $8 billion Adler-Krasnaya Polyana Highway and Railway has been built in the area.

Hornstra and van Bruggen’s travels took them to prisons, schools, museums, discos, a 19th century post office, numerous memorials and abandoned factories as well as several unplanned visits to police stations.

In 2011 the pair drove to the village of Shatoy, in Chechnya, to check on the status of the mayor’s proclamation to transform it into the “Switzerland of Chechnya.” They were apprehended and arrested by the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) at an Army checkpoint near the village. They were interrogated and threatened with deportation, extortion and forced to pay fines to stay in the country. This was one of several times they were arrested.

The behind-the-scenes travel log details the good, the bad and the ugly of their journey, including van Bruggen’s near escape from a “Marathon Man”-like trip to the dentist. Despite being foreigners, they were invited into private homes and treated as guests. Dining on shashlik (grilled goat) and imbibing countless glasses of vodka and chacha (a potent grape brew) allowed them intimate access and honest conversations. This type of slow form reportage, reminiscent of Depression-era photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, is to be praised and relished.

Sadly, a few of the people the pair befriended and interviewed were either killed or went missing. Others took the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach, working Olympic-related jobs.

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy and disbelief while looking at Hornstra’s interior shots of living rooms with peeling paint, cracked walls and sparse furnishings.

The fantastical stories and compelling images collected in “The Sochi Project” will serve as a record of this region and its people unlike any other. I find myself rooting for an uneventful and successful Olympics, not for Putin’s sake, but for all those solemn faces that just want to live in peace.

A selection of photographs from “The Sochi Project” is on display at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago through March 24 and at FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium, through March 2.

Liesl Bradner is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times covering books, arts and entertainment.

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