Arts, Culture & Media

These photos show a side of Sochi most Olympic tourists won't see


"The Sochi Project" is a multimedia endeavor to show the side of Sochi most Olympic tourists don't see. Photographer Robert Hornstra captures various characters from the region like Olga, the manager of a strip club in the center of Sochi.


Rob Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

The media coverage of the Sochi Olympics shows gleaming new sports venues, exciting competitions on ice and snow, and plenty of flag-waving fans.

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But what we don’t hear or see much of is the turbulence of the areas adjacent to Sochi: Chechnya and Abkhazia.

Nor do we see much evidence of what Sochi means to many Russians. It’s their Florida, the place where generations of Russians have gone to warm up, not play in the snow.

It’s those contrasts that prompted filmmaker Arnold Van Bruggen to document the transformation of Sochi. He and a group of multimedia artists created "The Sochi Project" back in 2007 and have traveled back and forth to the Caucasus ever since — or at least until they were denied visas in June of 2013.

“We saw this region full of contrasts,” says Van Bruggen. “Olympic winter games happening in a sub-tropical summer resort, right on the edge of a conflict zone, and on the other side of the mountains, another conflict zone. And we thought this is too interesting to not spend multiple years working on.”

Van Bruggen and his team have published their work online and in books since 2009. Now they’ve published a book of highlights from The Sochi Project called “An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus.”

The photos featured in The Sochi Project show a transformed city.

In Sochi, hotels and high-rises have replaced a lot of what the city was known for: a holiday retreat during the Soviet period.  

“Lenin said after the revolution that he had to make Sochi a huge holiday resort for the workers,” says Van Bruggen. “They built these huge sanitoria, like spas. They are fantastic palaces, built in the neo-classicist style or in modernist way.“  

Soviet workers were able to spend free holidays there. “They spent four to six weeks here to cure whatever diseases they got working on farms or mines or factories," he says.

Van Bruggen added that many of those sanitoria have now been turned into 3 and 4-star hotels. And for the Olympics, shabby homes and apartments are blocked from view with tall blue fences.

Outside of Sochi not much has changed, except for the sports facilities at Kransnaya Polyana. Beyond that, life is much the same for many people in the region.

“People look at these games like space ships that have landed here,” says Van Bruggen. 

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    An Abkhazia woman and her child in a refugee flat in Tbilisi, in 2007 & 2010.


    copyright Robert Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

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    A boy, who burned his leg, soaks it under sulfite water from the Matsesta spa. The spa, which has been around since 1902, contains hydrogen sulphide-laced water. Matsesta baths heal a lot of diseases.


    copyright Robert Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

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    A view on the beach near Adlersky Kurortny Gorodok in Adler.


    copyright Robert Hornstra/Flatland Gallery

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    A former policeman from Karabulak tells the photographer how he threw himself onto a grenade to save his colleagues after and attack from rebel Islamists.


    copyright Robert Hornstra/Flatland Gallery