This story appears in the January 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Valery Inozemtsev ascends a high mountain path through the churned mud of development. He climbs past an Olympics dormitory, past a Moscow bureaucrat’s sprawling new dacha and trucks hauling gravel and steel beams—past all the things that were never here before. Inozemtsev has lived in this formerly sleepy village of Krasnaya Polyana in the Russian North Caucasus for a half century, since before it became a matter of urgent Kremlin concern. “This was the best place in the Soviet Union,” he says. “Virgin nature. And now... ” His voice trails off in discontent.
Inozemtsev, 73, continues up the mountain in long, youthful strides. Reaching a wood of chestnut trees, he pauses to fling back his brown cape. He runs two fingers over his white, bushy mustache, then points down the mountainside to the cranes and the construction workers who are busy shredding Krasnaya Polyana, shaping it into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand public achievement. “Sometimes I imagine that an earthquake will come and destroy it all,” Inozemtsev says. Through alpine mist, in the southern depths of a once powerful empire, the Olympics have nearly arrived.
Russia is an empire no more. Like other great and large nations, however, it still aches to be one. It must find an outlet for its urges, and over two weeks in February, it will have it. Through force of Russian will, the Winter Olympics are coming to an unlikely location. The Sochi Games on the Black Sea coast will take place in the backyard of a recent war with Georgia, on the site of what many call the genocide of a people (the Circassians), and in the orbit of an Islamic insurgency (in Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya). The state has resurrected a fearsome militia, the Cossacks, to help keep the peace that some might design to upend. Allegations of graft circulate widely, high temperatures threaten the snowfall necessary for competition, and activists have called for a boycott over antigay legislation enacted by the Russian parliament. In response Putin has banned protests and rallies in Sochi during the games.
A resort town along the Black Sea’s beaches, Sochi drew the wealthy under Tsar Nicholas II, then Soviet leaders and communist workers, with a complex of sanatoriums built to soothe the ill effects of northern winters. These structures are now wan and disintegrating, the fronds of Slavic palm trees wafting over a more provincial clientele in one of Russia’s few subtropical cities. Though Sochi is host to these Olympic games, however, the actual competitions will be staged elsewhere. The skating events will take place in Adler, 17 miles south along the coastline. Ski races will be in Krasnaya Polyana, 29 miles east into the Caucasus range.
Nearly every venue for the games has been built from scratch—the ice rinks in Adler, the bobsled run and facsimile alpine villages of Krasnaya Polyana, the rail and infrastructure that connect and enable. The current official price tag, $50 billion, is probably lowballed. Even so, the Sochi Olympics have cost more than any games before them. With many billions of dollars conjured up and carried away, this is not the tightest business plan ever designed. But this is not business.
Nor is it mainly a sporting matter. The event is intended to be the culmination of the achievements of Putin, a leader who many Russians believe was dispatched by God to guide Russia away from its defeats and ignominies. The seed of these games was planted in his mind more than a decade ago.
A single two-lane road runs through the valley formed by the many Caucasian peaks of Krasnaya Polyana. Just a few years ago this was a humble skiing village of a few thousand people, its innocence guarded by the local off-piste crowd, an insular place of insider’s lingo and cyclical avalanche. That’s all gone now with the mass construction and the 20,000 migrant workers who have arrived to remake the village. Further back in time, this valley bore witness to the destruction of a people who were all but forgotten by the outside world until the Olympics resurrected their memory.
Up a side road on a winter afternoon, Astemir Dzhantimirov sits at home, waiting for his boss to dispatch him on a job. Dzhantimirov works for the city’s gas utility, Gorgaz, installing new canisters, fixing old ones. His profession is not his distinguishing feature, however, nor is his prominent nose or his forthright manner. Dzhantimirov, the Russified ending of his family name notwithstanding, is Russian only by citizenship, but this is not what makes him stand out from the many laborers who have flooded the valley. He is Circassian, an ethnic group nearly eliminated from the area 150 years ago, when the tsar’s army overran the mountain dwellers. He lives with his wife and three children on the second floor of a small house. The several interlocking rooms are in good order, quiet as the family tends to homework and chores.
Dzhantimirov describes how he learned the old Circassian stories when family would gather at funerals in the Cherkessk region, over the mountains northeast of here. “This was the time when my ears were on the top of my head,” he says. Aunts and uncles told how the armies of the tsars arrived in the early 1800s, how the Caucasus War continued sporadically for decades, how the Circassians lost the land and much more.
