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The Weird Olympics

Situated on the shore of the Black Sea, Sochi is Russia’s largest resort destination. It’s a place so beautiful that Josef Stalin kept a dacha there during the golden years. The region’s charm will soon be forced down the throats of a...


Each year, Mikhail Pavelivich Karabelnikov (77) makes the approximately 2,000-mile trip from Novokuznetsk, Russia, to summer in Sochi. During the Soviet era, millions of workers were sent annually to the city’s famed sanatoriums, in hopes of reviving their spirits and strengthening their bodies. Today, they remain booked year-round and are mostly filled with elderly or disabled Russians. By 2014, almost all of these historic buildings will have been converted into luxury hotels to house Olympic athletes, officials, and spectators.

Situated on the shore of the Black Sea, Sochi is Russia’s largest resort destination. It’s a place so beautiful that Josef Stalin kept a dacha there during the golden years. The region’s charm will soon be forced down the throats of a worldwide audience when Sochi hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Contrasting its seemingly sunny and laidback atmosphere, Sochi’s past is tarnished by conflict. Russia has tried—with varying degrees of success—to control the area for more than 200 years. Today the city is an amalgam of ethniticites, all with competing histories and claims to independence.

When Sochi won the Olympic bid in 2008, the city lacked world-class athletic facilities (which made its selection all the more peculiar). The Russian government has since pledged $12 billion to refurbish the city—by some estimates, the most that has ever been spent to bring a site up to Olympic standards.

Photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen have rigorously documented the region’s extraordinary changes for a multimedia enterprise they call the Sochi Project, which will continue through the closing ceremony of the games. Rob was kind enough to provide us with a few images that capture a type of socioeconomic flux unique to the region.


Young Dima submerges his injured leg in a tub at the Matsesta spa. The water supposedly contains a surplus of hydrogen sulphide with unique medicinal properties.


Masha, a 20-year-old Sochi goth, hangs out at an aquarium in the center of town. At the time this photo was taken, she was busy rehearsing for the Miss Sochi competition. A few days later she was engaged to her boyfriend, Vladimir. It was apparent that she had no say in either decision.


Disco night at the Club (its actual name) on the top floor of the Metallurg sanatorium. Evening schedules vary from dance nights to karaoke to more exotic forms of entertainment, like perfume testings and talent shows.


Aliona, a stripper, moments before beginning her act at a late-night restaurant located on the top floor of the Zhemchuzhina Hotel.


The twinkling allure of Sochi, Russia, in 2011. Once considered the “pearl” of the Soviet Union, the city’s postcommunist architecture is an absurd hodgepodge of grandeur and nondescript tourist flats. The landscape will undergo drastic changes over the next few years as the city prepares for the Olympics.









It’s common for Sochi restaurants (and eateries throughout the country) to feature singers who, night after night, rely on a fixed repertoire of Russian chansons. The term “background music” is a foreign concept to these performers—often the volume is cranked up to 11, and instead of talking, patrons dance and sing. The photos this page are part of an ongoing subseries Rob is currently compiling. They were photographed in Sochi and neighboring Alder.

Watch Rob hard at work in Sochi on a new episode of Picture Perfect at VBS.TV, and afterward delve deeper into his mission at thesochiproject.org.