The Zoich Olympics: Vladimir Putin's $50 billion prestige project in Sochi
by McKenzie Funk
First published in Outside Magazine, December 2013
In 2010, the people of Russia were asked to design an Olympic mascot, and the people responded—creating 24,000 cartoon bears, tigers, saints, snowflakes, witches, and wolves in just three months, a forest of candidates, a seeming triumph of democracy. The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, in the southerly city of Sochi, had until then been Vladimir Putin’s pet project. The new Russia was to be showcased at the president’s favorite Russian ski area and coastal resort, with facilities in the Caucasus Mountains and along the Black Sea built from scratch by his most favored oligarchs.
“Sochi is a unique place,” Putin had told the International Olympic Committee in 2007, when his personal touch helped Russia beat out Austria and South Korea for the chance to host the Games. “On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day—but up in the mountains, it’s winter.” Putin had flown to the IOC meeting in Guatemala just to deliver his country’s pitch. He’d spoken English, one of the few times he’s done so publicly. Now, to ignite similar Olympic passions in Russia, his government held a mascot contest. Common citizens would submit designs and vote for a winner. Whoever came up with the champ would receive two tickets to the Games.
Forty minutes after it was introduced online, a psychedelic blue frog with a ski pole in its mouth rose to the top of the ranks, and it stayed there until the contest was done. There are a few reasons why. One is that democracy, even carefully managed democracy, is messy. Another, as I witnessed over and over when I visited Sochi last February, is that Putin’s Olympics are Putin’s Russia in microcosm. The frog wore a tsarist crown on its head—a reference to “nationhood and spirituality,” explained its creator, the Moscow cartoonist Egor Zhgun, with faux solemnity. In its eyes, in place of pupils, were rotating Olympic rings: black, yellow, blue, red, and green. The frog was covered in fur—these being the Winter Olympics, after all—and it had no hands, which left many people wondering about the intended metaphor. (Zhgun says he simply neglected to draw them.) Its name was Zoich, a clever use of letters and numerals. To a Russian eye, the 2 in 2014 looks like a Z. The 4 looks like the letter Ч, which is pronounced ch. With a squint, or a bit too much vodka, “2014” reads “Zoich.”
In the YouTube video introducing Zoich’s candidacy, the frog is seen sipping a martini in a disco with the Cookie Monster, paratrooping into a city while attached to a string of balloons, kicking a rival candidate (a freshwater dolphin on skis) into a pit, and having a drink with one of the other subversive mascots, Pila, or “Saw”—a reference to the financial corruption, known as “sawing the budget,” that everyone expected to plague Olympic construction. The video was viewed 700,000 times. Love for Zoich spread to national newspapers and television. While no one knew quite what to make of the frog, its popularity felt dangerous. It was hard to see Zoich as anything but a protest candidate.
I met Zhgun in a Moscow café during a layover on my way to Sochi last winter, almost exactly a year before the Games would begin. Twenty-seven years old, tall and lanky, he was a soccer and hockey fan with no particular interest in the Olympics. “When I was drawing Zoich,” he told me, “I didn’t realize he would become a symbol of the opposition, but I was OK with that.” People started making bootleg Zoich T-shirts and ashtrays. Zhgun began dreaming up games to put on Zoich’s website. “One was like Jenga,” he said. “I wanted a game with the Olympic stadium made out of blocks of money. How much can you steal before it falls down?”
At the time of the contest, Putin, who had taken the lesser position of prime minister after reaching his presidential term limit, was quietly orchestrating a return to the top. The opposition—mostly urbanites like Zhgun—was beginning to mobilize. In a little over a year, there would be 100,000-person protests and counterprotests in Moscow, prompting bloody clashes with police. When Putin successfully reclaimed the presidency in 2012, with 64 percent of the vote, election observers noted that, despite allegations of ballot “irregularities,” fraud wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the government controlled who got to run in the first place. The real opposition wasn’t even on the ballot.
And so it went with Zoich. Just before Christmas 2010, a government-appointed jury of experts and celebrities narrowed the 24,000 mascot candidates to 11. The skiing dolphin made the short list. So did two bears, polar and brown. So did a snowboarding snow leopard that Zhgun derided as very badly drawn. Zoich was missing from the list. And after the frog was disqualified, the story got stranger. Zhgun admitted that he had entered the contest only because Russia’s Olympic Committee, hoping to drum up excitement, had paid him. “You can draw anything you want,” they said, “but you can’t tell anyone.” Even the protest candidate was just a piece of guerrilla marketing gone awry, crushed as soon as it began causing trouble.
