Life in Sochi Ahead of the Olympic Games

Life in Sochi Ahead of the Olympic Games

Published: June 17, 2011 (Issue # 1661)

Simon Eliasson / The St. Petersburg Times

A group of teenagers takes a break from the process of moving out of their homes to make way for construction work as preparations are made for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

As the Black Sea city of Sochi prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the biggest sporting event in Russia since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, the whole city is being transformed. The area around Imeretinskaya Bukhta (Bay), south of the center, is the site set for the most radical changes. Even though the arenas are starting to take shape, a couple of hundred houses and their owners remain. But soon the whole area will be completely demolished, only to rise from the rubble in a new form in less than three years time. This is where the Olympics will be inaugurated in February 2014.

“The Olympics will be a huge celebration for Russia, and the modernized infrastructure it brings will have positive effects for the citizens of Sochi for a long time to come,” said Tatyana Strakhova, head of the city’s Information Center 2014.

The citizens of Imeretinskaya Bukhta do not all share her unreserved optimism about the Olympics. In total, about a thousand citizens in Sochi have had their property expropriated by the state to make way for construction. Valentina Selivanova is one of them. She lives with her husband in the area, but they don’t have much time left here. Their house will soon be demolished, though they still haven’t been informed exactly when it will happen.

“We have lived in this house since 1972, and now nothing remains of it,” said Selivanova.

Her son Nikolai is emptying the house he grew up in. Roofing, copper pipes — everything that might be of value is stacked in a pile on the lawn in front of the house. The house itself is empty, except for the one room in which Valentina and her husband still live. The empty windows of the other rooms gape hauntingly, and the roof is partially gone. Nearby the heap of metal scraps lies a mound of grapevines, torn up from the backyard. Selivanovna and her family chose to accept financial compensation for their house rather than move to a new house supplied by Olympstroi, the state corporation in charge of construction for the Olympics.

Simon Eliasson / The St. Petersburg Times

Houses awaiting demolition in Imeretinskaya Bukhta, seen against a background of construction cranes. About 1,000 people in Sochi have lost their homes.

“The new houses in [the area of] Nekrasovka are being built in a hurry and lack quality,” said Selivanova. “There have been many problems with them, from bad flooring to skewed doorways. That’s the reason we chose compensation instead, rather than take the risk of ending up in a bad quality house.” Currently, the family is looking for an apartment in central Sochi. The compensation they received will be enough to buy about 60 square meters of living space there, compared to the more than 200 square meters they had in the house.

Back at the Information Center, Strakhova proudly shows off the room where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised the development in Sochi at a press conference earlier this year. Putin’s enthusiasm is shared by Strakhova, as she describes how wonderful the city is becoming thanks to the Olympic Games. An influx of well educated and skilled workers, international attention and the money being poured into infrastructure and the public sector are just a few of the things that will change the city completely, she says.

“Of course, every city has its problems,” she says. “But the Olympics have given us a chance to improve everything here, and all these changes would have taken many years to accomplish if it wasn’t for the extra funds we’ve received because of the Games.” She explains that it is an impossible task to keep everyone satisfied while working on a project of this scale.

“The people who are negative about the Games just want everything to stay the way it always has been,” said Strakhova. “The people of Bukhta are used to living a quiet life near the sea and living off tourism. Of course they are bitter about losing their homes and land.”

Many of the inhabitants of Bukhta do not have formal documents proving that they own the land. In many cases, they received the land during the Soviet era, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the ownership was not transferred properly. Now, as the state claims back the land, some residents have had problems in proving their right to compensation or substitute housing.

Simon Eliasson / The St. Petersburg Times

Valentina Selivanova stands in the single room that she and her husband are living in before their house’s demolition.

“The state is working on helping everyone to get proper documentation of their ownership,” said Strakhova. “It is a slow and time-consuming process, but no one will be thrown out on the street.”

Outside the regional court in the neighboring town of Adler, 15 former Bukhta residents are waiting for a court session. Many hold plastic bags full of documents. The reasons they are here differ. Some have received no compensation at all, and others claim that their compensation was too low. What they have in common is despair over their situation — and a hatred of Olympstroi, the Sochi administration, and everything to do with the Olympics.

“Suddenly, one day three years ago, our land was fenced off with barbed wire and we had no access to it anymore,” said Zina Leinchik. “We haven’t received compensation, and now we’ve been fighting for our rights for three years without any success.

“I remember when I first heard that Sochi had been chosen to host the Olympic Games,” Leinchik continued. “I couldn’t sleep all night because I was so happy and excited about what would happen to our city. Even then, my husband said: ‘Just wait until they take our land away.’ But back then I couldn’t imagine that something like this would happen,” she said.

The door to the courtroom is opened an hour and a half after it was due to open. The 15 residents are herded into a small room, where some have to remain standing. The Russian flag hangs limply in a corner, and the federal emblem adorns the wall behind the judge. The air is stuffy, and the only noise that can be heard before the magistrate starts speaking is the frantic scribbling of the clerk. During the roll call, it becomes clear that no representative for either Olympstroi or the city’s administration is present. The hearing is postponed until the next month, and the 15 have to leave the court without results.

Simon Eliasson / The St. Petersburg Times

Yevgeny Varnov, 28, in his apartment in Imeretinskaya Bukhta the day before the building was razed to the ground.

“Now it is postponed until next month, the next time it will be until August,” said Leinchik. “They ignore us completely, and until we obtain a ruling from the regional court, we cannot take the case to higher bodies.”

A local lawyer who wished to remain anonymous gave his interpretation of the problem.

“There is probably no money left now in the budget for compensating relocated people. Now they are trying to slow down the process as much as they can, hoping that people will give up.”

A couple of hundred meters from the construction sites in Bukhta, the Black Sea meets the coast. Immense waves pound the dark, rocky beach constantly. A couple of years ago this beach was the scene of everyday life for the residents of Bukhta: A place for fishing, strolling, enjoying the sunset and watching dolphins. Now the beach, too, is a building site. A bulldozer roars while shoveling the remains of an industrial building in front of it. In the neighboring building, fisherman Yevgeny Varnov is packing up his life from an apartment one floor above a fish factory. He has lived here for the past seven years, together with four colleagues and his wife Stella. Rubbish is thrown out of the door while the rest is packed up in bags. His colleagues help. The apartment is in poor condition. The wallpaper hangs loose from the walls, and a solitary light bulb dangles from the ceiling. In one of the bedrooms, the walls are papared with pages from magazines. This is the other side of Bukhta: Run-down accommodation, unstable access to electricity, and a lack of proper plumbing. Many say it’s not a day too soon that places like this are being torn down.

“Olympstroi knocked on the door this morning and told us we have three days to move,” said Varnov. “Now my wife and I have nowhere to go, but it will work itself out some way. It has to. I’m glad we don’t have any children yet,” he added. He looks tired and resigned.

The promised three days turn out to be one. The day after Varnov showed his living quarters to the outside world, the building was demolished, leaving nothing behind but a large pile of rubble. The bulldozer continues its never-ending scraping, and the remnants of the fish factory lie neatly piled up by the road, waiting to be removed. Some scrap-metal scavengers from Tajikistan pick the pile clean of metal, while the fishermen watch silently with cigarettes in the corners of their mouths. In a future where the attention of the world is focused on Bukhta and the Olympics, it seems there is no place for people like Varnov. He has to find a new place in which to live, without the help of Olympstroi.

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