You Need To Read “The Sochi Project” Right Now

(feature image by Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery)


After Sochi was announced as the location of the 2014 Olympics, acclaimed photographer Rob Hornstra and award-winning journalist Arnold van Bruggen decided to collaborate on a “slow journalism” project that would tell the story of Sochi and the surrounding region. “Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi,” van Bruggen wrote. “Just twenty kilometers away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east, the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished breakaway republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya. On the coast, old Soviet-era sanatoria stand shoulder to shoulder with the most expensive hotels and clubs of the Russian Riviera. By 2014 the area around Sochi will have been changed beyond recognition.”

Beginning in 2009, van Bruggen and Honstra began performing extensive research in the area, returning again and again to develop a sustained and thorough engagement with the subject of their story. The result was The Sochi Project. The Sochi Project is a website, a book and an exhibition, funded by grants and by more than 650 private donators and described as “a contemporary masterpiece of photography and journalism in the collaborative tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.”

The media-rich website dynamically features Hornstra’s photography, which “combines the best of documentary storytelling with contemporary portraiture, found photographs, and other [collected] visual elements” and Van Bruggen’s words, “a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its turbulent history.”

I began reading The Sochi Project thinking it was just another really well-presented piece of longform journalism that I’d include in my weekly longform roundup, “Things I Read That I Love.” An hour later, when I’d just completed Part One — about Sochi as “the Florida of Russia, but cheaper,” famous for its “subtropical vegetation, hotels and sanatoria” and a popular summer vacation spot — I realized this was more than just another piece of longform journalism. Part One concluded with links to two digital books containing more photography and writing about two topics explored in the section: Sochi’s Sanitoriums and the singers who perform at every “self-respecting restaurant” during the busy season on Sochi’s promenade. There are digital books at the end of every section, but every section is its own multimedia presentation, too. What I’m telling you is that there is SO MUCH INFORMATION ON THIS WEBSITE. And honestly, this is the kind of stuff a lot of us just honestly don’t know, you know? And it’s always best to know as many things as possible.

If you’ve been following the (often problematic) accounts of Western journalists’ reactions to the conditions in Sochi, you’ll be intrigued, as I was, to read about the differences in Soviet and Western tourist culture and a town where, as Hornstra told Dazed Digital, “a lot of citizens… really weren’t all that interested in the Winter Games.”  The website breaks the story into eight parts — The Summer Capital (about Sochi’s history as a resort town), A Paradise Lost (about Abkhazia, a small country about three miles from the Olympics which was ruined by a bloody civil war between Georgians and Abkhazians starting in 1993), On the Other Side of the Mountains (about North Caucasus, “the poorest and most violent region of Russia” located about 65 miles from Sochi), Always Troubled (about ongoing conflicts in the North Caucasus region making it “the worst nightmare of the Sochi 2014 organizers”), Building the Winter Capital (about the grueling and exploitative process of building the Games facilities and displacing its native residents), The Abkhazian Olympic Dream (about the broken dream of the Olympics ending Abkhazia’s isolation by bringing tourists and international recognition as a country), Injustice Breeds Unrest (about the pre-games attempts to prevent terrorism by committing massive Human rights violations in North Caucasus) and the final chapter, “Putin’s Private Project,” about fissures in the final months before the Olympic Games.

The Railway line passes by a pebble beach popular with Russian tourists. (Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery. All images from The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).)

The Railway line passes by a pebble beach popular with Russian tourists. (Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery. All images from The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).)

The Project has been covered extensively in the International press, especially in Russia, The UK and The Netherlands, and has recently begun garnering massive attention stateside. Hornstra and Van Bruggen have been doing radio appearances and giving lectures all over the world, and the exhibition can be viewed now at museums worldwide including FotoMuseum (Antwerp, BE), The DePaul Art Museum (Chicago), Photo Ireland (Dublin, IE), Aperture Gallery (New York), Fotohof (Salzburg, AT), Noorderlicht FotoGalerie (Gronigen, NL) and the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, Canada. An exhibition in Moscow, set to debut last October, was called off when Rob Hornstra became the first Dutch journalist to have his press visa and accreditation rejected by Russia in the post-Soviet Union era.

I still haven’t finished reading the entire thing yet, but I will. These stories, collected from the human beings who actually live in Sochi, are the missing piece to the slap-shot narrative about the region being presently peddled in the mainstream press. “We don’t have anything against these games, but we hope if you watch them that you know in general where it’s taking place,” Hornstra told Slate. “If you look a little bit farther than the stadium, you’ll see different things. I think it’s important for people to know what’s going on over there, that it is part of this facade, the Putin show.”

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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1795 articles for us.

13 Comments

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    “the putin show” describes quite well what i thought this was. He campaigned for 7 years for russia to host the olympics. hard to ignore the fact that one of the biggest players in this, is literally banned from countries for being an international drug lord. when watching the opening ceremony i felt that it was not put together for the international audience consumption but for the local citizens. the imagery, the music were all instruments that the locals recognized and appreciated. the laws criminalizing homosexuality many have said is away for putin to deflect animosity against him. the olympics, a way to raise national pride and create an us against them mentality. i look forward to reading this

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      I wondered whether the selection of Sochi, and Putin’s lobbying for it, was because of the nearby rebels. As a show of mastery? I got a sense from the opening ceremony homage to Peter I and the industrial Soviet Union from the 1920’s to 1950’s that he perceives himself as some kind of epic, transformative national strongman. He even sandwiched a mistress into the final relay and lighting of the torch. Seeing the whole of the country’s history tailored to suit him was interesting, to say the least.

      I look forward to reading this to see what is really going on over there.

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    I hate it so much when western journalists get lots of money to do this kind of ~exploring the secret sad life of the exotic other~ projects because this could have easily been done for a local. There are so many people who would’ve been qualified to do in terms of writing / research / photography skills and lots of them would’ve probably done a much better job because they’d have more local knowledge. But who crowd funds the work of a fairly unknown Russian photographer when they could give money to a famous Dutch guy ?

    And maybe I’m extra resentful because Dutch people are scary racist.

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      Oof. I’ve begun to feel so safe on this site that I feel kind of punched in the stomach by that generalisation about the Dutch. I have protested against the behind-the-times ignorance in aspects of my cultural background for many years. It’s unfortunate that voices for intersectionality in NL don’t seem to get much attention in the international media. But I have to admit a project like this restores my faith in the Dutch somewhat. We may be a flawed bunch, but we’re not all bad.

      It is unfair that local journalists and photographers have not been helped with money or in any other way and have in fact been hindered on all sides in their attempts to document what has been happening in their region. But I must say, I am glad that someone managed to get these stories out there. It may not be a perfect situation, and this project hasn’t been able to stop the persecution of local journalists for trying to report on the same news. But sometimes, something is better than nothing.

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    I have now spent around 4hrs reading through the website. What fantastic, brave journalism! I am a huge fan of the Olympics in general, but have felt so torn by this winter event taking place in Russia. It has been so easy to be drawn into the amazing journeys of the athletes, but this research really brings home how awarding the games to Sochi goes against the founding principles of the games.

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