The final round, a televised poll aired on Russia’s Channel One, attracted more than a million viewers—the highest number for a single broadcast since the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. The polar bear had been far ahead with the public, but on the morning of the vote, Putin, who was visiting with schoolchildren in Sochi, was asked which mascot was his favorite. It happens that there’s a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) leopard-breeding program based inside a national park outside the city. There’s a leopard pen in the park that was built with Olympic money. Putin—who has been photographed flying heroically with storks and shooting tigers with tranquilizer darts—has twice shown up to personally welcome transplanted leopards, still groggy after flights bringing them from Turkmenistan and Iran. By now the leopard mascot had been professionally retouched and given a new name: Barsik. According to his official bio, Barsik is the epitome of an intrepid but solitary leader. He is “a rescuer and mountain-climber who lives in the uppermost branches of a huge tree, on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus. He is always prepared to help those in need.”
“The leopard is a strong, powerful, fast, and beautiful animal,” Putin told the kids. “Leopard species had been destroyed around here, but now they are being regenerated. If the Olympic project, at least in some way, should help the local environment, then it would be symbolic.” After voting ended that night, three official mascots were unveiled: a bunny, a polar bear, and the not-too-surprising winner, Barsik the snowboarding snow leopard.
THE WWF’S LEOPARD enclosure was hidden in the forest to our left as photographer Simon Roberts and I drove up into the Caucasus from Sochi International Airport, but we didn’t have time to stop. A year before the Olympics, Sochi’s newly built mountain facilities were hosting test events: skeleton and luge, skiercross and boardercross, halfpipe skiing and snowboarding. Teams from all over the world were converging on Russia’s only subtropical city, a resort town close to Turkey once known mostly for the sanatoriums where Soviet workers came to recharge. Opening ceremonies and half of the 2014 events—ice skating, hockey, curling, anything requiring a roofed stadium—would be held in what organizers call the Coastal Cluster, which sits beside the Black Sea about 20 miles south of the center of Sochi, an urban sprawl that’s home to nearly 400,000 people. The main 40,000-person stadium, called Fisht, features a translucent egg-shaped shell through which spectators will be able to see the snowy Caucasus. But to get to the slopes and the rest of the events—the Mountain Cluster—they will have to travel (as Simon and I did) an hour or more up the gorge of the Mzymta River, to the village of Krasnaya Polyana, a journey slightly shorter than that between Vancouver and Whistler during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The traffic was so bad when we neared Krasnaya Polyana that we turned onto a side street, and our rental car bounced on to the hotel through cavernous potholes of mud. We arrived just in time for the welcome party: dancing Cossack boys pounding on drums, girls spinning and shouting, and dozens of foreign snowboarders and freeskiers clapping and drinking.
By this time, the world was beginning to worry about Sochi’s proximity to Chechnya; about the pledge by the jihadist Caucasus Emirate to put a stop to the “satanic games”; about the exiled Circassian people, Sochi natives for whom 2014 was the 150th anniversary of a genocide; about Russia’s new laws restricting homosexuality; about Russia’s role in Syria; about graft and the Games’ record-breaking $51 billion price tag—greater by at least $8 billion than the cost of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, the last time an authoritarian country decided to build the Best Games Ever from scratch. Some even worried about who would win and lose. But in Krasnaya Polyana, all this seemed far away. Who would win if the Games came together and were deemed an international success was obvious: Putin. The people on the losing side were everyday Russians, who saw their mountains and coast and city turned into the biggest construction project in Europe— especially the everyday Russians who dared to try and stop it.
