Sochi, under construction in advance of the Winter Olympics. (Photo: MIKHAIL MORDASOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games begins Thursday on CBC and along with it, plenty of drama, spectacular sporting feats and white-knuckle moments. But outside of the games and medal counts, there are lots of great alternative news sources that are worth checking out for a look at what's going on behind the scenes in the country.
Some of the more interesting sites are based in the host country. The Russian media landscape is a difficult one to crack. On the one hand, much of the country's media are tightly controlled by the government. On the other, Russians have a remarkable affinity for LiveJournal and blogging.
The country is also a famously difficult place to be a journalist, activist or critic of any sort. Just today, Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist who was reporting on the effects of Olympics construction to the Sochi area, was arrested and detained for 15 days for swearing in public. And last week, newspaper editor Alexander Suturin of the Molodoi Dalnevostochnik weekly in the far east of the country was ordered to pay a 50,000-ruble fine for publishing an interview with a gay school teacher who defended homosexuality as normal. Suturin is said to have violated a law that bans so-called gay propaganda among minors.
There are also some great sites based outside of Russia that offer similarly interesting takes on Sochi.
Below, we've rounded up a few sites where you'll find alternative perspectives on the Sochi Games — a group of voices you won't hear in mainstream Russian media, or mainstream Canadian media either, for that matter.
BlogSochi is a curated forum where a group of journalists, activists, politicians and amateur bloggers provide news about the city. It has not escaped controversy in Russia. Last week, blogger Alexander Valov was told by a police officer to get out of town after publishing stories about Sochi residents who are unhappy about the Olympics.
For the length of the Games, U.S. website Grantland is publishing anonymous blog entries from a member of the LGBT community who is travelling to Sochi as part of the American delegation. The posts are also sponsored by You Can Play, an organization that promotes diversity in sports. It's a heartfelt, first-person account of what these Olympics will be like for someone who openly identifies as LGBT at home (but will have to hide that while in Russia).
Alexei Navalny is a lawyer, politician and activist in Russia. He is also a popular blogger in his own right. His recently launched website is an attempt to outline corruption — overspending, embezzlement, environmental devastation — allegedly committed in the bidding and construction around the Sochi Games. The interactive website combines existing media reports with Navalny's own data.
The Sochi Product is a collaboration between the photographer Rob Hornstra and the writer Arnold van Bruggen. The two have been working on the website since 2007 with the aim of telling in-depth, highly personal stories about the city of Sochi in the lead-up to the Winter Games. The project is largely crowdfunded, and is currently being reworked into a book. "Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi," writes Bruggen. This site is a highly researched, beautifully designed exploration of that contrast.
Russia! is an independent magazine devoted to Russian topics published in the United States. It takes an irreverent approach to weighty topics that's much easier when you're based in the United States. Stories about travel and Nabokov sit alongside stories about government corruption — there's also an entire section devoted to LGBT issues. Writers include experienced editors, journalists, NYU professors and other experts on Russia based in the States.