The Hidden Environmental and Human Costs of the Sochi Olympics
Russian Railways, which is building much of the Olympic infrastructure, has been dumping waste in the illegal landfill in Akhshtyr. Waste is prohibited in the area because it could contaminate the nearby Mzymta River, the source of much of Sochi’s drinking water. “The tea plantation became a waste dump. They spit on us,” resident Viktor Kalinin tells The Nation. The regional Environmental Protection Agency reportedly fined Russian Railways $3,000, but the dump was still in use as of mid-January, according to Koropov.
On a recent afternoon, Andrei Antonyan was waiting for his daughter to return from school at the end of a path leading from the new highway between the coastal and mountain clusters. That project cost $8.7 billion—more than the entire Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Although Russian Railways had, according to a letter seen by The Nation, planned a road connecting the busy highway to the village, it built only a twisting footpath surrounded by barbed-wire fences and a crosswalk that Human Rights Watch has called unsafe.
“The Olympics are not bad, but they are violating the rights of the people who live here,” Antonyan says. “They didn’t build a connecting road, but instead cut us off.”
Human Rights Watch, which has been making complaints about conditions in Akhshtyr to the International Olympic Committee since 2009, says the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee has repeatedly and falsely claimed that the water supply problem has been resolved. Koropov says it hasn’t.
The problems in Akhshtyr are common in other parts of Sochi, Human Rights Watch researcher Yulia Gorbunova told The Nation. “We have heard many complaints from residents over dust, constant noise and unsanctioned waste dumps,” she says. “There has been significant damage to the environment.”
Another unsanctioned landfill is in Uch-Dere, according to local activist Margarita Kravchenko. The trash in this village—once the location of holiday homes for the Russian royal family—pollutes the nearby Bitkha River. “It’s our resort city, and they’re destroying it. We need to protect what’s left,” Kravchenko says. “The Zero Waste program has broken down.”
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Kravchenko says she lost her job as a sales manager last year when local police inquired about her at work, and many other activists have also suffered retribution. In October, EWNC leader Andrei Rudomakha was detained on his way to Sochi and later prohibited from leaving the Krasnodar region in connection with a year-old investigation, which was opened after he was quoted criticizing a judicial decision against a fellow activist. Alexander Valov, editor of the site BlogSochi, which features posts by local activists, was sentenced in December to fifty hours of corrective labor for allegedly planning a protest that never took place.
In November, police stopped Vitishko twice between Krasnodar, the regional capital, and Tuapse, near Sochi, and accused him of violating his curfew, which stipulates that he must be home by midnight and notify authorities in advance of any trips out of town. In December, a judge ruled that Vitishko must serve his three-year suspended sentence, which he received for vandalism charges brought against him after a 2011 protest at a mansion in a forest preserve on the Black Sea, allegedly built by the governor of the Krasnodar region. (Fellow protester Suren Gazaryan fled Russia after the action under threat of attempted-murder charges and was granted political asylum in Estonia.)
Human rights lawyer Alexander Popkov, who is defending Vitishko, says the ruling is part of a larger intimidation campaign by the authorities. “They are pushing us more often, pressing our activists, and it’s probably connected with the Olympics,” he says.
“We’ve absolutely documented, for over a year now in the run-up to the Games, deliberate actions to target, harass and intimidate critics of the Olympics and Olympic preparations,” says Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, who has been traveling regularly to Sochi for the past five years.
On a train to a recent court hearing for Vitishko, an Olympic construction contractor who would identify himself only as Igor overheard activists talking about environmental damage. “It’s not possible to build this from nothing in five years without some violations,” he argued.
But the “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” defense doesn’t appease those who have already felt the human and environmental costs of the Games. “Sochi was a health resort for all of Russia,” Yulia Naberezhnaya, an EWNC activist and member of the Russian Geographic Society, told Igor. “Now I don’t see any prospects for the city as a health resort.”
Many activists and locals said they won’t be attending the games because of the high ticket prices—or as a matter of principle. Kravchenko asks, “What respect can I have for this after what the authorities did to our people?”
Also In This Issue
Dave Zirin: “The LGBT Movement Takes Aim at Sochi”
Dave Zirin: “John Carlos, 1968 Olympian, Speaks Out on LGBT Rights”
Andrew Jennings: “Meet the IOC, Ideal Candidates for a Perp Walk”
Samantha Retrosi: “Why the Olympics Are a Lot Like The Hunger Games”
Cyd Zeigler: “A People’s History of LGBTI Olympians”