SOCHI, Russia — Driving on a highway past the glitz of Sochi’s coastal Olympic Park, traffic rolls over a place where a family once called home. Alexey Savelyev and his wife, Natalya, had their house destroyed two years before the Olympics to make way for the road.
“We had our house taken, our only house,” Alexey said. “There was no compensation at all.”
Alexey, 39, and Natalya, 31, stood in a neighbor’s yard on Wednesday, across the highway from where they once lived. Their neighbor’s property is a few hundred yards wide and about as long.
At one end is a two-story wooden building with a metal roof — their neighbor’s home — and at the other, two corrugated metal shipping-container-sized boxes sit in mud alongside tossed sinks and rusted bed frames.
“We put the boxes here because we have no place to live,” Alexey said, “because instead of a house, there is a road now.”
Alexey and Natalya, like 40 other residents of Acacia Street in Adler and 2,000 other displaced residents in the region, have discovered what it's like to get in the way of a $51 billon development effort that President Vladimir Putin has overseen personally. But while global media scrutiny of the games has been fierce — including Russia's "gay propaganda" law, police repression of political demonstrators, economic corruption and faulty accommodations — the stories of displaced residents have scarcely been told.
Even with the unprecedented level of investment in Sochi for the Olympics, which brought widespread improvement to the region’s infrastructure and tourism industry, many locals have not seen much — if any — of the benefit.
A new highway built for the Olympics, between Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana in the mountains, the same road built over the Savelyev’s home, cost about $9 billion — roughly as much as the entire 2010 Vancouver Olympics — but has had detrimental effects on a nearby village of Akhshtyr.
Most of Sochi’s 2,000 displaced residents whose land was seized for the Olympics received at least partial compensation in the form of new housing and apartments; however Human Rights Watch found, the Russian government did not “systematically implement a fair and transparent process” to repay them.
This left many — not only those on Acacia Street, but also those living near the Olympic Park and surrounding region — without the use of agricultural land for food and income received from renting beachfront property.
HRW also found that those who did receive new houses, in some instances, were relocated to buildings that lacked proper heating and had structural problems.
The rights group urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take action on the matter back in October, when it published an open letter highlighting issues with families along the street in the village of Akhshtyr.
Families in Akhshtyr, the letter said, had been displaced by construction, had no access to the new highway leading to Adler, and have lost their homes due to landslides caused by construction dumping.
Local authorities, HRW later found, initially offered residents of Acacia Street either monetary compensation or a place to live, but reversed their decision three months later, claiming that the resident’s homes would not be affected by the new highway.
However, last week’s HRW statement revealed differently.
“The highway construction caused flooding, destroyed all driveways and other access points to the building, and imposed other significant hardships,” it said.
“It’s up to the IOC to make sure the local authorities address the situation of the families whose homes were made unlivable by Olympics construction so the families can live in dignity,” Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director, said in the statement.
Many residents, including the Savelyev’s, have run into difficulty obtaining legal rights to their property since the 1990s, when a period of privatization came following the end of the Soviet Union. This helped allow the government to declare their land “illegal” before the Olympics, and avoid compensating or repaying those whose land it seized.
Despite recent revelations, the head of Olympstroy, a state-owned company created to build the Olympics, and the Mayor of Sochi, who rebuffed Alexey and Natalya Savelyev’s personal pleas, originally promised that none of Sochi’s 400,000 residents would be adversely affected by the games.
In Russia, welfare benefits — monetary payments and land — often go to those in the government, military, and families with at least three children, in that order, before other groups, according to Russians living in Sochi. Encouraging large families is a priority for Russia, they add, as an attempt to reverse a population decline stemming from a struggling post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s.
Alexey and Natalya, who have two children, were told by the mayor, “‘If you want to be given land, you should have a third child,’” Alexey said.
“We wanted to take our children to the mayor, but he told us, ‘don’t bother, it leaves me cold. Your children leave me cold,’” Natalya said.
The Savelyev’s case reflects just one of the predicaments faced on Acacia Street. They were temporarily given a small, two-room apartment with a shared kitchen, a few miles from the Olympic Park.
Lyudmila, Alexey’s mother, whose house was on the seized land, was supposed to be given a one room flat for herself, said Alexey’s wife Natalya. “And we have a boy and a girl, so we should have received at least a three-room flat.”
"The place where she [Lyudmila Savelyeva] is living is not a long-term solution and the government should not imagine that it is,” Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director, told GlobalPost.
For compensation, the family originally accepted a land slot, Natalya said.
“We agreed on everything, even on the house and the land where we would built it. We were going to build it ourselves. Any land will do, but in Sochi of course,” she said. “The Mayor, [Anatoly] Pakhomov, suggested that we could have land in Krasnodar, but outside Sochi.”
Alexey is a builder who owns a construction firm called Avangard, and has built a handful of schools in Sochi.
He would like to build their new house himself, but the government has not decided on a permanent place for them inside Sochi, despite the family’s 72 court appearances in the past four years.
“We are not sure where we’ll be in the future,” Alexey said.
Alexey’s mother, Lyudmila Savelyev, attended a new iteration of the family’s ongoing legal trial on Wednesday night at a regional court in Krasnodar, the administrative center for the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi.
She keeps her family’s legal documents at their temporary apartment, which is just off the new highway that runs over where their house once stood.
On Wednesday night, her grandson, Alexey and Natalya’s son, Veadimir, placed colored pens, a stencil, and a toy car on a bed that serves as the family’s livingroom couch. Veadimir, who is three, was seven months old when their house was destroyed. Lyudmila’s 10-year-old grand-daughter, Anna, was fast asleep on a bed in the other room.
“There were seven people living in that place,” Lyudmila said of her old house. “We had been living there for 27 years. My children were born there, my sons were born there, and my grandchildren. And now we are homeless.”
Lyudmila has lived in Sochi since 1975, and worked at a railroad station when she was younger. She was given the land under a Russian law providing municipal land for single mothers, and that is where she built her house and raised her two sons.
She applied to take ownership of the property in 1990, but her application was removed from a queue after her family’s eviction—22 years later. But there was a rule stating that anyone in that queue before 2005 could not be removed, she said, and as a single mother, she had a legal right to build on the property.
“All the courts are corrupted. That is why this happened,” she said. “I even applied to Moscow, to the secretary of Putin, and all my applications, all my complaints were filed correctly, but no answer.”
Lyudmila keeps reams of legal documents organized with plastic protective sheathes in thick blue binders. A color-coded map outlining the old property shows what Lyudmila said were plans for a sauna and a fountain garden. That is, until everything was paved over.
Lyudmila held a picture of the old house, in black and white, pointing to mortar she applied to make the building’s cement-brick walls. Another photo, from Nov. 2012, showed the family protesting outside their former home. A white sheet hangs behind the group: “27 years” is written in black.
This is Part One of a two-part series. Click here for Part Two.