It was the middle of winter, but Krasnaya Polyana had no snow. Even in daylight, it had almost no color: a construction site in gray scale. The village’s clamor of jackhammers and dump trucks and worker transports began at dawn, and Simon and I stepped out to follow groups of Uzbek and Kyrgyz guest workers through the side streets. They walked to their job sites with their heads down, smoking, skirting puddles. Others were already scrambling through the half-built shells of buildings that seemed to fill the valley wall-to-wall. I saw sparks from distant welders’ torches and stopped in front of one complex to count its cranes: 13. “It’s like a gold-rush town,” Simon muttered. Banners hung from the sides of many buildings, depicting the ritzy slopeside condos and hotels that would be in place when the Games begin on February 7. February temperatures in Krasnaya Polyana average 34.7 degrees, but the buildings on the banners were covered in snowdrifts. Until the clouds pulled back and I caught a glimpse of the steep peaks above, this was the only winter in sight. I found a pair of rental skis in a tiny shop across from a workers’ canteen adorned with Coca-Cola signs.
A few days before we arrived, Putin decided to crack down on delays and overruns by making an example of one of Russia’s Olympic Committee officials, Akhmed Bilalov. At an unfinished ski jump a few hundred yards from where we stood, Putin had shamed him on national television, strongly hinting that he was corrupt. Twenty-four hours later, Bilalov was out of his post; a few months after that, he surfaced in a German hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for an inexplicable case of mercury poisoning.
The only part of the village that seemed close to completion—two rows of tall hotels and pedestrian walkways flanking the Mzymta River—was where Simon and I went to catch a gondola to the test events. If I ignored the fresh paint and endless construction mess as we approached the modern Doppelmayr gondola station, this could have been Colorado. The impression lasted until I saw Russian soldiers with automatic weapons—a nod to what lay due east of us: restive Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. The soldiers manned a metal detector. They made me scan my boots but not my skis or poles. There were also white-clad snipers hiding on the slopes, athletes said, but I was never able to spot one myself.
Some test events had been canceled for lack of snow, and disappointed competitors were already streaming to the airport. The same thing had happened the previous winter, when World Cup skiing came to Sochi for the first time. But this year there was a halfpipe, a slab of ice and snow formidable enough to have survived two weeks of rain, albeit in imperfect shape. Men’s snowboarding teams were competing as planned. To get to the halfpipe from the midway station, I had to boot-pack around a temporary fence, dodge rocks while going down a groomed run, and hop over a drainage pipe. A hundred-person crowd was assembled below, adjacent to the Olympic mogul field, which was mostly brown slush. I watched a Chinese snowboarder drop in, then a Norwegian. A competitor from the Bahamas was so proud after his last air that he pumped both arms triumphantly as he exited the pipe— and promptly caught an edge, crashing hard enough to knock his helmet off.
“Now the Italian style has arrived in Sochi!” the announcer boomed in English. An Italian boarder raced down, launched too far off the sidewall, and landed on the flat bottom of the pipe with a sickening thud.
I couldn’t understand why Putin loved to ski at Krasnaya Polyana, or why the Games would be held here, until I rode a higher lift to the top, at 7,612 feet. And then I understood very well. I popped through a cloud layer partway up, and an archipelago of peaks stretched to the horizon. Russia has many higher mountains, many mountains farther north, but here the Caucasus were equal in beauty to the Alps. The sharp, mostly treeless Aibga Ridge extended for miles to my right and left. The slopes tipped over and dropped relentlessly down. A downhiller or a sport-loving president-for-life could go fall-line for thousands and thousands of vertical feet, which I did, skiing untracked powder until it thickened into toothpaste and I dropped into the fog.
THE USUAL VICTIMS of the world’s mega-projects—unpaid or grossly underpaid migrant workers, residents forcibly evicted to make way for construction—were featured this year in a major Human Rights Watch report on Sochi alongside an unlikelier group: the 226 members of the local branch of the Russian Geographical Society. The report came out just before I visited, and the people of the RGS, accidental dissidents suddenly cast against the whole of the Russian state, became my guides to understanding what was happening to greater Sochi.
Founded in 1845, the RGS is Russia’s oldest scientific club, historically as respected and apolitical as the National Geographic Society is in the United States. During the Soviet era, branch offices were meeting places for scientists and explorers, launching points for expeditions inside the country and abroad. The club held its national meeting every five years in St. Petersburg, but otherwise each branch operated independently, setting its own agenda and raising its own funds. Though small in terms of population, Sochi was granted a branch in 1957 on the basis of the region’s extraordinary geographical variety. Local RGS members, some of the most active in all of Russia, kept it afloat by contributing dues, charging for lectures and school visits, and selling rock and plant collections as study kits to universities.
The Sochi RGS occupies the former home of a general who had been in charge of guarding Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose vacation dacha was hidden in thick forest just up the hill. It overlooks the gentle waves of the Black Sea and a set of train tracks carrying a rush of construction supplies in one direction, rubble in the other. The yellow house was stately and worn, and like many Russian properties, it appeared to have been suspended in amber since at least December 25, 1991, the day the Soviet Union dissolved. When Simon and I arrived from Krasnaya Polyana, however, members were building something new: a government-mandated decorative fence, which they had been ordered to install and pay for themselves. It cost nearly $14,000. The property bordered the main road between downtown Sochi and the Coastal Cluster. Everyone along the route was expected to do their part to help the city shine.
Inside, scientific secretary Maria Reneva, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old geologist and the branch’s day-to-day leader, and Yulia Naberezhnaya, a 37-year-old ecologist who wore hiking boots and a purple Gore-Tex jacket, described how they landed in Putin’s crosshairs. Maria’s husband, father, and mother were geologists, and her mother had preceded her as secretary. Maria joined the RGS in 1989 at age 16, just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. After the fall of communism, the Sochi RGS became legally independent, left to fend for itself. As other local scientific institutes collapsed along with the Soviet state, their archives found a home in the branch’s musty library, making it all the more important that the RGS stay alive. “We did everything to survive,” Maria said. “Environmental-impact assessments, geological work—everything.”
When Putin’s oligarchs began building an $8 billion combined highway and railway to the event sites in Krasnaya Polyana, aiming to cut Olympic travel time in half, the lead construction company ran into extensive limestone caves where it was planning to place a tunnel. Company officials sought out local speleologists and were directed to the RGS branch, which had Soviet-era cave studies in its library and the scientists who wrote them on its membership rolls. In this way, the branch got an early glimpse of what was about to happen to Sochi, and its members decided that they were against the road, against the Games, against all of it.
“We didn’t need to vote on whether we should oppose the Olympics,” Yulia said. “It was obvious to everyone that they were going to ruin everything.” The mountains would get more ski lifts, the river valleys highways, the caves tunnels, the beaches seawalls, and the wetlands stadiums.
Members of the RGS worked with local environmental groups to publicly voice concerns about the Olympics, but the hall they reserved was suddenly made unavailable, supposedly because of an accidental double booking. Another press conference, planned for the seashore adjacent to the new stadiums and disappearing wetland, was blocked by the government construction firm Olympstroy, which soon won a permanent injunction that effectively made certain public beaches private. To get the word out, members published articles in journals and on the club’s website, and they did as many media interviews as they could.
All of which attracted Moscow’s attention. In late 2009, the national leadership of the RGS called an extraordinary meeting: it had been decided that the organization needed a new charter. Under the proposal, branch offices would be stripped of their independent legal status. They would now get funding—and marching orders—from regional offices, which in turn would take orders from a new office of the executive director, based in Moscow. In effect, the RGS would be federalized—and the Sochi branch muzzled. In a separate vote, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of emergencies and a prominent member of Putin’s United Russia party, was elected the new president of the RGS. Until that day, he had not even been a member. Putin himself was given the surprise invitation to chair its board of trustees, which he accepted in a speech before the delegates.
“We are now the last branch that is not part of the new system,” Maria said. Any day now, a lawsuit would come from Moscow—they had been told it was imminent—and local officials were already making vague threats. “If we don’t join, we will have ‘problems,’ ” Maria said. Problems with their papers, problems with their taxes—whatever problems authorities wanted to find. Under the new charter, RGS branches could not own property, and the Sochi branch’s seaside house could be worth millions to the right oligarch. Just up the hill, glass-walled palaces were under construction along the road to Stalin’s dacha; they were rumored to belong to the local governor, another United Russia stalwart, who would use them to host guests during the Olympics. Maria and Yulia were trying to carry on as usual as they awaited the lawsuit. They told Simon and me that the branch’s monthly show-and-tell, which featured slide shows and expedition reports from regular members, would take place the coming Sunday. And if we wanted a reality tour of Olympic venues, they could give us one the day after tomorrow.