When Russia gained the Caucasus, the tsars and their generals knew very little of the region, nor of the numerous tribes and tongues that dwelled within the rocky folds of the range. The Kuban Cossacks, vagabond warriors, patrollers of Russia’s southerly margin, knew better than to penetrate the pined cliffs into which others had roamed to ultimate peril. The stray Russian soldier or wanderer routinely fell into bondage in this territory, bartered from tribe to tribe for goats and herbs and other captives. The Russians gained title to these tactical lands—fulfilling what they considered their expansionist destiny—by battling the sultan and the shah, but they also understood that a special effort would be required to make them their own.
The Circassians and other local peoples fought against the Russians in a determined guerrilla campaign, but not a winnable one. The Russians felt a special pull to the Caucasus—to the liveliness of frontier combat, to the forbidden romance of Circassian tribeswomen, to this precipitous place of emotional searching, where a St. Petersburg aristocrat could discard the rules that had molded him and become a new man altogether. In time these mountains would become the place of poets and writers, of Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy. Ultimately, Russian military capability proved too much for the warriors of the mountains, who refused to accept the tsar’s offer to live in Siberia or emigrate to the Ottoman Empire.
The Circassians made their last stand in the small canyon that is now called Krasnaya Polyana, or red glade, a name some erroneously attribute to the bloodshed of the battle. After their surrender in 1864 the Circassians were expelled, and refugees died by the thousands on their way to Sochi. Survivors were shipped to various corners of the Ottoman Empire. Some of them died aboard the Turkish vessels, cast overboard into the Black Sea.
Since the announcement that Sochi would host the games, the Circassians’ plight has made global headlines as activists in the diaspora have tried to shine a light on what they regard as genocide. Protests were held in cities around the world, in Istanbul and New York, Amman and Vancouver.
“We didn’t go to Russia to fight. They came here to fight us. We lived here several ages,” Dzhantimirov says. “The whole war was started for these beautiful lands.” Dzhantimirov is not an activist. He voted for Putin in the 2012 election. “We have lived in Russia for years and years,” he says. “We have lived side by side, and we have respected each other, and we will stay in Russia. But history is history, and there’s nothing wrong with talking about it.”
Pyotr Fedin sits at his desk, a dissatisfied success, a mere landowner instead of the alpine entrepreneur he once was, and he tells the story of how government power made it so. The ’90s had just begun, and Fedin did what every other shrewd Russian was doing: He opened a business. It was the start of free enterprise, the beginning of what contemporary capitalist Russia would become, a place of trial and error, of encouraging successes and compounded failures. It was a time of pressing on, for there was no turning back to the way things were before.
Fedin and his partners surveyed the peaks of Krasnaya Polyana. They cleared the pines and erected metal towers in their place. The driveshaft from a seafaring vessel powered the ski lift. Yet few came to ski Fedin’s groomed run. Those wealthy enough to have such bourgeois interests chose the status resort of Courchevel, France, not provincial Krasnaya Polyana.
Things began to change one day in 2000, when the new president, Vladimir Putin, rode Fedin’s lift to the top of the mountain, then capably navigated his way down. As Russians ascertained what this new leader could do, as he faced down his enemies and closed ranks with his allies, as Russia solidified, Putin returned to Fedin’s slope time and again. Fedin’s son, Dima, taught ministers and minders and oligarchs how to carve a turn, how to stop, and how to save face while falling. The aspirants would not miss their chance to mix with the man who was becoming a type of ruler they recognized from Russia’s long history.
Fedin weathered the inclemency of the Russian economy, while his partners fell out, sold out. Then, as the spoils of an oil-market boom filtered through Russian society, his resort became profitable. But only the naive enjoy success in Russia. Things you build attract the attention of those who can take them away.
The calendar turned to 2008, and a Gazprom plane arrived from Moscow. As Fedin recalls it, the men from Russia’s largest company, the state-controlled gas monopoly, suggested that he join them for a ride. And in veiled language that anyone could understand, while the Gazprom plane flew north over Rostov, then Voronezh and Tula, the men looked at Fedin and said, “We respect you.” They offered a figure to buy him out. Fedin knew there was nothing he could do. At the darkly prismatic Gazprom tower in Moscow, Fedin signed the papers placed before him. “I can see your face,” the man with the contracts said to Fedin. “You are sad. The money isn’t what’s interesting for you.” Fedin received fair value, he says, but the business he had built was no longer his. “Money is only paper,” Fedin said, spelling out his name on the contract. (A spokesperson for Gazprom said in an email that the company “was acquired on commercial terms.”)
