Rus­sia looks to turn Sochi into a sym­bol

Host city of next Win­ter Olympics rapidly mod­ern­izes un­der Putin’s firm hand

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KATHY LALLY IN SOCHI, RUS­SIA lal­lyk@wash­post.com

Fel­low Amer­i­cans, here’s what Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s main man wants you to know about Rus­sia with the one-year count­down to the Sochi Win­ter Olympics just un­der­way: Get over the stereo­types al­ready.

Rus­sia is cast as the en­emy, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press sec­re­tary, said last week with a note of weary sar­casm. It’s an un­der­de­vel­oped coun­try with nasty peo­ple, where a mil­i­tary regime holds sway and the streets are empty be­cause Putin’s bloody rule has put ev­ery­one in prison. Out, out and out. Peskov was chat­ting over cof­fee here in Sochi with a few re­porters, and he fixed them with a true-be­liever gaze as he de­scribed the Rus­sia that will be re­vealed — es­pe­cially to Amer­i­cans view­ing the world through Cold War-frosted glasses — as the flags are raised for the Open­ing Cer­e­monies on Feb. 7, 2014.

Olympics fans will en­counter an open coun­try — open for in­vest­ment, open for en­gage­ment, he said. “A coun­try where smil­ing peo­ple live. A coun­try like other coun­tries.”

Putin was so de­ter­mined to win the Games for Sochi that he flew to Guatemala City in July 2007 and wooed del­e­gates of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee in as­sertive English, a lan­guage he al­most never speaks in pub­lic.

He in­formed the del­e­gates that the an­cient Greeks had lived around Sochi, that he had re­cently skied above the city in the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains and had seen the rock where the Greek gods had bound Prometheus, an ea­gle feed­ing on his liver each day as pun­ish­ment for giv­ing hu­man­ity fire. Fire . . . Olympic flame ... Rus­sia. Get it? He fin­ished his pre­sen­ta­tion in mel­liflu­ous French. Rus­sia won the Games by four votes.

“Rus­sia has risen from its knees,” Ger­man Gref, then the eco­nomic devel­op­ment min­is­ter, told re­porters at the time.

Putin has made Sochi his per­sonal mon­u­ment, just as Peter the Great did with the city of St. Peters­burg, Fiona Hill, a Rus­sia ex­pert at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said in a Washington Post video in­ter­view last week.

“This is Putin him­self on the line,” she said.

Peter, a man of out­size per­son­al­ity and stature (he stood 6foot-7), built his Baltic Sea city on an empty, bleak bog. Putin, a loyal na­tive of St. Peters­burg, has taken up the un­pre­ten­tious Black Sea city of Sochi, where he of­ten goes to ski or re­lax be­hind the walls of a waterfront man­sion.

Putin’s goal, ac­cord­ing to Peskov, is to demon­strate Rus­sia’s com­pe­tence and class to the world by trans­form­ing a mod­est Soviet city into a grand, year­round re­sort. Sochi stretches along the coast, with one main road — Re­sort Prospect — so clogged with traf­fic that it can take an hour or more to drive a few miles. Be­fore the Olympics bid, it had few West­ern-style ho­tels and no sta­di­ums or ice rinks to rate an ath­lete’s glance. Thirty miles away, the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains stood mag­nif­i­cent and un­de­vel­oped.

Peter or­dered his no­ble­men to sup­ply a steady stream of serfs to la­bor on his city so Rus­sia could show an im­pos­ing, Euro­pean-fea­tured face to the world.

Putin ex­tracted what could be de­scribed as a bil­lion­aire’s tax from Rus­sia’s mod­ern-day no­ble­men. One built a new air­port, along with a sea­port to ferry in the vast tons of build­ing ma­te­ri­als. An­other has sunk $2 bil­lion into the pic­ture-per­fect Roza Khutor moun­tain re­sort.

The streets of Sochi are lined with pal­lets of bricks and paving stones be­ing set at steady speed, and traf­fic po­lice have given way to men with brooms. Ce­ment mix­ers and dump trucks fill the roads. Tun­nels have been blasted through moun­tains, train tracks have been laid, cranes hover on the hori­zon.

“It’s a mir­a­cle,” Peskov said. “The scope can be com­pared to the re­con­struc­tion of cities de­stroyed af­ter World War II.”

The mir­a­cle has come at a price. Last week, Hu­man Rights Watch re­ported that mi­grant work­ers build­ing the Olympic sites were be­ing ex­ploited, with wages of $1.80 to $2.60 an hour that of­ten went un­paid. Some Sochi res­i­dents com­plain that their houses were seized for lit­tle or no com­pen­sa­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists fear new power plants will pol­lute the air, and some neigh­bor­hoods have lost elec­tric­ity be­cause of con­struc­tion.

“Why did Putin de­cide to bid for the Olympics and put his pres­tige at stake?” Peskov asked, pro­vid­ing the an­swer him­self: “This is a project that will change the na­tion for the bet­ter.”

Rus­sians sup­port the Games, Peskov ar­gued, unit­ing 143 mil­lion peo­ple scat­tered across a ter­ri­tory nearly twice as big as the United States.

Yet Rus­sia re­mains a coun­try of con­tra­dic­tions. The streets are jammed with unim­pris­oned peo­ple, but prison cells in­deed await those who per­sist in chal­leng­ing Putin. Tele­vi­sion news drips with anti-Amer­i­can in­nu­endo, but a taxi driver in Sochi, en­chanted by hav­ing an Amer­i­can pas­sen­ger, im­pul­sively thrust a just­pur­chased bag of or­anges at her.

Peskov — lively, hu­mor­ous and ex­pan­sive dur­ing this long con­ver­sa­tion last week — was fi­nally re­duced to ex­as­per­a­tion as he con­tem­plated Amer­i­cans’ in­abil­ity to get Rus­sia.

“Amer­i­cans can live their whole lives with­out go­ing to Washington,” he said. “They don’t pay at­ten­tion to other coun­tries. They can’t find Africa on the globe. But they know about the bloody regime of Putin.”

PHO­TOS BY MIKHAIL MOR­DASOV/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

ABOVE: One year be­fore its Olympic de­but, the Black Sea city of Sochi, Rus­sia, is a gi­ant con­struc­tion site, with new ho­tels and train sta­tions sprout­ing up. Be­fore the Olympics bid, the city had few West­ern-style ho­tels and no sta­di­ums or ice rinks wor­thy of the Games.

LEFT: Peo­ple fish along the seafront of the re­sort city.

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