THAT SAME AFTERNOON, before Simon and I retreated to the faux luxury of our Sochi hotel, we went uphill to check out Stalin’s dacha, which you can arrange to tour. Built in 1937, its every detail was focused on keeping the dictator alive and healthy. The exterior was painted forest green, making the compound mostly invisible from above. The keyholes were airtight, so assassins couldn’t pump in poison gas. The couch in the movie room was stuffed with horsehair, which made it practically bulletproof. The steps on the staircase were precisely 13 centimeters apart, a height calibrated to Stalin’s gait, so that the brutal man who killed at least 20 million Russians wouldn’t trip and injure himself.
Every room had open windows and a balcony, a caretaker explained, “so that Stalin would get fresh air and the air would heal his lungs.” Few Russians were aware of Stalin’s poor health, she said, but it was the reason he came to Sochi in the first place. He had bad lungs and a bad back. His left arm was damaged in a childhood accident. When Stalin was born, one of his legs was an inch shorter than the other, so he wore special boots. “The second half of his life was torture,” said our guide, a wry woman who also worked as a bookkeeper. “But this is the place where sea air mixes with coniferous air. It is good for the lungs.” Stalin found his daily saltwater swims rejuvenating, too, and he decided that Sochi would be as much a boon for the average Soviet worker’s health as it was for his. The sanatoriums happened mainly because of him.
The woman walked us past Stalin’s bedroom. For $250 a night, you could sleep here and be served three meals a day in the dacha’s dining room. She showed us where the five-foot-four dictator posed for official photos— always shot by his personal photographer, who knew how to make him look tall and powerful, sometimes by asking him to sit on a pillow. In a corner room was his billiard table.
“Stalin’s friends were scared to beat him,” she said. “They always let him win. But one of the gardeners here, one year he lost—and the next year he won! After that, Stalin improved his living conditions.”
Stalin seemed to love Sochi as much as Putin does. “What would Stalin think about the Olympics coming to Sochi?” Simon asked.
“Stalin wouldn’t have let this event happen,” she said, “because it’s just ruining the city.”
VLADIMIR PUTIN also has a Sochi dacha— three, in fact, if rumors are to be believed. The rumors are backed up by property records, leaks from whistle-blowers, federal guards at the fence lines, and photos taken by activists and construction workers and posted online. Everyone in Sochi accepted them as settled truth. At least five people—scientists, translators, mountaineers—told me they had seen a secret presidential residence with their own eyes.
One of the dachas, a $350 million Italianate mansion known as Putin’s Palace, was on the Black Sea coast north of Sochi. Another was in the woods behind Krasnaya Polyana, close to the site for the 2014 downhill-skiing events. But the one I wanted to visit was more than 6,000 feet up the snowy flanks of the highest peak in the western Caucasus, 9,363-foot Mount Fisht, the namesake of the main Olympic stadium. The place was called Lunnaya Polyana, or Moonglade, and depending on whose map you believed, it was either inside or on the border of a protected Unesco World Heritage site—“one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impacts,”Unesco pointed out when the western Caucasus were chosen for designation in 1999.
Once construction of a main lodge began in 2002, the site was officially listed as a weather station or a “scientific center” and given the name Biosphere. But then came ski lifts and helipads and Swiss-style architecture and multiple chalets and dozens of guest rooms and four new snowcats, and it became clear that Moonglade was something else: an elite private ski resort inside a onetime wilderness. There were no passable roads here; construction materials were brought by helicopter, presumably at enormous cost. Someone had nevertheless found room in the budget for flatscreen televisions, a moose head, a swimming pool, and at least two billiard tables.
After pictures of Moonglade appeared online, Putin’s press secretary said his experiences there were “exactly” like those of “ordinary tourists.” It was an odd statement, since ordinary tourists lack helicopters, and if they came to Mount Fisht at all it was during summer, when they could follow once popular Soviet trekking routes through fields of flowers and into the stunning high country.
Hikers had been some of the first to notice the strange construction at Moonglade. Some reported being chased off by guards who forced them to delete photos from their cameras. Images got out anyway, thanks in large part to the homegrown group Environment Watch on the North Caucasus, or EWNC, which began hiking to Moonglade for annual “inspections” in 2007. Photos and surreptitiously shot video appeared. In Moscow, opposition leaders added Moonglade to a list of increasingly lavish presidential perks that they cataloged in a 2012 report called “The Life of a Galley Slave.” The title was a reference to something Putin declared after his first turn as president: “All these eight years I toiled like a galley slave, from morning until evening, with every ounce of my strength.” According to the report, Moonglade was one of 20 palaces and country cottages that Putin had available for his personal use, along with four yachts, 15 helicopters, and 43 aircraft. The authors enlarged photos of Putin’s wrist taken during various public appearances and identified a watch collection worth roughly $657,000—more than six times his official annual salary.
I had arrived in Sochi with ski-touring gear, a map of Mount Fisht, and a half-baked plan to do a Moonglade inspection of my own—but the same rains that ruined various Olympic test events scuttled my chances. Jeep roads to the trailhead were impassably muddy, there wasn’t enough snow to move quickly on skis, and the mountain guides I called laughed at my plan, saying it would take me most of a week to hike up Mount Fisht and back. So I settled for an evening train trip northwest along the Black Sea to meet the founder of EWNC, Andrey Rudomakha, a legendary Caucasus activist who was perhaps the region’s most persistent thorn in Putin’s side. My train mates passed the time smoking, drinking tea, and talking loudly on their cell phones. But when sunset came and we passed empty pebble beaches lapped by dark waves, everyone stared out the windows and there was a moment of reverent silence.
AT THE STATION in Krasnodar, the regional capital, a group of college-age men met me with a cardboard sign that read STATE DEPARTMENT. One explained the joke: “Everyone thinks we’re funded by America.” Dissent in Russia was increasingly maligned as a foreign plot, and Putin had just signed a controversial law saying that any organization that receives money from abroad has to state clearly on paper and electronic documents that it is a “foreign agent.” My hosts and I piled into a junker Lada with a missing seat and raced to the small offices of Yabloko, or Apple, a green political party. Politics were Rudomakha’s latest experiment, an attempt— not yet very successful—to see if there was a way to fight for the Caucasus beyond picket lines and press releases.
Inside, young volunteers were devouring pizza while Rudomakha—in his youth a rock guitarist, Che Guevara admirer, and founder of a commune—typed quietly at a computer. His goatee and trademark pile of dark hair were now trimmed, almost respectable. He and I grabbed slices and sat down in the kitchen. The Olympics, Rudomakha told me, were an environmental disaster that he and the EWNC were protesting at every turn. Moonglade was just as “ecologically dangerous,” because the area had formerly been so pristine, but it was also where Rudomakha had achieved a major victory. A few years ago, authorities started to build a paved road to Moonglade through the heart of the wilderness, and the EWNC filed a lawsuit, sent activists to block machinery and loggers, and made an emergency appeal to Unesco. A public warning by Unesco that it might have to add the western Caucasus to its list of threatened World Heritage sites was enough to get the road canceled, even if the ski lodge remained, and even if a fight now loomed over a different road project, to access Moonglade from the other side. “There is no law in Russia,” Rudomakha said. “That’s why most of our fights are fights to lose. But this has Unesco. We may have a chance.”
Why did the oligarchs need a road at all, I wondered, when they had helicopters? “National security,” Rudomakha explained. According to yet another rumor, impossible to confirm, Putin once became stuck at the dacha when a winter storm grounded his chopper. He had to go back down the mountain on foot, like an ordinary tourist. That was unacceptable.
Rudomakha had hiked in to inspect Moonglade four times, and with each visit he saw more security. Most recently, he said, there was a fence and a watchtower. Rudomakha’s deputy, a clean-shaven man named Dima, pulled out a laptop to show me on Google Maps how to find Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, which also occupied public land and was surrounded by a tall fence. Dima told the story of a time when he and another well-known EWNC activist, the biologist Suren Gazaryan, made an inspection of the palace. Inside, they came across a surprised security guard and a man in camouflage, who told Dima he was an officer in the presidential guard.
“What is the Presidential Security Service doing here?” Dima asked.
“None of your business,” the man replied.
Officers from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, appeared, along with border guards, although any border is over a hundred miles away. Then came local police and men from a private security company. “They took all our cameras,” Dima said, “and suddenly there was no mobile-phone service. They broke into Suren’s car and took notebooks, laptops, phones, modems—everything electrical.”
