Letters From Russia

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992. Copyright © the artist, courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York.

Poor Sochi

Our Russia hand submits a roll-up of all the corruption, crises, ill-preparedness, highways paved with French luggage, and other #sochiproblems surrounding Putin’s graft-gutted Winter Olympics.

There was a time when the name conjured images of palaces among palms, the soft lapping seaside of an empire’s elite, and, later, a dilapidated proletariat retreat that certain apologists of Soviet aesthetics (myself included) found equally romantic.

Now its two syllables are the long and short of a distress signal: I hear the name Sochi and I cover my eyes. Somebody please tell me when I can look.

Last night I peeked through my fingers and found pictures online of tap water that looked like Metamucil, filthy hotel rooms without doorknobs, and snowboarders injured on the event slopes—things that the head of the International Olympic Committee calls “issues to be solved as always just before the games.”

The media center that is currently getting a proverbial shellacking (when what it needs is a literal one) on the internet is a complex that cost $1.2 billion dollars to build. In other words, for the amount that was spent to provide Olympic guests “a hilarious adventure,” the Russian government could have bought every 2013 high school graduate in Russia a computer, according to political opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has been crunching the numbers behind the oft-heard but mostly broad-stroked allegations of graft at Sochi. The findings were published last week on a website, Encyclopedia of Spending, which combines dogged digging and merry cynicism.

According to these findings, the larger of the two press hotels in the media compound was built—is still being built?—by a company co-owned by Roman Abramovich, the Russian tycoon who also owns the English Premier Leagues’ Chelsea Football Club. The second hotel and the press center facilities are among a total of 11 Olympic facilities built by Inzhtransstroy, co-owned by President Vladimir Putin’s judo partner, Arkady Rotenberg.

Rotenberg sold his share in Inzhtransstroy one year ago, well ahead of the pesky issues that come “just before the games”—namely, the arrival of guests. But not before walking away with an estimated $6.2 billion in personal gain, according to Navalny’s foundation, which recently awarded Rotenberg the gold medal in “classic embezzlement,” one of five categories in the competitive Sochi sport of money-siphoning.

Putin said that the overall cost of the Olympics was $6.5 billion. Most estimates agree that the expenditure is more than $45 billion—almost half of it unaccounted for.

Other medalists include oligarch investor Vladimir Potanin in “figure lending” and Putin himself for “verbal freestyle.” Putin, you may recall, said that the overall cost of the Olympics was $6.5 billion. Most estimates agree that the expenditure is more than $45 billion—five times the amount spent on Vancouver in 2010.

More than 45 billion dollars. Almost half of it unaccounted for. As the Washington Post put it, with that much in your war chest, why bother “to indulge in the picturesque. Or ensure quality workmanship. Or even get the job done on time.”

In truth, the revelations told by Navalny’s Encyclopedia of Spending and a similar interactive investigation by the Institute of Modern Russia are more appalling than stray dogs in the journalists’ cafeteria and off-putting sanitation protocols in the public toilets. More outrageous than this week’s dispatches about the Emperor’s New Clothes are last year’s lesser-reported slights—forced evictions and exploited workers. More representative of Sochi’s failures than unfinished lobbies are the investigations’ venue-by-venue and investor-by-investor catalogues of mind-boggling waste, epidemic mismanagement, ubiquitous corruption, and state despotism. These two websites, along with the slo-journalism work of The Sochi Project, are excellent lenses through which to view President Putin’s Potemkin project.

Today, however, it is the press center that is the pathetic poster child of Sochi’s ill preparedness. Because “just before the games“ may be an acceptable window of time to address details like, oh, poorly color-coded shuttle service maps or a badge-lanyard deficit. But it’s a bit late in the game to be solving issues like a lack of accommodation. Particularly when the solution proposed is that those visitors who are without hotel rooms will be “upgraded.” To what? one wonders.

Maybe they will be lucky enough to get put up in Lunnaya Polyana, the “weather station” where President Putin also enjoys skiing. There’s a 14-room chalet and VIP residence handily located in the Science Center Biosphere, the road to which traverses a UNESCO world nature heritage site and reportedly cost $64 million.

I’m sure it’s a pretty road, but it can’t possibly compete with the highway linking the coastal and mountain clusters of sporting venues. That project, at $8.7 billion, or 90 percent over the budgeted cost, could have been paved with a thick layer of shredded Louis Vuitton handbags for the same amount. And no one would be surprised if it held up better than the present construction, many parts of which were undertaken without environmental studies.

Poor Sochi. Someone tell me when it’s over.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem