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Unlike most Olympic host sites of the past, many Americans had never heard of Sochi before it entered the running. The subtropical Russian city remains a mystery to many, but that might be changing.
An exhibit at Chicago’s DePaul Art Museum, “The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus,” gives visitors a crash course in the place’s history, politics and culture. The show is the work of two Dutch journalists — the photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen. They have undertaken the project since 2007.
“It’s the romantic cliche of your summer vacation in Russia and in the former Soviet Union,” van Bruggen told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “It’s very much Soviet nostalgia in Sochi.”
However, that summer idyll is tempered by Sochi’s location.
It borders the Northern Caucasus, a region whose locals are in conflict with Russian officials for independence, and a region Hornstra describes as “a black hole on Earth.”
“I think this whole region is so full of contrast, between these two conflict zones, and the most poor region in Russia, and these $50 billion games being organized in a subtropical seaside resort,” van Bruggen said. “Besides that, it’s also one of the most relevant places to visit. The conflict that is happening in the Caucasus … is between Islam and Christianity for instance, but also a battle for indepenedence of smaller nations. It’s more relevant to the entire world besides that the Games are being organized there.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And we're just three weeks away from the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and there are still a lot of tickets left if you want to make the trip. It could be security concerns that have kept people from going, or perhaps Sochi just isn't one of those bucket list destinations. The subtropical Russian city remains a mystery to many.
But an exhibit in Chicago's DePaul Art Museum gives a crash course in Sochi's history, politics and culture. It's the work of two Dutch journalists, the photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen. We've got them both on the line with us from WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome to both of you.
ARNOLD VAN BRUGGEN: Thank you.
ROB HORNSTRA: Thank you.
HOBSON: OK. Well, first of all, Sochi has been described as the Florida of Russia. Explain.
HORNSTRA: When we started in 2009 in Sochi, we were, of course, surprised about the climate. It's subtropical over there. We went there in March, but it was already fully preparing for summer, summer tourism. And, yeah, it's described as Florida, but maybe - we were just talking about it - Coney Island would be a better compare to Sochi, probably.
HOBSON: Coney Island in New York, which actually, yes, it does get hot in the summer, but it certainly gets cold in the winter. Is there a fear that there's not going to be enough snow in Sochi for the Olympics?
HORNSTRA: I don't think there will be a fear for snow, because the ski events will take place in the mountains, and that's going straight up into the Caucasus, approximately 60 kilometers from Sochi. And what we heard about it is that they saved snow from the last winter, and they already had snow this winter. And it's not really a bad place to organize ski events. Of course, it's more surprising to build skating stadiums near the Black Sea coast.
HOBSON: And yet President Vladimir Putin wanted to reassure people that there will be snow in Sochi. He came out and said that in English. I want to listen to something else that he said. This is from 2007, speaking in Guatemala at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee, because we don't often hear Vladimir Putin speaking in English. Here he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: We pledge to make the stay of Olympians and the Paralympians, spectators, journalists, guests in Sochi a safe, enjoyable and memorable experience. Sochi is a unique place.
HOBSON: Arnold van Bruggen, Sochi is a unique place. Tell us about that. Why is it so unique? Or is it just like a seaside resort in any other place?
BRUGGEN: No. I think it's much more than that. It's the romantic cliche of your summer vacation in Russia and in the former Soviet Union. It's a place fully built of sanatoria, so places where you don't only go for your holidays, but also for some curing, for some medicinal waters or some doctor's advice. So it's a very romantic place in the eyes of many Russians.
HOBSON: Tell me about the sanatoria, by the way, because that's not a word that gets thrown around too much in this country.
BRUGGEN: Yeah. These are fantastic place, actually. These are palace-like buildings being built in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. They have rooms for thousands and thousands of laborers from all over the Soviet Union who came there for free, actually. So their labor unions or their municipalities sent them to Sochi to, well, actually get some rest maybe for three or four weeks, or even longer.
When you work in the coal mines or in the metal industry, you need this kind of vacations once in a while, and that's what the Soviet Union took care of. So also, this whole idea of Sochi is also the idea of what made the Soviet Union nice in the eyes of many people. It's very much Soviet nostalgia in Sochi.
HOBSON: And you call it the birth place of the all-inclusive holiday?
