European Elections Special

“It will be a war-like Olympics”

Journalist Arnold van Bruggen and photographer Rob Hornstra started visiting Sochi in 2007. They wanted to document the Winter Olympics’ impact on the region. A talk about the reality-defying nature of the 2014 games.

The European: You have published a book and a website called “The Sochi Project”, which document the site of the Winter Olympics and its surrounding region. The first page of your book says “the 2014 Winter Olympics are being staged in a subtropical conflict zone.” Over more than 400 pages of photos and stories, you expose the utter madness of Sochi 2014. What do the games tell us about contemporary Russia?
van Bruggen: Hosting the games shows that Russia doesn’t shy away from cynical decisions. The North Caucasus is Russia’s poorest region and its most violent region, right at the border of the conflict zones of Abkhazia and Georgia. Organizing the Olympics there is a show event for Putin’s Russia – at the cost of more than 50 billion dollars.

“It is a bizarre undertaking”

The European: Or more…
van Bruggen: Nobody really knows the actual numbers. Some are saying that the costs have already exceeded 60 billion – and since the Russian government isn’t disputing it, I guess these estimates are quite right. It is a bizarre undertaking.

The European: What makes it so bizarre is that all of Sochi had to change for the Olympics. You link to a grandiose video of the Russian government that wanted to transform the entire region. But even ordinary people, like a hotel manager, became willing to fire everybody “stuck in a Soviet mentality.” Why are the Olympics still such an engine for change?
van Bruggen: The Olympics are still the most prestigious event in the world to hold. They come with a strong brand and ideals that have proven stronger than reality. Think back to Beijing, where 1.5 million people were relocated. Or remember the almost military operation in London; The Olympics games have become very strange. And yet the appeal is irresistible. 

The European: You quote Vladimir Putin who said that “real snow is guaranteed.”
van Bruggen: Russia has a vertical leadership that allows somebody on top to say “We are going to get the Olympics, bring them to a subtropical coastal town and make sure that within seven years, everything will be built from scratch – including the mentality of people in Sochi.” And then people get to work. All the infrastructure was built; literally everything people will be using during the Olympics is new. All hotels, all sports infrastructure, all roads, tunnels and airports. But in reality, not much has changed. Meanwhile, in old Sochi, they tried to renovate everything but could not compete with the new buildings. Old Sochi didn’t make it. They may have some new restaurants, some new clubs – but in the end, it has proved impossible to change the people’s mentality in seven years. For that reason, the newly-built Olympic grounds looks like a couple of UFOs have landed on farmland.

The European: There is a picture in the book showing a little hut on a cabbage field. The caption indicates that this was where the Olympic park was going to be built. How did they do it?
van Bruggen: An authoritarian regime only has to get things running and then they can manage to change nature and mountains to create a place for the Winter Olympics. They did that with all the oil and gas money – and by appointing a few oligarchs who owed them favors and told them to invest. Oligarchs like Deripaska and Potanin went to Sochi and invested heavily – against all their business ideals.

The European: An enormous effort…
van Bruggen: Exactly. But I think these games will work in the end. They will be overshadowed by the huge security apparatus, the spying on all the athletes and spectators. It will be a war-like Olympics. There might even be a terror attack – if not in Sochi, then outside of the city, I am sure of that. I wish it wasn’t so, but I find it inevitable. So much money and so much political prestige has been invested that they are going to make it work.

The European: Was it this absurdity that attracted you to region and start the Sochi Project?
van Bruggen: It was that – but also the contrast of the region. We already knew it a bit and had read what the North Caucasus was like. We knew it would be a story of contrast: Between a subtropical climate and the winter games, between the conflict and the event, between poverty and the most expensive games ever. That much was clear in 2007 when they promised to invest 9 billion dollars. As journalists and documentary makers, it was also a change to start working with a fixed deadline.

© Rob Hornstra / Flatland Gallery. From: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).

