An Uncensored Look at the Real Sochi

The Photo Blog
Feb. 5 2014 11:04 AM

An Uncensored Look at the Real Sochi

The railway line from Sochi, Russia, to Sukhum in Abkhazia hugs the coast. The hotel-style sanatoriums of Adler rise behind it.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery. All images from The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).

With the 2014 Winter Olympic Games kicking off this week, the world will get a fast and likely incomplete introduction to Sochi, Russia. But for Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen, Sochi is familiar territory. They’ve spent the past five years painstakingly reporting on Sochi and the surrounding region, determined to transcend the Olympic glow that now engulfs the city. A look at their expansive work, “The Sochi Project,” fills in the blanks of the city’s story, revealing an incredibly complicated place steeped in history and conflict. “We don't have anything against these games, but we hope if you watch them that you know in general where it's taking place,” Hornstra said. “If you look a little bit farther than the stadium, you'll see different things. I think it's important for people to know what's going on over there, that it is part of this facade, the Putin show.”

The work tells the story of Russia’s summer capital, “the Florida of Russia, but cheaper,” including its history as the site of a genocide, its development into a tourist destination, and recent changes made in anticipation of the Olympic Games. “It's Putin's project. The people there, they don't care about these games. They were complaining about too much traffic, dust, and construction work,” Hornstra said.

Geologists, lawyers, environmentalists, and concerned citizens photographed at the city’s Geographic Society in 2009. At this fortnightly gathering, discussions covered the latest Olympic plans and how to limit the environmental damage, contest the forced removals, and ultimately keep the games at least partially out of Sochi.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

Every year, Mikhail Pavelivich Karabelnikov, 77, travels from Novokuznetsk, Russia, to take his vacation in Sochi. ,
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.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

It also follows the history of nearby Abkhazia, which declared itself an independent country in 1999 but is only recognized by five nations, including Russia. Russia and Georgia fought a war over Abkhazia in 2008, and it is unclear how the games will affect relations between the nations. The work also documents the nearby North Caucasus, a poor and violent region in Russia that has produced terrorism and female suicide bombers


Hornstra and van Bruggen’s mission was ambitious, and from the beginning the pair knew that their reporting would eventually 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 become, the more difficult it was to handle this situation. We were arrested multiple times in the North Caucasus,” Hornstra said.

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. At that moment reinforcements arrived. Hamzad started screaming and telling them to run away. But no one responded. He decided to throw himself on the grenade. “In retrospect, it was all for nothing. I sacrificed myself for a bunch of cowards,” he says bitterly.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

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. Her dream is to start a family and have babies, she says. But whatever happens, she will continue dancing.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

Recently, Hornstra and van Bruggen were denied visas to re-enter Russia, which resulted in the cancellation of an exhibition planned in Moscow and the end of their work on the project. “I don't care so much about the games. I care about Russia. I've been working there for 10 years. I have a lot of friends out there,” Hornstra said. “We want to follow up on specific main characters in the project. We want to see how the region around Sochi is dealing after the games, how it's developing after the games. It's really a pity that we can't go back.”

Hornstra’s photographs can be seen in the book The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus. They will also be on display at the DePaul Art Museum through March 23.

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. Dima had burned his legs at his parents’ barbecue party, and his doctor prescribed a visit to Matsesta. The treatment involved sitting with his burned legs under running sulphurous water for six minutes, three times a day. His nurse said that any longer and the remedial effects of the water would be worse than the complaint.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

The road to Gimry, a centuries-old center of the anti-Russian resistance, winds through stunning scenery.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

In 2007 the then-mayor of Shatoy, Russia, proudly announced that within a few years the Chechen mountain town would become the Switzerland of Russia. At the checkpoint just outside the town, Hornstra and van Bruggen are told that they cannot enter.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

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 road was necessary for Russia to conquer the Caucasus. It also made it easier for Russia to protect Georgia against the Ottoman and Persian empires, but consequently the Georgians forfeited their independence.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

Rosa Khutor is an alpine ski resort in the Krasnaya Polyana valley, 25 miles from Sochi.

Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery


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