BRUGGEN: Yeah. We experienced it ourselves when we went there. We took one of these sanatorium vacations ourselves a few years ago, and we spent two weeks in this Sanatorium Metallurg. So it's meant for the metal laborers from out the whole Soviet Union. And it's all-inclusive, indeed, because you have the schedule for your day. You get massage at 10. You get this medicinal buff at 11. And then you get these huge breakfast and suppers and dinners all over the day. So it's - you're completely taken care of, indeed.
HOBSON: Meanwhile, Rob, one of your videos says Sochi is a subtropical tourist resort amid conflict zones. So tell us about those conflict zones.
HORNSTRA: Well, a little bit to the south from the stadiums - we're talking about three miles - there's the border with a completely isolated, (unintelligible) country. There was a big war in the early '90s, and many people had to leave the country. They're refugees now, and there are only 200,000 people left, too few to build up this country. And it's completely - I would compare it with a kind of black hole on Earth. I mean, there are people living there, but it's completely disconnected from the rest of the world. And also, Russia decided to close the border for the Olympic Games, so nobody can visit this country during the Olympic Games. And it's only three miles away, so that's very close.
And on the other side, with the mountains there, starts the North Caucasus. And I think most of the people have heard now from the North Caucasus, but, yeah, there's a kind of civil war going on between insurgents who fight for independence and the Russian authorities. And it's quite intense. They plan to attack the games. At least that's what they say. And they already attacked Volgograd recently, which people probably have heard about. And, yeah, it's really an intense thing going on over there. Besides that, it's the poorest region of Russia, the region with the highest unemployment rates. And so it's such a big contrast with these $50 billion games.
HOBSON: And we should say that Sochi, up until the 1860s, was a Muslim community. Now, it's a very small Muslim community there, but it's mostly Christian, right?
BRUGGEN: Yeah. Well, you could look at the Caucasus, actually, as a sort of colonial territory of Russia. So, it was conquered in the late 19th century, indeed. And before that, only mountain people lived there, several mountain peoples. They've been chased away, actually, to Turkey and other places. So we're now only Russians and maybe some other immigrants from Armenia, maybe, and that kind of places live. It used to be a very tribal place, indeed. That's also where the name comes from, Sochi. It's not a Russian name.
HOBSON: Why did you decide to do this exhibit? Why focus on the place where the Olympics are going to be?
BRUGGEN: Well, I think this whole region is so full of contrast, between these two conflict zones, and the most poor region of Russia, and these $50 billion games being organized in a subtropical seaside resort. These are already so much contrast within one sentence. Besides that, it's also one of the most, I think, relevant places to visit these days. The conflict, which is happening in the Caucasus, the ongoing battle there, I think it's between Islam and Christianity, for instance, but also a battle for independence of smaller nations. I think it's much more relevant to the world, besides the fact that the games are organized there.
HOBSON: How are people feeling, Rob, about the Olympics that are coming up, the people of Sochi?
HORNSTRA: Well, we asked many people what they felt about the games in the past five years, and most of them told us that they actually didn't care about it. People in Sochi, in the city of Sochi, they earn their money on summer tourism and the fact that they are building winter stadiums approximately 15 miles to the south of the city of Sochi is something they don't really care about. They were frustrated in the past five years because their city was covered with dust, and that's not really good for summer tourism. So that's what they didn't like about it. So I think they're glad that it's over now, with all these construction work. But they are focusing on summer tourism, and they don't believe that Sochi will ever be a winter tourist resort.
HOBSON: If any of our listeners are lucky enough to actually go the Olympics, what should they definitely see in Sochi?
HORNSTRA: Oh, that's a difficult question. I would recommend them to go to a few restaurants with a typical local tradition, and that's the chansonniers, the people who are singing behind laptops in the restaurants, and order a few vodkas, and you will have a typical Russian tourist night.
HOBSON: All right. Well, Arnold van Bruggen and Rob Hornstra, their exhibit about Sochi is at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago. Thanks so much to both of you for joining us.
BRUGGEN: Thank you.
HORNSTRA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2014 SOCHI WINTER OLYMPICS THEME SONG)
HOBSON: And, Robin, this is one of the official songs for the Olympics. So get used to it.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
So you're going to be hearing a lot of singing behind their laptops.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.