The European: What does that mean?
van Bruggen: Over the past five years we could sell stories about South Ossetia – by including a sentence about the Winter Olympics. We could produce any story we liked and that newspapers and magazines ordinarily would not buy. This gave us a chance to thoroughly document this region – something we found very important.

“We kept on getting arrested”

The European: You take an interesting approach to reporting by offering the reader many insights into peoples’ lives. You sit down with them for a bottle of vodka, join them at the dining hall in a sanatorium and talk to the mayors of small towns in conflict zones. Why did you do this?
van Bruggen: We really aren’t news journalists but documentary makers. Many people call it slow journalism: We take an anthropological approach to finding and making stories. I am not an opinion maker – when I write something down, I want it to be backed up by the experiences of a lot of people. Only talking to hundreds of people in the North Caucasus allows me to write a book about the history of this region. I don’t think you can do that after interviewing just one politician, one police officer and one victim of the conflict. It is also a consequence of working with a photographer: If you interview only three people, you don’t have a photo series. It brought me to places I wouldn’t have visited if I had worked alone.

© Rob Hornstra / Flatland Gallery. From: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).

The European: How much time did you spend in the region in total?
van Bruggen: Around one year in total over the course of five years.

The European: What was the most surprising thing about working there?
van Bruggen: That things ultimately turned out to be much weirder than we thought – and much more interconnected. Until a month ago, people asked us how we could link the North Caucasus and Sochi. Since the attacks of Volgograd, it suddenly seems obvious to link them. But this has been going on for years: You could see a clampdown on human rights in the North Caucasus, the activities against human rights activists or lawyers. Until a month ago, this story did not seem to exist for many people.

The European: Do you share the impression that many people simply have no idea about the context of the Winter Olympics? That it takes places in a subtropical conflict region does not seem to be much of a talking point.
van Bruggen: That is one of the reasons why we started this project. If you hadn’t read anything beforehand and started watching the Olympics on your TV, you wouldn’t notice much of the context. What kind of city Sochi is. How close to the border of Abkhazia is it – which is closed for one month before and after the games. Journalists aren’t able to report there. That is why we started reporting so early.

The European: You didn’t encounter any difficulties during your time in the region?
van Bruggen: For five or even two years before the games, we were completely free to work in the North Caucasus. It only became difficult to work there during the last year. Now we are no longer able to enter Russia – they refused us a press visa after arresting us several times. The Russian administration did not want to to connect the events in the North Caucasus with the Sochi games. We kept on getting arrested.

The European: What reasons were given?
van Bruggen: They always found a reason. We were often told that there was a counter-terrorist operation taking place, so you couldn’t enter some regions as a foreigner. But of course these operations are secret, you never know it before you try to go there. And they were never officially confirmed.

The European: What other obstacles did you encounter?
van Bruggen: North Ossetia, the most peaceful republic will only let foreigners travel on the largest connecting roads and to the four largest cities. Of course, we did not know about this law and neither did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. Still, we got arrested for violating it and could not continue our work.

“I really can’t imagine a positive legacy”

The European: You said that you are not an opinion-maker, but I still wonder how your work in the region has made you feel. Should the European Union have taken a firmer stand against the Olympics, particularly in the light of the crackdown on homosexuals?
van Bruggen: This is something that should be pursued via the European Court of Human Rights or the European Council. In a sense, the Sochi Olympics are like the World Cup in Qatar: A strange decision, taken quite a while ago. There should have been protest back in 2007. The facts were already clear. Hosting the Winter Olympics in a subtropical conflict zone is technically possible, but the international community should decide whether they really want it to happen. A magical term in international sports is “legacy”: Will these games have a positive legacy for the region? I really can’t imagine it.

The European: Why?
van Bruggen: Russians with a bit of money don’t go to Sochi. They prefer Austria, Switzerland, or France. And poor people won’t be able to afford the new facilities because they are going to be more expensive than those in Austria, Switzerland, or France. I don’t think it will a long-term success.

Interview by Lars Mensel


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