The activists were taken to a police station to give a written explanation of what they were doing in the supposedly public forest. “I saved one memory card in a sock,” Dima said. “It was the only media that survived.” Gazaryan was later convicted for damage to a construction fence—someone had painted THIS IS OUR FOREST! on it—then charged with attempted murder because he had picked up a small rock and told a security guard to keep his distance. Facing years in prison, he fled Russia in November 2012 and is now in exile in Estonia.
“DO YOU HAVE just one daughter, Yulia?” I asked her this on a rainy morning as we set out with Maria to do the RGS tour of Olympic sites. It was just small talk, but she wheeled around in the front seat of the car and stared fiercely at me. “How did you know that?” she demanded. She calmed down when I reminded her that I had seen the little girl at the RGS branch earlier in the week, but in an instant I understood the atmosphere of fear that now pervaded everything. Soon the news would trickle out that Russia had set up a surveillance system in Sochi that would monitor every tweet, e-mail, and phone call made by visitors during the Olympics.
Yulia, I learned, was also a longtime member of the EWNC; she had even lived on Rudomakha’s commune in the nineties. Rudomakha and Gazaryan, meanwhile, were RGS members as well as EWNC leaders. But it was important that I distinguish between the two groups, Maria said. The Sochi RGS’s opposition to the Games wasn’t in any way political; it had everything to do with what we were about to see.
Our destination was an important wetland for migrating birds—some 200 documented species, Yulia said, plus various rare plants. A decade ago, she and the RGS spent a year and a half leading a detailed survey of flora and fauna. She handed me an old brochure showing frogs, ferns, swans, and the snowy Caucasus reflected in the deep blue of a pristine pond. “This territory was going to be a preserve,” she said. “We had all the documents prepared. It was going to be protected by the Ramsar wetlands treaty. Then it was gone.”
We turned off the highway and followed a line of giant orange dump trucks into the Coastal Cluster. Fisht and other partly built Olympic stadiums were rising out of the mud, surrounded by gravel roads and a growing forest of high-rise housing for athletes, media, and spectators. The din of construction was audible even through the closed windows of the car. Maria groaned. Yulia peered out the window. “It’s hard to say in one word how this makes me feel,” she said. “I want to be a giant and take all the buildings and trucks and break them.” She made a snapping motion with her hands. “It is horrible to make such things with nature.”
“We say this area is like Oman,” Maria said. “It has become like a desert, with no trees.”
When we got to what remained of the wetland, Maria and Yulia said nothing. They didn’t need to. A series of barren ponds marked the intersection of two mud tracks plied by a steady rush of trucks. Their banks were littered with plastic bottles, construction debris, and piles of slash wood. A stray dog stood next to two portable toilets, and next to the toilets were two signs, one in Russian, one in English, that declared this apocalyptic scene the NATURAL ORNITHOLOGICAL PARK IMERETINSKAYA LOWLAND.
“On the whole territory of the Natural Park,” said the signs, “it is prohibited to perform actions leading to changing its historically formed natural landscape.” habitat for animal species—above all, endangered species—had to be preserved. Specifically, one could not hunt, damage breeding spots, harvest wild plants, pollute the water with raw sewage, or decrease the “ecological, aesthetical, and recreational qualities of the Natural Park.” The cynicism was almost brave.
From the wetland, we drove to a residential neighborhood overlooking the Coastal Cluster, stopping only for water and bread at a gas station. Yulia ate her portion in the rain in the parking lot. We were looking for a street called Bakinskaya that neither Maria nor Yulia had ever visited, but it wasn’t hard to recognize once we found it. An entire block of homes, most of them still occupied, were tilted at strange angles, as if Yulia’s angry giant had swung and missed the Olympic site and hit these houses instead. Just downhill, two apartment buildings looked like Sochi’s version of Pisa: they leaned drunkenly toward one another, propping each other up.
For two years, residents here had watched dump trucks arrive full at the top of the hill above them, then return empty. Up to 30,000 tons of Olympic debris, most of it from railroad construction, ended up in an illegal landfill. One day, after a rain, the hillside suddenly slipped, and all the homes’ foundations slipped along with it. Ten months before we visited, the government had finally agreed to resettle Bakinskaya’s residents. But ten months had passed, and the dump trucks kept dumping, and the people were still living in their slumping homes. A man Simon and I met on the street told us that he feared more landslides. Why not move? “I spent all my money on this house,” he said. He couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.
