Making sense of Russia’s Olympic resort.
Sochi seems like a weird place. With the Winter Olympics beginning at the Black Sea resort last week, Western correspondents have uncovered everything from murderous gangsters to toothpaste terrorists to the hundreds of stray dogs that call the city home. And I’m sure by now you’ve caught the Twitter storm over the less-than-ideal accommodations there. “Ok, so my hotel doesn't have a lobby yet,” tweeted Mark MacKinnon, an international correspondent with Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Missing drapes, dangerous water, dog extermination … welcome to Russia's problem Olympics,” lamented National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur, later adding, “We're all going to look silly when all of Sochi's stray dogs come back with little surveillance cameras strapped to their adorable heads.”
Is Sochi really that seedy? The Olympic infrastructure may have seen a rocky start, but the resort town has long been a popular tourist destination. Since the 1950s, Sochi has attracted some of the most powerful people in Russia, including Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin. But like much of Russia, Sochi also struggles with poverty and corruption. The average income in the area surrounding Sochi is just under 19,000 rubles a month—about $550. Less than half of residents have an active internet connection. The region has seen a half dozen major wars over the past two decades and is home to more than one active insurgency.
I guess that’s what makes coverage like this a little hard to stomach—it smacks of ruin porn, a kind of imperial gaze at the bizarreness of Russian poverty. And it’s not just “advenjournalist” hubs like VICE or Buzzfeed. In sources as serious and respected as the Washington Post and CNN we can read bemused correspondents live-tweet the “hilarious and gross” hotel rooms they were given in Sochi. “To appreciate the hotels in this area,” writes David Segal in the New York Times, “it is probably a good idea to think of them not as hotels but rather as a rare opportunity to experience life in a centrally planned, Soviet-style dystopia.”
Undoubtedly nationalism plays a part as well. From homophobic laws to the Pussy Riot controversy to crackdowns on free speech, Westerners certainly have every reason to distrust Putin’s Russia. Comparing this to places where marriage equality and free speech are better protected, it’s easy to feel smugly progressive. But focusing on Russian homophobia and authoritarianism seems odd when many Americans encounter similar laws everyday (is Putin’s crackdown any more nefarious than, say, being prosecuted as a terrorist for passing out leaflets?). Think about it like this: inviting openly gay activists to join the U.S. Olympic Delegation is a powerful statement for human rights and solidarity with oppressed people in Russia. But it also masks the very real homophobia and transphobia many Americans experience to this day. As David Zirin points out in a recent Democracy Now! interview, nine U.S. states continue to enforce laws that are remarkably similar to Putin’s “gay propaganda” law.
And in a larger sense, a lot of this has to do with our preconceived notions of Russia, its culture, and our mistrust of its political intentions. For centuries Western Europe and the U.S. have tended to define their “Western” identity in opposition to anything they saw as “Eastern” or, in particular, Russian. So if the West could be defined by progress, innovation, and freedom, Russia was the opposite—reactionary, backward, and unfree. And if the East-West cultural divide seemed sturdy a century ago, after 70-odd years of Soviet Communism it was positively cemented. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall couldn’t help as two decades of economic chaos and increasing authoritarianism seemed only to reinforce old stereotypes. And it’s not just news media. Hollywood’s Russophobia may have reached its zenith during the Cold War, but to this day, its boilerplate villains hail from Mother Russia. Combine all that with flashy news reports of “flesh-eating zombie drugs” and internet sensations like dash cam videos, and Russia appears lawless, backward, and very quickly falling apart. Even Google thinks Russia is insane. Type in “Why is Russia so” and it gives you the standard suggestions: big, poor, homophobic, crazy. A lackluster Olympic Village plays into this narrative nicely.
But in terms of Olympic branding, this is all a bit strange. Traditionally, events like the Olympics accompany a highly organized PR campaign that whitewashes a whole host of human rights abuses, from forced displacement of locals to worker exploitation to “clean up” campaigns that target sex workers and the homeless. According to a 2007 report by the UN-funded Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), policies like this have been the rule rather than the exception for Olympic events over the past two decades. According to the report, more than 1,000 people were displaced from East London to make way for the 2012 Games; the ’96 Games displaced more than 30,000 in Atlanta, including 6,000 people kicked out of public housing projects, which were then demolished; in 2004, Athens evicted close to 3,000 Roma from the city to pave the way for their games, worsening, the report says, their second-class status in Greece.
These figures are surprising because they’re not supposed to be part of the story. And, for the most part, they’re not. Major media were mostly silent about crackdowns and displacements in Atlanta: a 1996 New York Times story was among the only mainstream pieces to shed light on an anti-homeless campaign there, but it didn’t mention displacement. Eight weeks before opening ceremonies, in fact, an AP story touted the millions of federal dollars that would go to “rehabilitate public housing” in the city. But neither AP nor the Times followed up when evicted low-income tenants found that among the small number of new units built to replace their homes, most now sold for skyrocketing market rates. Even in retrospect, when major media look back on the Atlanta Games, the controversies they do remember are more about local economic growth and the event’s effects on tourism. Same for other Olympic hosts, from Athens to East London to the upcoming games in Rio. Large-scale displacement, exploited migrant labor, and human rights abuses aren’t really part of the picture.
