Alexander Valov recently got some off-the-record, free advice from a cop: get out of Sochi. Before the Olympic Games begin.
It was the closest Valov had come to anything resembling courtesy from a policeman.
Even so, leaving, for him, is unthinkable. Valov has invested seven of his 29 years in the coming games. He moved here to witness the city’s transformation, and then join in cheering Russia’s athletes when the games finally opened. He isn’t about to walk away now — not even if he risks arrest.
He’s come close a few times before. Police recently showed up at his door yet again, this time with what he says were trumped-up accusations about running his business. With the help of his lawyer, he managed to avoid getting hauled to prison. He’s sure his cell phone is tapped.
Valov is certain what’s really behind the harassment is his popular blog, blogsochi.ru. Far from being solely a record of his personal commentary, it is also an open forum that allows locals to vent. That’s rare in Sochi — rare in most of Russia. No wonder some 30,000 to 40,000 people read it every day. That’s up to 10 per cent of the people who live here.
By his own research, Valov figures more than half of the city’s residents are cool to the Winter Olympics being held in their backyard — if not downright angry.
“Back in 2007, when Russia’s president told the world Sochi would host the next Olympics, everyone got very excited,” Valov said over tea. “But over the years, people’s opinions shifted. They’ve seen a lot of problems. They’ve been disappointed.”
Ask him why, and he rattles off a slew of complaints – from the evictions to the environmental damage to corruption and power cuts.
But it’s what has happened to one stretch of beach that has Valov most perturbed.
Only one sanctioned protest
It was, once, apparently the jewel of Sochi’s slice of the Black Sea shore. Imeretinsky beach was a wide swath of land hugging the sea revered by locals and visitors alike. But as part of Sochi’s facelift, the beach has been transformed into a boardwalk, a stretch of concrete that snakes up to the foot of the Olympic park – a symbol of a Sochi irretrievably altered.
“Sochi is a resort city,” says Valov, visibly upset. “People come here to lie on the beach and get tanned. They don’t want to be chilling on concrete boardwalk.”
Valov’s blog has been a welcome outlet in a place where protest is all but impossible. Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, Sochi organizers found a park in the town of Khosta, 12 kilometres away, to designate as an official protest zone. Would-be protesters, though, need the approval of three different government departments before they can put one on: the police, the mayor’s office and the impenetrable Federal Security Service.
Only one group has managed to do that so far – a local chapter of the Communist Party.
'Thanks to the Olympics, I am homeless now'
Andrey Martynov tries a different approach.
His home was seized and then demolished to make way for the Olympic Park. He was still in the process of finalizing the purchase, but hadn’t received all the relevant documents. He got no compensation despite the fact that he’s about $200,000 out of pocket.
'You can’t argue with what Olympics brought to the city. But how they treat simple people, the locals, it’s just awful.' - Andrey Martynov, home demolished before Olympics
He’s now crammed his family’s whole life into a single room at a low-end resort. His son lives with friends. He invites journalists to hear his story, perched on the bed that dominates the room he calls home.
Perhaps that way, he says, his story will not be forgotten.
“My life was destroyed,” he says. “Thanks to the Olympics, I am homeless now.”
His wife, Natalya, tried to protest in her own way: a hunger strike. That didn’t work, either. Martynov gets misty-eyed as he reminisces about his days as a semi-professional hockey player. He says he understands the importance of the Olympics.
“You can’t argue with what the Olympics brought to the city,” he says. “But how they treat simple people, the locals, it’s just awful.”
Valov has told many such stories on his blog. He has covered evictions, even strikes by unpaid workers, when other media ignored them.
But he insists he’s not a journalist. He’s neither anti-government, nor pro-opposition, he says. He’s just a blogger who likes to point out wrongs. He wants people to have a place to speak up. Some 2,500 people are registered users of his website.
Despite his disappointments, Valov still plans to attend the Games, to watch hockey and figure skating. He applied early, and to his surprise, got a fan pass.
Ask him for whom the Olympics are put on, and he gives a wry smile: “For the people who can earn most from it.”