SOCHI, Russia — “What do you think of Russia?” Dmitry Avtonomov asked me.
He is a young Russian man visiting Sochi from Cheboksary, a city on Russia's Volga River, and he wanted a comparison with the US.
I searched for words. “Well, it’s less fancy.”
“You mean, normal?” he asked.
Sochi isn’t a glistening city. Rows of single-story houses, some with metal roofs, retreat from the sea; protruding yellow utility pipes connect many buildings, occasionally over roads; there are high-rise hotels closer to the coast, along with dilapidated older buildings. Smooth black stones cover the beach.
There was talk around the 2012 London Olympics about the unprecedented security, questions about whether or not the facilities would be ready in time, how the performance would play out, and if the country would really benefit. The same has happened here in Russia, but there is more security, more money and more negative attention in the press.
This is what initially drew me to Sochi and made me want to witness the coastal resort's changing landscape and, of course, these Olympic Games — to be present as a correspondent for GlobalPost covering the human rights issues, geopolitics and security machine that accompany the Games in this setting.
Russia’s $50 billion investment for the Winter Olympic Games is most visible in the city’s new infrastructure: a railroad the length of Sochi’s coast connecting to Sochi International Airport, and a new highway linking the coast to Krasnaya Polyana and surrounding ski resorts, where the downhill events for the Olympics will be held.
Russia’s massive security effort for the Games is also most evident in the city’s public spaces.
Walk anywhere in Sochi for long enough and you’ll run into security of some kind: Cossacks, police, soldiers. Eventually, you might accept that they are just doing their job and grow immune to their eyeing you. Still, busloads of Olympic volunteers rush to get on the trains at Adler’s new train station—which has lines running toward downtown Sochi and the Olympic park—while purple-suited squads administer full-body checks and x-ray scans before anyone can enter.
This happens twice at the new station, a giant curved structure on the Black Sea: first at the entrance, and again before boarding at the platforms. If that wasn’t enough, black and brown German shepherds walk with guards in the crowd. A small fluffy dog used for bomb sniffing seems innocent next to the powerful German breed.
There appears to be about one dog for every three security officials, and far more security officials than tourists. Some soldiers have blue and grey camouflage; their sheer numbers would prevent anyone from doing anything suspicious.
Soldiers and police are everywhere—along the tracks on broken cement blocks of Soviet-era bath houses, under roadways, standing in green and grey army suits.
Packs of Cossacks huddle together along the streets surrounding the Olympic park. They look but don't do much else. They stay in back alleys or walk the streets: they watch you.
If you seem suspicious, they will let you pass, keeping watch beneath fur hats. Like most security personnel on the streets of Sochi, they seem intent on doing their job, but also like they are there to be seen.
Getting into the “ring of steel” protecting the costal Olympic park without proper credentials seems impossible. Even for a pedestrian walking to the venue it is not easy. A new roadway and overpass cross each other near the main entrance, requiring those who approach on foot to jump two barriers and try not to get hit by oncoming traffic.
Out in the ocean, beyond the seaside Olympic park, two hulking navy ships pace at sea. At least one is prepared to evacuate US citizens, should the need arise. It makes you feel safe—if you’re American—but then again, people here don’t seem too worried about a terrorist attack during the Games.
Firdaus Pathi, a 27-year-old medical student, traveled with a friend to snowboard in the mountains near Sochi before the Olympics. Pathi is from Volgograd, where a series of suicide bombings left dozens killed and many more dead late last year. He lives near the Volgograd train station where the latest bombing occurred, and says his brother heard the bombs go off.
“It was terrifying,” he said.
The threat of an attack emanating from the volatile North Caucus region, which neighbors Sochi, heightened security precautions for the Olympics—made them what I see here today. But, like many traveling to Sochi in the coming weeks, Pathi decided to take the risk. Of course he was concerned, he told me, but the feeling came to pass.
“I believe if bad things are going to happen, they are going to happen,” he said. “It doesn't matter where you are.”