Sochi residents living in squalor despite huge investment in Olympics

Vladimir Putin sees Sochi Olympics as symbol of Russia's transformation but for many in host city living conditions are as grim as ever, if not worse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 5:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 5:36am

A shining new US$635 million highway on the outskirts of Sochi zooms past a crumbling apartment block. On the roof, someone has unfurled a red banner seeking help. "SOS!" it cries.

The residents of 5a Akatsy Street have lived for years with no running water or sewage system. Construction for the 2014 Winter Games has made their lives more miserable: the new highway has cut them off from the city centre. Even their communal outhouse had to be torn down because it was found to be too close to the new road and ruled an eyesore.

The slum is part of the hidden dark side of the host city of next month's Winter Olympics. The building stands near glittering new construction projects that President Vladimir Putin is touting as a symbol of Russia's transformation from a dysfunctional Soviet leviathan to a successful, modern economy. While state-run TV trains its cameras on luxury malls, sleek stadiums and high-speed train links, thousands of people in the Sochi area endure squalor and trash. Villagers live next to an illegal dump filled with Olympic construction debris. Families live in homes that are sinking into the earth. City dwellers cope with chronic power cuts despite promises to improve electricity.

Putin promoted the Sochi Games, which begin on February 7, as a unique opportunity to bring investment to the Black Sea resort city and improve living standards for its 350,000 residents. Many residents, weary from years of living in the midst of Russia's biggest construction project in modern history, say they have yet to see any improvement in their lives and point to an array of negative effects.

"Everyone was looking forward to the Olympics," says Alexandra Krivchenko, a 37-year-old mother of three who lives on Akatsy Street. "We just never thought they would leave us bang in the middle of a federal highway!"

People elsewhere in Sochi and surrounding villages have seen the quality of their life decline because of Olympic construction. In the village of Akhshtyr, residents complain about an illegal landfill, run by an Olympics contractor, which has fouled the air and a stream that feeds the Sochi water supply. Waste from another illegal dump in the village of Loo has slid into a brook that flows into the already polluted Black Sea. In the village of Mirny, just outside the Olympic Park, rumbling trucks have damaged foundations and caused homes to sink.

Sochi residents also complain about widespread environmental damage, including the destruction of forests and the contamination of a river running down to the sea. Near the Olympic Park, a sandy beach was paved over for the development of a port that was never built.

The Winter Games were intended to showcase Russia's resurgence from the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago: from drab sanatoriums to gleaming ski resorts; from outdoor markets with counterfeit clothes to boutiques stuffed with international brands. When a reporter asked the Sochi mayor last year what had improved in the city, Anatoly Pakhomov mentioned a new shopping mall and a Louis Vuitton store as positive symbols.

Amid such pride in status symbols, Sochi has fallen short in providing basic necessities, residents say.

Two giant power stations provide electricity for Olympic venues and the city, but power shortages across the city are still ubiquitous. At a recent televised meeting with Putin, Russia's energy minister says the grid was still being built and was unlikely to come online before Saturday, less than two weeks before the opening ceremonies.

The city has undertaken a colossal effort to upgrade its infrastructure and municipal services, installing a new sewage and waste-disposal system and hooking up thousands of homes to pipelines supplying natural gas. Three weeks before the games start, construction holes still puncture some Sochi streets as workers continue to lay new pipes.

Thousands of people whose homes were demolished to make way for Olympic construction have been relocated, but many others are still waiting for new apartments. Meanwhile, even as investment has poured into Olympic facilities, Sochi's slum dwellings remain standing. The city government says in a statement that it has declared more than 100 apartment buildings and private homes uninhabitable.

Sochi for many residents bears little resemblance to the city they see on Kremlin-controlled national television.

"It's a parallel universe that locals, to a great extent, have no access to," says Olga Beskova, editor of the local website Sochinskiye Novosti, or Sochi News. "It has very little to do with how Sochi lives every day. So far, city streets are all dug up, residents have a lot of problems, and it's hard to see a happy ending after all of this construction."

Residents of Akatsy Street have petitioned for decades for the city to declare the 1941 barracks-like building uninhabitable and provide them with new housing. They've had no success. Some denizens unfurled their red "SOS!" sign to draw attention to their plight. City Hall has insisted that the government roads management agency is responsible for relocating the Akatsy residents; the road agency shifts the responsibility to City Hall.

The Akatsy house, in the village of Vesyoloye, is about three kilometres from the Olympic Park, where the arenas and main stadium stand. Like thousands of private houses in Sochi, this property is not connected to city water or sewage systems, but residents have made do over the years by drilling wells and building outhouses.

Adding humiliation to hardship, the roads agency secured a court order requiring the residents to raze their outhouse, perched on the new highway's edge. Krivchenko's neighbour, Irina Kharchenko, says the judge told them to "get yourselves a bio toilet".

Residents seemed embarrassed and reluctant to explain how they worked around the problem. Some mentioned a bucket, while others pointed to an outhouse on the property's other side.

Across some railway tracks is another barracks-type house with no indoor plumbing. Vladimir Zarytovsky has lived there for 43 years. Since a road for the Olympics was built nearby, the house and yard are prone to flooding.

"You have to put on rubber boots if you want to go to the toilet," Zarytovsky, 56, says with a chuckle as he pointed to water marks crawling up the walls of the wooden outhouse and outdoor kitchen. They reach 30 centimetres high.

His 29-year-old son, Igor, lives elsewhere with his wife and two children, but said he still loves the house where he grew up, even though it is crumbling.

He resents what he calls the lies on Russian state television.

"I watch Channel One and get the feeling that I am living in paradise," he says. "It's disgusting to hear the governor and the mayor singing songs to Putin, telling him that everything is fabulous."