Dima, a child whose legs were burned at a wild barbecue party hosted by his parents. For six minutes, three times a day, he places his legs under running sulfurous water. Photos © Rob Hornstra / Flatland Gallery.
With the Olympic Games now over, reports from journalists about lobby-less hotels, rooms without water, and a host of other Sochi problems are now fading to the back of our collective consciousness. As countries bask in the glow of being so good at sports that they get to collect shiny metal discs, the dark legacy of the 2014 Olympics lingers on: Russian families kicked out their homes with no where to go; construction workers still without pay, and a generation of Russians left with figuring out how to pay the 50 billion dollar price tag.
Back in 2011, VICE followed photographer Rob Hornstra to Russia on a shoot for part of his, and writer/filmaker Arnold van Bruggen’s project, about the context in which the 2014 Sochi Games were to be built.
The Sochi Project, has been in the works for the better part of the last five years. Together, the two Danish journalists have been documenting the huge contrasts between people from the surrounding areas and the extravagance of the Sochi Games. This was a journey into the heart of Russia’s impoverished rural areas, to post-war zones and still-fragile towns. From Sochi’s tourist town to farmlands, to Abkhazia, the self-declared independent state to the South of the Sochi region, and over the mountains to the North Caucasus, a region where fighting has been ongoing for years between separatists and Russian security forces. Hornstra and van Bruggen were arrested multiple times, took many shots of vodka, and have been denied a re-entry visa since July 2013, without reason.
Their work has, for the most part, come to a satisfying end. The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus, published in October 2013, is a stunning compilation of the past five years, and the website is that and much more. With the closing of the Games, VICE got in touch with Hornstra to discuss the changes to Sochi, how the people feel about the Games, and if their work on the project is really finished.
Hamzad Ivloev, a former policeman in the North Caucasus, threw himself on a rebel grenade.
VICE: Hi Rob. Firstly, where have you left things with The Sochi Project, now that you aren’t allowed back into Russia?
Rob Hornstra: Well, in a way our project is finished. Of course, the fact that we were refused visas also means we’re done, but it didn’t affect our work because we had already planned to complete our project by now. If you want to have exhibitions, a website, and a book, all before the games, it had to be finished in October. Our last visit for The Sochi Project was early 2013. That was really the last trip we could make. In the end, we do want to go back to follow up on the project.
If we had visas, we would be in Russia right now. To see how our main characters from The Sochi Project—people who we followed over five years—how they are now living through the Olympic Games.
Did you notice, even in your last visit, if there is still a huge contrast between the impoverished communities and this new Olympic paradise?
The contrasts are only getting bigger. In the beginning, when we were there, they wanted to build the stadiums there was absolutely nothing there. It was green fields. If you compare a green field, to human rights violations or to poverty on the other side of the mountains (the North Caucasus), that doesn’t really make sense. But, if you try to compare these fantastic $50 billion Games to the human rights violations and poverty on the other side of the mountains, then that’s an unbelievable contrast. The contrast has only gotten bigger in the last five years.
You were talking about not being able to get a visa to Russia. Did authorities not realize what you were working on earlier?
It’s difficult to say. When we started, we had a plan to first do Sochi, then do Abkhazia, and then only to start working in the North Caucasus near the end of our project because working there, you will get in trouble with Russian authorities. It happens all the time with journalists working there longer than two or three days.
The beach near Adlersky Kurortny Gorodok in Adler.
Have the perspectives of people in the Sochi region changed over the past five years?
Now that the Olympics have started, I think Russians are quite proud of it. In Sochi, not many things have changed. People live there and they earn their living on summer tourism. The Olympics are a winter thing that they don’t care about; they care about the summer tourism. If you go a little further from Sochi, people simply don’t care about winter sports. They don’t care about skating and skiing, which is something for rich Russians.
We heard a lot about how reporters, just days before the Games, were staying in incomplete hotels. Did this surprise you?
Yeah, it surprised me because what we always said is that no matter what happens, this is Russia and it will look fantastic. I think the stadiums and the facilities for the sportsmen are really quite perfect. For the journalists, it’s surprising because if you need to have one thing perfect, it’s for the journalists because they have to write about it.
I was wondering if it’s possible that not having the accommodations for journalists prepared was meant as a 'fuck you' from Russia to journalists, you know? Like they’re saying they don’t care about the journalists as long as the athletes are happy, because in the end that’s what the journalists will be reporting on.
I don’t know. I think we sometimes we undervalue the Russians—their smartness and power. I think it was just a mistake. I think they just failed in getting everything in on time.
View from the road between Shamilkala and Gimry. Gimry is a hotbed for the current Islamic-inspired separatism.
Has your approach to the project and the way you took your photos changed throughout the past five years in Russia?
The style of photography didn’t change, and hasn’t changed since my studies. If you look to the content… in the end, we became bitter because, well, we were already expecting this facade in Russia, but if you see what’s happening so close to the Games then you get so frustrated.
I don’t know if you know that the Dutch brought a big delegation to Sochi?
No, I didn’t.
Yeah, well our King is there. So is our Prime Minister, and a few important ministers. Our King is shaking hands with a guy who is responsible for abductions, for human rights violations, for violence, for poverty. It’s embarrassing to shake hands with this guy. That’s why we were hoping, through this project, that things would get better.
That’s what [Putin was] telling the international committee in 2007, that they’re going to develop the North Caucasus, and build ski resorts to develop the economy. It was all fake, all artificial and no IOC member is asking questions like, 'What’s happening to all these promises?’
Olympic stadiums being built at the Black Sea coast in the Imeretin Valley.
I feel like I may already know that answer to this. But what are your thoughts on what will become of the Olympic complexes, five years from now?
Nothing will happen. The stadiums will be there, Putin will make sure some international conventions will take place there. He’ll have some meetings there and some international people will come for the ski resorts.
I don’t think Russians care. I wonder if it increased the worldwide image of Russia. There is already so much written about the violence and the human rights violations that people already see the Olympics as a facade, and that’s how they should see it. I think it simply shows Russia. There’s one man in charge, and it’s Putin.