Olympic Games

Spotlights and dark sides


Hotel Zhemchuzhina (“pearl”) is a sprawling former-Soviet hotel on Sochi’s beachfront. During the low season it is filled with visitors to nearby convention centres: bankers from Moscow, businessmen from Siberia and the odd international guest from the film festival. At these times Zhemchuzhina’s three nightclubs are arguably busier than in the summer. Sochi, 2011

Matsesta (“fire water”), a village a few hundred metres inland from Sochi, is renowned for its sulphur baths. Dima burnt his legs at a barbecue party. His doctor prescribed a visit to Matsesta. He now sleeps in one of the sanatorium’s small rooms and for six minutes three times a day he sits with his legs under running sulphurous water – any longer and the effects would be worse than the complaint, says the attending nurse. Matsesta, Sochi region, Russia, 2009

Left: the Museum of Aircraft and Cosmonautics at Orlyonok children’s summer camp, one of the main Soviet Young Pioneer camps which, since 1960, is estimated to have hosted more than 800,000 children. Right: “Floor lady” Natalya Shorogova has worked at Hotel Zhemchuzhina since 1995. Each level has its own floor lady, who oversees the correct use of the rooms and monitors which guests come and go. Sochi, 2011

Rosa Khutor is an odd mix of Stalinist neoclassicism and Alpine village. It is the last Olympic village in Krasnaya Polyana’s long valley, built by the oligarch Vladimir Potanin’s investment companies. Modern, eclectic and flashy, it is a small embassy of planet Moscow in the Caucasus, President Putin’s dream of a new Russia become reality. Rosa Khutor, Sochi region, 2013

It’s common for restaurants in Sochi – and elsewhere in Russia – to feature singers who, night after night, belt out a fixed repertoire of Russian songs. Here, Marika Baiur takes to the microphone in Restaurant Eurasia in Sochi. Although the waiters are dressed in Asian, Turkish and traditional Russian outfits, customers only want to hear old-fashion songs about love, longing and loss. Sochi, 2011

The railway line from Sochi to Sukhum in Abkhazia hugs the coast. Behind it rise the sanatoria of Adler, just south of Sochi’s large Stalinist sanatoria. Hotel rooms in Adler are marginally cheaper, which is immediately apparent on the beach: overweight bodies sweating beer and spirits; noisy eaters surrounded by tacky music. Well-heeled Russians take refuge in Sochi’s fancier hotels or more often opt for Italy. Adler, Sochi region, 2011

Every year, Mikhail Pavelivich Karabelnikov from Novokuznetsk travels around 3,000 kilometres to take his holiday in Sochi. During the Soviet era, every year millions of workers were sent to Sochi’s sanatoria to recharge. Today, the sanatoria are fully booked year round mostly with elderly or disabled Russians. In the run-up to the Winter Games, almost all will be converted into luxury hotels. Sanatorium Metallurg, Sochi, 2009

Olympic stadiums being built at the Black Sea coast in the Imeretin Valley. Adler, Sochi region, 2012

In the kitchen and treatment centre of Sanatorium Metallurg. Sanatorium Metallurg, Sochi, 2009

Hotel Zhemchuzhina was certified as a three-star hotel in the obligatory Olympic certification programme. Dozens of similar hotels line Sochi’s crowded coast. They were built in the Soviet Union’s heyday and then neglected. Now, their owners believe the Olympic Games are their saving grace. All the major hotels are being overhauled to bring Sochi up to international standards. Sochi, 2011

Instead of talking in Sochi restaurants, it’s common for patrons to dance and sing. Bar Proletarski Sochi, 2011

When this photograph was taken in 2009, the sovkhoz’s (state-owned farm) land had just been expropriated. Refugees from impoverished Abkhazia, a few kilometres away, were temporarily allowed to take over the wasteland behind the blue fences. They grew corn and grain and lived in this extended trailer. This is the least touristy part of Sochi, with fewer sanatoria but more family hotels, small businesses and farms. Adler, Sochi region, 2009

The region’s promenades extend for dozens of kilometres, from Adler in the south to Dzhubga in the north, and are almost indistinguishable from each other: packed with identical wooden souvenir stands and long rows of restaurants, almost all of which serve the same food and play similar music. Loo, Sochi region, 2011




The Black Sea resort of Sochi is hosting the Winter Olympics from February 7-23. For two weeks all eyes will be on Russia, where athletes will compete for 98 medals in 15 disciplines.

Switzerland has sent its biggest Winter Games delegation ever, and Swiss Olympic has set a target of ten medals for its 163 athletes.

Representing the Swiss government, Didier Burkhalter, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, will attend the opening ceremony. Sports Minister Ueli Maurer will arrive during the event and Interior Minister Alain Berset will make an appearance during the Paralympic Games following the Winter Olympics.

Other politicians will also be making the trip to Sochi, thereby brushing off calls by Swiss politicians from all parties to boycott the event because of Russian laws regarding homosexuality. Swiss human rights and gay organisations aren’t calling for a boycott, but instead want to see Swiss politicians push for the implementation of civil rights in Russia.

Then there’s the House of Switzerland, which is looking forward to hosting as many medal parties as possible as the Sochi hub for Swiss athletes and fans. The specially constructed wooden building also aims to present Switzerland to the world as a top winter sports nation.

As the Games approach, the media hype should drown out the hefty criticism so far, which has included the ballooning costs from a planned $12 billion (CHF10.9 billion) to a record $50 billion. In addition, critics have cited massive reported corruption, the Winter Games being held in a subtropical climate as a prestige project of Russian President Putin, dispossessions, forced evictions, deteriorating human rights and environmental crimes.

Sochi will also go down as the Olympics with the biggest security presence, after bomb attacks in nearby Volgograd in December killed 34 people. North Caucasus separatists have warned of “presents” in the form of further attacks during the Games.

This dark side of the Games has been illuminated by photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen in their photo book “The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus”. The pair spent five years touring Sochi and the neighbouring regions, meticulously documenting changes in places, inhabitants and landscapes. They have since been banned from entering Russia.

(Text: Renat Küenzi, swissinfo.ch. Images from “The Sochi Project. An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus” by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen. Aperture-Verlag 2013)

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