Before its selection to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, which start in February, Sochi was unknown to most people outside of Russia.
That anonymity led photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen to embark on a five-year project to investigate the city on the Black Sea.
Their work is collected in a photo book, “An Atlas Of War and Tourism in the Caucasus,” released recently by Aperture. It begins ominously:
Winter Olympics in a subtropical resort. Surrounded by conflict zones. The most expensive Games ever. This is the idea being realised in Sochi. In a mere six years, an entire “world-class” sporting spectacle has been built from scratch.
Katya Primakova, a local journalist and now an Olympics administrator, was Hornstra and van Bruggen’s guide. She, like most Russians, was blunt about the coming Games: “Putin looked and looked, and then he found it: the only place in Russia without any snow, to organise the Winter Games.”
Here are a few of the people and places that Hornstra and van Bruggen uncovered:
Sochi lies in the Caucasus bordered by Chechnya, Georgia, Abkhazia and other regions that have had sectarian violence in recent years. Gimry (pictured below) was a center of resistance to Russian hegemony in the North Caucasus in the 19th century and now.
© Rob Hornstra / Courtesy Flatland Gallery
A Two-Hundred Year Conflict
Sochi is famous for its sanatoria, a type of health resort. Stalin famously ruled Russia from Sochi because he loved its sanatorium so much. Below, tourists on a beach relax outside the less famous sanatorium in Adler, in between Sochi and the Olympic stadium cluster.
A short distance away from Sochi is Abkhazia, Georgia, an area that has been the center of a bloody ongoing land dispute that was only resolved in 2009. Here, a cultural center displays a tribute to casualties of the conflict.
Since the beginning of the conflict in the ’90s, Abkhazia has had a “tourist economy without any tourists,” writes van Bruggen. Abkhazians expect the Sochi Olympics to put their new country on the map. The dilapidated seaside resort of Pitsunda is slowly recovering in time for the Games, but no one seems to be in a rush. This photo of the resort’s ballroom was taken earlier this year.
While visiting the region, Hornstra and van Bruggen ate and drank with many families. When war broke out between Abkhazia and Georgia 20 years ago, 200,000 Abkhazian-Georgians fled to Georgia as refugees. Now that Russia recognises Abkhazia as a state (and patrols its borders), it is unlikely they will ever return home.
During their many visits, Hornstra and van Bruggen often stayed at the popular and enormous Zhemchuzhina Hotel. The hotel has eight restaurants, fourteen bars, two nightclubs, a pool, theatre, and strip club. Olga, 29, is the manager of the strip club (below).
Aliona is a dancer at one of the restaurants at the Zhemchuzhina Hotel. The many hotels in the area consider the Games to be their saving grace, funding overdue renovations so that they can be up to international standards.
Hamzad Ivloev was a guard in a village in the surrounding region when a vicious terrorist attack took his hand and eye last year. Local authorities tried to hush journalists from reporting on the attack.
War has been a constant throughout the Caucasus region. Roman Eloev lives in a converted barn and has experienced three wars in his lifetime.
These two brothers live in a dangerous mountainous area in the Caucasus. Tolstoy, Pushkin, and other great Russian writers romanticized the Caucasus as a hard place where “real men” could be found.
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