How Winter Olympics Came to Be Held in Subtropical Sochi

Documentary by Russian-Israeli director Alexander Gentelev tells a weird tale of dispossession and rot.

The Winter Olympics may be over, but the controversy isn’t. A new film by Israeli documentary filmmaker Alexander Gentelev, “Putin’s Games,” reveals the crazy decisions and alleged corruption that went into preparing the Sochi Olympics.

Gentelev, who immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1992 when he was 33, isn’t afraid to take on controversies. His resume includes documentaries about the Russian oligarchy (“The Oligarchs: The Struggle for Russia”) and the Russian mafia (“Thieves by Law”).

His new film competed at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and can now be seen on Israeli channel Yes VOD and online.

“The original idea of the new film was almost childish,” Gentelev says, speaking Hebrew in a husky voice and heavy Russian accent. “I thought it would be legitimate to make a documentary that would also be a farcical comedy – about the choice to hold the Winter Olympics in the most unsuitable place possible.”

Gentelev is referring to Sochi, a subtropical city not known for winter sports. Instead, the town was known as a resort for the working class in the 1930s. It later became popular among the Russian government and business elite.

“I thought it would be humorous to make a film showing that while 90 percent of Russia is covered in snow, they chose a site for the games that doesn’t have any snow,” Gentelev says. “We went to Sochi a few times, and then to Moscow, Austria, Germany and London. And suddenly this comedy turned into a tragicomedy, to put it mildly.”

As Boris Nemtsov, a member of the Russian opposition, says in the film, “As someone who was born in Sochi and knows the city well, I can tell you that the selection of this site was an act of fraud.”

So why were the games held there? The answer is obvious, Gentelev contends.

“It’s essentially the decision of a single individual. There’s this famous guy named Vladimir Putin who loves to vacation in Sochi. He likes to surf there. After surfing there once he said: ‘The Olympics are going to be held here.’ And then everyone fell into line. It’s that simple. These are his Olympics, end of story,” Gentelev says.

“Over the years he meticulously dealt with the matter. He visited the Olympic sites four or five times a year – and he simply likes to unwind there. Basically, Putin spends the majority of his time in Sochi, not the Kremlin. He has a huge residence there.”

So Putin attended the meetings with the heads of the International Olympic Committee and even built an ice skating rink in Guatemala, where the IOC was meeting, to persuade officials that Russia would do anything to make the 2014 Olympics a success.

Down by law

After Sochi was selected, the main objective was to put up the buildings on schedule – without the needs of Sochi’s residents taken into account, according to the film. The roads were cluttered by trucks causing endless traffic jams, the water and electricity services were cut, sewage oozed out of pipes, and huge landfills piled up, not to mention the thousands of birds enjoying the mess.

But the most direct harm stemmed from the passage of Olympic Law No. 310, which authorized the state to expropriate any land or property for the sake of the Olympics. There was no right to appeal.

The film shows Sochi residents standing near land where their homes used to be. They’re now either destitute or temporarily living in crowded and deplorable conditions. Some say the Games were held in Sochi because the land there is very expensive; the Olympics simply accelerated land privatization in the city.

“For us the Olympics were a real disaster. We had our own home, and now our lives have been ruined,” one area resident says in the documentary. “Now nine of us are living in a house on the verge of collapse. Everyone sleeps together, the bathroom is outside, and there’s no hot water. For 40 years we lived in the same place, and now we wander from one apartment to the next. The Russian Federation made us homeless.”

Natalya Krashnikova, who with her husband and son were thrown out of their home, has been living the past three years in an eight-square-meter room in a dilapidated hotel. The site of her former home is now the Olympic ice skating arena.

At age 57 she sleeps on a porch next to a refrigerator and a table. Still, Krashnikova says she’s content she’s not on the street. “They destroyed our home, but because it was critical for the Olympics it was probably the right thing to do,” she says.

As Gentelev puts it, “Putin said at a press conference they’d compensate all the people evicted from their homes. I very much hope that happens because a lot of people have suffered for many years without a home. I’m talking about thousands of people, although no official numbers have been published.”

Everything will be under the ground

The colossal construction brought even more corruption, according to the documentary, which says every project was facilitated by bribes to government officials. Business owners were allegedly coerced to close shop so profits could line the pockets of the well-connected.

And in place of the expropriated land and homes, it was often skyscrapers, not Olympic facilities, that were built – letting the contractors amass even greater fortunes, the documentary asserts. Just one 45-kilometer highway reportedly cost more than $8 billion.

Still, Gentelev doesn’t paint Putin entirely black when it comes to the corruption allegations. “He was aware, but I’m sure he wasn’t putting any money into his own pocket. It isn’t easy to deal with the corruption in Russia. It didn’t start yesterday; it has been there for a very long time, at least 400 years. Peter the Great, who was extremely brutal, tried but failed. Stalin also tried and failed. Putin can’t beat it, either," Gentelev says.

“We still don’t know how much the Olympics cost .... New numbers are mentioned every day. One minister says $36 billion, another says $50 billion. One official has said it goes even higher. I’m not talking about the opposition; the people saying these things are inside the system.”

Again, Mother Nature was not consulted. According to the documentary, during construction, nobody worried about the environment. Buildings, including skyscrapers, were put up on swampy land and in landslide-prone areas.

“Just as with the property expropriations, they revised the law when it came to Krasnaya Polyana, the mountainous region where the ski slopes are, which had been a gorgeous nature reserve. There were things there found nowhere else in the world – trees, animals and rare plants,” Gentelev says.

“There used to be a law prohibiting construction there because it was a nature reserve. So they changed the law. What’s more, the Black Sea provided a livelihood for a lot of residents, but not anymore. Now it’s dirty and there are a lot of ecological problems there.”

Gentelev says a geology professor told him that a year from now everything will be under the ground – all the stadiums by the seaside.

“Everyone said it’s impossible to build all this there,” Gentelev adds. “But let’s say everything will be fine, and I very much hope it will be fine. What will they do with all this stuff? It costs an awful lot of money to maintain these sites. A ton of money.”

Asked whether he was afraid to make a film that directly attacks the Putin administration, he replies, “I’m constantly afraid, but what can I do? I have to do something.”

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Tomer Yifrach
Tomer Yifrach