From his office Fedin’s former resort can be seen through the window behind him. “It’s torture, looking at what they’re doing,” he says. “They came from Moscow and said, We know everything.” He speaks of landslides and mudslides and pollution, graft and political ambition.
Before the fired head of the ski jump development discovered elevated levels of mercury in his blood (from some mysterious source), before storm waves washed away the multimillion-dollar Sochi cargo port, before the minority group protested against holding the games on the site of an alleged genocide, before a helicopter delivering construction materials crashed in a nature preserve, before the Mzymta River jumped its banks, before antigay legislation caused international outrage—before all of that, the Sochi Olympics appeared to be a more promising idea. The Russian president traveled to Guatemala City in July 2007. He spoke the adversary’s English before a gathering of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), stirring those in attendance, who marveled at his emergence from the thicket of Russian consonants. It is a testament to the attraction of power that even those whom Putin does not rule often seem dazzled in his presence.
And yet, when the IOC awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, granting Russia the right to host the world, the decision paradoxically heightened the state’s suspicion of foreigners and their motives.
The Cossack patrolman keeps company with two policemen as they stroll past the few shops in the village of Krasnaya Polyana. In winter garb, the Cossack stands out: gray jodhpurs, tall black riding boots, brown leather suspenders crisscrossing over a soldier’s greatcoat. It is as though he has arrived from another time.
Cossacks founded Krasnodar, now the capital of the region in which Sochi finds itself, after Catherine the Great gave them her blessing in the 18th century. The Cossacks of Krasnodar distinguished themselves as the Kuban Cossacks, after the Kuban River, which flows northwesterly from Mount Elbrus and into the Sea of Azov. They performed the violent and difficult work of defending Russia’s outer domain against raiders who rose northward from the lands of Islam. The Kuban Cossacks existed beyond the law, under a code of their own.
After the communists came to power, the institution of the Cossacks was abolished, and for many decades this horseman sect was repressed. Yet by the time that Putin began skiing down Fedin’s mountains, the Kuban Cossacks had regathered their numbers. They had not only survived but also constituted such a political force that the government recognized the wisdom of embracing their fatherland imagery. “We’ve always been patriots,” Yevgeny Razumov says, his black Cossack uniform dotted with raindrops outside Krasnaya Polyana’s redbrick police station. “And we’re still here.”
The Cossacks have returned to the streets—supplementing police foot patrols, breaking up brawls, occasionally starting them, profiling the ethnically non-Russian, looking the part, reviving old rites. There are 25 Cossacks on patrol in Krasnaya Polyana, another 25 in Sochi, and 15 each at the airport and train station. There are 1,500 total in the Krasnodar region.
Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar region and a Cossack himself, dresses in the Cossack uniform from time to time. He is a strong-handed leader, and he has bemoaned an increase in the local Caucasian Muslim population. In a speech in which he ushered the Cossacks back into service, Tkachev said that the neighboring Stavropol region had traditionally acted as an ethnic “filter” for the rest of Russia by assimilating its Caucasian migrants, but with growing minority populations, he feared that was no longer feasible. Recalling the old Cossack role, the sect’s status outside of the law, Tkachev said, suggestively, “What you cannot do, a Cossack can.”
Critics complain that the Cossacks are a reactionary force. But the critic isn’t responsible for the safety of others. The Islamist insurgency of the North Caucasus has persisted for 25 years, showing that Russia’s subjugation of these lands remains elusive.
A drive to the confluence of the Achipse and Mzymta Rivers in Krasnaya Polyana reveals one more layer of doubt about the placement of these games. The road leads past excavators, trucks, and migrants in hard hats, through a tunnel that drips gray spittle onto the car windshield. At the end of the road two border guards man a checkpoint. In their friendly way they explain that access is prohibited. They point up to the mountain, saying, “Abkhazia is over there, three kilometers away.” Abkhazia is a disputed territory that broke away from Georgia in the 1990s. After Russia won a war with Georgia in 2008, it recognized the sovereignty of Abkhazia. Only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu likewise recognize the region’s independence, a list that might elicit laughter, except that Abkhazia is no joke.