Our last stop—new to Maria but not to Yulia—was an activist encampment on the north bank of the kudepsta River, manned 24 hours a day by local residents and the occasional EWNC member. They had occupied the site for nine months, ever since a construction company put a temporary bridge here and prepared to drive heavy equipment over it. A 367-megawatt gas-fired electrical plant was to be built on the other side to power the 2014 Games. The activists, many of them pensioners in fraying sweaters who sat around a stove in a shelter made of tarps and scrap wood, feared that its noise and air pollution would alter the neighborhood forever.
They were holding a press conference today. A few minutes after we arrived, two leaders— one wearing a Yabloko jacket—began speaking to a crowd of perhaps 50 people who had gathered at the bridge. For 20 minutes they seemed formidable, ready to throw their bodies in front of the machinery again if it came rolling across the bridge. But after the local journalists left, the gathering became a discussion about strategy, and then the discussion became a bitter argument about tactics. As the rain poured down, the argument nearly came to blows. Maria led Simon and me to the car. “How can they ever win?” Simon mused. Democracy was laudable. Compared with Putinism, it was also frail.
ON MY LAST DAY in Sochi, I attended the Sunday show-and-tell at the RGS, and for a few hours no one even mentioned the Olympics. Three members, one after another, held court in the conference room, which was down the hall from the library and next door to a tiny museum filled with photos of glaciers and caves and with any geologist’s dream rock collection. Three dozen people, young and old, had packed in to see the presentations. First up was a guy who had taken a fairly standard tourist trip to the Crimean Peninsula and had the slide show to prove it. As older members lobbed questions—“What’s that called?” “Were cars allowed?”—the man sitting in front of me took frantic notes on a Hello Kitty notepad. Next was a video of a high-level trek through the Caucasus set to upbeat elevator music. Images of ibex and green alpine meadows flashed on the screen. The mountains above Krasnaya Polyana looked as stunning in summer as they did in winter.
The last presentation was totally unexpected: a gold-toothed member named Andrey had hitched exactly 19 rides and hopped an unknown number of freight trains and built one log raft and spent no more than 5,000 rubles (about $150) to travel to the top of Siberia and back the previous summer. The trip lasted 58 days. He was attacked by one seagull. “Now I will show you 259 photos,” he said. He quickly had the whole room laughing and clapping and singing along to songs he’d written on the road. I was seeing the spirit that foreigners are sometimes surprised to find in Russia but always do. It was the Russia Putin should be proud to showcase to the world in 2014.
I got an e-mail from Yulia a few days after I left: Loggers and bulldozers had been discovered cutting a new road to Moonglade, this time from the other side. She went there immediately with the EWNC and did an inspection, and she held on to her camera’s memory card; images are now all over the Internet. A little more than a month later, officers from the FSB and Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism burst into the EWNC’s main office in the nearby city of Maykop. They forced the activists to log in to their e-mail accounts, then spent 90 minutes reading through messages. They “recommended” that an upcoming EWNC report on the 2014 Olympics not be published, lest it “damage Russia.”
A few months later, Andrey Rudomakha was asked to meet with a supposed whistle-blower at a Krasnodar bus station. The man had said he was a “concerned citizen” named Alexei who had information on an illegal landfill. Instead he was from the Center for Combating Extremism, and he carried a letter from a prosecutor. Rudomakha was forced to read it out loud while the officer filmed him. Register the EWNC as a “foreign agent,” the letter said—or else.
In late April, heavy machinery and seven private security guards arrived at the north bank of the Kudepsta. Residents climbed onto parts of the bridge and jumped into the shallow river, briefly stopping their advance. Then as many as 70 police arrived and forcibly dragged them out. Three people were sent to the hospital. The machines reached the other side.
As for the Sochi RGS, the lawsuit from Moscow came in early March, as promised. But the next month, just as protesters were being pulled out of the Kudepsta River, something remarkable happened. “You may congratulate us,” the e-mail from Maria and Yulia read. “We won our case yesterday.” Moscow was signaling that the Sochi RGS would be allowed to exist. They were surprised. I was surprised. I was also reminded of something Maria had told me in Sochi. “Whatever happens to us,” she said, “they will wait until after the Olympics, when no one is paying attention anymore.”