Olympic Dreams: Will Sochi Rehabilitate Russia's Image?

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

The new Bolshoi The Bolshoi (big) Hockey Stadium is a centerpiece of Sochi's Olympic face-lift

It would be so easy if it were just about new buildings. Those are doing quite well; the violent face-lift that Russia is giving the Black Sea resort city of Sochi before its 2014 Winter Olympics is well ahead of schedule. Where wetlands once lay along the shore, there are now gleaming shells of stadiums for hockey, skating and curling. In the alpine valley of nearby Krasnaya Polyana, the site of a freestyle-snowboard run has already been leveled and graded; the steel-and-glass biathlon stadium, built by energy giant Gazprom, is nearly finished.

But these Olympics are about more than buildings, more than even national prestige. Russia desperately wants these Games to transform its brand. The world mocks the so-called managed democracy that has Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poised to return to the presidency. The economy is so profoundly corrupt and addicted to oil and gas that Google co-founder Sergey Brin called his birth country "Nigeria with snow." Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, a Putin ally, says people have the wrong idea about Russia and the Games will change that. "We want, through Olympic Games, through sport, to open a different Russia, a new Russia," he says.

But while the Sochi 2014 organizing committee is doing a valiant job creating an international event, look outside the bubble of Olympic preparations and you'll see that a country cannot be fundamentally changed just by lighting the torch.

Consider the case of Andrei Martinov, who beginning in 2005 lived with his family by the shore in a house he says he was unable to register — though he tried — because he wouldn't bribe the local officials. There are plenty of others in his situation in Sochi and throughout Russia: homeowners who were either given land or bought it under the table and built homes for which they have no documentation. Martinov's misfortune was to live in the Imereti lowland area of Sochi, where the coastal cluster of Olympic venues is being built. When Martinov and his wife realized they would lose their home, she took part in a hunger strike. They spent all their money on lawyers but to no avail. The house was bulldozed, and Martinov and his wife were relocated to a one-room apartment with a shared bathroom and no kitchen in a dingy housing complex now populated by families who have lost their homes to the Olympics. Others, including a satisfied group of Russian Old Believers, an oft persecuted Russian Orthodox splinter group, were paid for their land and relocated, but Martinov fell through the cracks. "We are," he says, "Olympic bums."

On the other side of town, light-years from the high ideals of the Olympic organizing committee, is the dump at Uch-Dere. There was always a small dump on the spot, which is just off the coast alongside a river. But when organizers of the Games shut down a larger dump close to the Olympic construction and rerouted trash (no construction debris but everything else) to Uch-Dere, the problems exploded. A mountain of mixed trash, including enough recyclables to put the lie to the green-Olympics claim, is now slumping toward the Bitkha River below. The dump releases so much gas that it burned for three days last year, according to residents. Just a five-minute drive away is the site where the river, black and pustulant with the poisons from the dump, empties into the blue sea.

But few locals seem to mind. The White Nights sanatorium is directly alongside the greasy river, and when I visited the spot recently, several bathers and fishermen were on the shore. A small water tanker pulled up and started taking water from the river — for use, the driver said, at Olympic construction sites.

The loudest opposition to the Games comes from outside Russia. Before this region became part of the Russian empire, an indigenous group known as the Circassians had lived there for millennia. Defeated by the Czar in 1864, they were herded to the same Sochi shore where the Games will be held and waited there for death or exile. In all, some 300,000 died, victims of disease, war and famine. Many fled to the U.S., Turkey and the Middle East. Now a large Circassian community in New Jersey has organized the No Sochi 2014 campaign, which included protests at the 2010 Vancouver Games. YOU'LL BE SKIING ON MASS GRAVES is one of the more pungent warnings in its literature.

This long-distance opposition is no match for Russia's resolve to make the Olympics a success. Making a success of the rest of Russia is a far more difficult reconstruction project.