There are good reasons for this. One is that corporate sponsors go to great lengths to avoid a scandal during Olympic events. This was the case in Vancouver when Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola hired private spy firm Stratfor Global Intelligence to collect information on animal rights activists in Canada, particularly PETA, ahead of the 2010 Winter Games. Two years later, Stratfor found itself on Dow’s payroll (a sponsor of the 2012 Games), this time tracking groups concerned about Dow’s role in the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India. In both cases Stratfor spied on activists through social media and looked for signs of large-scale organizing at Olympic events. And amazingly, when WikiLeaks blew the whistle on Stratfor’s spy operation, Coke defended its actions and hinted that spying on activists wasn’t so uncommon: “We consider it prudent to monitor for protest activities at any major event we sponsor, as such activities may affect our partners, customers, consumers or employees.”
Olympic branding, after all, is serious business. Every two years corporations pay billions for sponsorships, exclusive monopoly rights, and sophisticated marketing strategies to associate their brands with the Games’ multicultural, humanitarian image. For athletes, who are barred from using their talents in any professional way outside the Games, the result is often a kind of indentured servitude to the media image of their sponsors. “I was not allowed near any camera without giving a visual and verbal statement of thanks to Verizon for making all of my dreams come true,” writes 2006 Olympic U.S. Luge Team member Samantha Retrosi in The Nation, adding,
I went through intensive media training each year to reinforce this allegiance—to learn how to be a better spokesperson for Verizon. During my Olympic year, I signed away my rights to use media time for just about anything other than gratitude to sponsors. It was a condition for entrance into the Olympic Village.
The Olympics may be a corporate PR bonanza but it’s also an airtight, elaborately rehearsed, and overwhelmingly privatized spectacle. With billions to be made, the world’s most powerful corporations aren’t interested in encountering surprises. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Olympic cities are also in the habit of banning protest before the Games begin.
All of which makes Sochi’s experience that much more extraordinary. At the most expensive Olympic Games ever, how did such an elaborate corporate whitewash get punctured? How did the loudest media message from the Games’ opening week become, “Ok, so my hotel doesn’t have a lobby yet”?
There are probably many reasons, a big one being Western media’s open distrust of anything at all Russian. But one thing’s for sure: it won’t be Western sponsors that pay the price of Sochi’s PR disaster. In fact, Putin’s authoritarian style may even be profitable. Take a look at AT&T. Last week they managed to earn some good press by publicly condemning Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. Left-leaning sources like Think Progress and Daily Kos wrote quickly and admiringly on the move, and already more than a dozen other sponsors have followed suit, from Visa to Coca-Cola to that darling of social responsibility, BP.
Of course, this is the essence of a PR whitewash: taking a risk-free, popular position on an issue that in no way affects profits (what stake does AT&T really have in Russia’s anti-gay law?). Critically, AT&T sponsors not the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but the U.S. Olympic Team, meaning there’s little the Russian government could do in retaliation (and can you imagine the PR nightmare if they tried?). And just like when it sponsored the ’96 Atlanta Games, AT&T will never shed light on the forced evictions or exploitation of workers that have already occurred in Sochi—that is, things that could actually affect the profitability of the event.
Which brings us back to Sochi itself. Behind the PR blitz and Olympic shimmer, and behind even the snarky advenjournalism, Sochi’s experience with the Winter Games is a familiar one. Over the past seven years Russian officials have evicted some 2,000 families to make way for new construction, sometimes paying little or no compensation. Construction has also destroyed local water wells, leaving whole villages without safe drinking water. Elsewhere in Sochi toxic dumps have destroyed otherwise healthy water sources.
And it’s not just locals paying the price. Since winning the rights to host the ’14 Games, Sochi has been home to tens of thousands of migrant workers, many coming from impoverished former Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, these workers have been regularly forced to work 80+ hour weeks, often for as little as $1.80 an hour. Lured by ads touting $1,500-a-month salaries, workers have been lucky to earn as much as half that—when, that is, they see a paycheck at all. Wage theft, reports HRW, has also been rampant, with employers withholding pay for months at a time and often failing to pay wages at all.
Even more egregious, employer-provided housing has bordered on the Dickensian, with more than 200 workers sharing a single family house in some cases, according to the report. On top of that, working conditions have ranged from unsafe to deadly. To date, 25 construction workers have died while building Sochi’s Olympic infrastructure. And don’t expect pushback from workers themselves: employers in Sochi have been in the habit of confiscating passports and work permits, cutting down on turnover and organizing. Those that do protest are often deported.
But shameful as these abuses may be, they’re not that unusual in Sochi’s history. Located in the North Caucasus, Russia’s poorest and most violent corner, Sochi is no stranger to exploitation or instability. Sochi’s unemployment rate is low for the region but within a hundred kilometers it tops 50 percent and human rights violations become much more common. Nearby places like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia, and Chechnya all have very recent memories of brutal war, conflicts that stir much older ethnic and imperial clashes. Rather than a “Soviet-style dystopia,” Sochi’s identity draws on centuries of upheaval, imperialism, and tradition.
But then, Sochi has long been a kind of manufactured place—a sleepy resort in one of the world’s bloodiest regions. In their exhaustive multimedia “Sochi Project,” journalists Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen write of Sochi as the meeting point of hundreds of contradictions: a winter resort where snow doesn’t fall in winter, a proletarian palace modeled on the exclusive spas of Germany, a destination remembered fondly by both Stalin and Tolstoy. In the Middle East, the surrounding Caucasus is known as the “mountain of languages,” while in Moscow it’s synonymous with corruption and criminality, a Russian Wild West. “Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi,” they write. It’s a place of unfathomable cultural richness and unspeakable tragedy. If the Olympics can’t make sense of Sochi, perhaps the feeling is mutual.