In May 2012 the Federal Security Service (FSB) discovered several caches of weapons in this territory just over the mountains from the great Olympics development. Explosives, grenade launchers, shoulder-mounted missiles. The FSB arrested three suspects, alleging that they belonged to a terrorist group called the Caucasus Emirate. In July 2013, Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov urged his followers to prevent the Olympics from taking place. For those who make the North Caucasus one of the world’s most volatile regions, disrupting the Olympics would be their own sort of gold medal.
With almost fortnightly occurrence, Russia’s special forces and Muslim militants engage in murderous contact across Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya. Each place is within a day’s drive of Adler and Krasnaya Polyana, where it would not be difficult to join the migrant army that is building the Olympic infrastructure.
In Krasnaya Polyana the workers huddle down a side street between shifts, slugging down warm Coke in a shack with greasy windows. They feed crumpled ruble bills into a machine, putting money on the phones they use to text home to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, telling their wives how they earn the money they send for the children. A group trudges up the mud path, reaching Defenders of the Caucasus Street, where they wait for the bus that will return them to the sound of scraping metal, the stink of smoldering solder.
Suddenly a Volvo sedan loses control on the road. It swerves across the lane divider and jumps the curb, hitting a man and knocking over a light pole. A crowd gathers. The man lies where he fell, on his back, and does not move. Someone throws a coat over the body, a worn and bloody hand sticking out from beneath it. A police car arrives, and three Cossacks emerge. They pull the driver through the window of the Volvo. He has black hair. He is thin. In his eyes you can see that he is lost, drunk. The Cossacks yell in his face, swear at him, saying that he has killed a man and that he deserves to die. They twist him facedown into the dirt and hold him there. They punch him in the kidneys. The man yells in pain. He submits. The Cossacks handcuff him. They place him in the backseat of their squad car. After the Cossacks drive away, the crowd disperses, as though nothing has happened. The corpse remains in the street. Emergency workers eventually arrive to take it to the morgue.
What will be left behind? That is a question many locals want answered—those who call Krasnaya Polyana home and have no hand in the muddy profits that have transformed their surroundings. The Olympics have become a prism through which Russia amplifies its message to the world, while downplaying the assaults on humanity, the environment, and the law that have become necessary to achieve the show everyone expects to see.
There is a thin line between pragmatism and cynicism, and in Russia you always ride it. This is part of the country’s special attraction. Down in the wine cellar of the Four Peaks Hotel in Krasnaya Polyana, Igor Zubkov uncorks a bottle of Merlot. The hotel belongs to him and his partner, as does the wine, 5,000 bottles of red and white produced with the grapes of Anapa, a town up the Black Sea coast. Zubkov holds a glass in his hand. “The government said that Russians spend four billion dollars a year on travel out of the country during the winter,” Zubkov says. “Why waste four billion a year on a three-month winter season? Why not keep it for ourselves?”
State power has transformed Krasnaya Polyana from a sleepy village into a resort with the housing and infrastructure to support an annual winter migration of many thousands. Zubkov looks serious, but then he laughs. “So let’s spend $300 billion to build our own resort,” he says. “That is 75 years’ worth of expenditures.” As with most Russians, it is difficult to tell when Zubkov is joking and when he is serious. As with most Russians, a friendship with Zubkov happens quickly, and could last forever.
The time of Putin, who could benefit from a change in the law to stay in office until 2024, might seem longer.
There is a hockey game, part of the World Junior Hockey Championship, and it convenes in the new Olympic rink in Adler. This is a teenage competition, Russia against the United States, and no pairing could be more apt given the message these games are meant to convey. As game time draws near, as the crowd mills about and the skaters glide along the glassy playing surface, a man of some recognition appears on the ice.
The loudspeaker announces Vladimir Putin. The Russian anthem plays over the arena speakers. As the song reaches its first crescendo, something interesting happens to Putin, a leader of superhuman composure. The music intensifies, and a ripple of energy rolls across Putin’s face. His expression contorts into a smile. He has brought the Olympics to the Black Sea. He has conceived all this, and now it is really happening. As the look of satisfaction begins to overtake Putin’s features, the Russian president regains himself. He stands firm. He returns his face to a frown.