The Sochi Olympic Legacy: Sham, Shame and Hope.
THE ECOTOPIA 2121 PROJECT DETAILS THE GREEN UTOPIAN FUTURES OF 100 REAL WORLD CITIES ACROSS THE GLOBE. THIS WEEK, WE FEATURE THE FUTURE OF THE RUSSIAN CITY OF SOCHI.
Sochi 2121 by Alan Marshall
Sochi is the largest city of the Caucasian Riviera, abutting the eastern side of the Black Sea. It’s the warmest city of the entire Russian Federation, a place where Russians go for summer holidays and family fun at the beach. For most Russians, Sochi was a rather peculiar place to be selected to stage the Winter Olympics, since they know it as a warm seaside town. In the winter, though, it can get icy and snowy, and the Caucasus Mountains fold gently around the town.
Today, in the early twenty-first century, Sochi residents are having their front and back gardens slip away from beneath them. The Russian authorities, at the bidding of President Putin, were in such an unyielding hurry to make certain the city was ready for the 2014 Games that they built the new roads in haste throughout the city and surrounding countryside, and in the mountains nearby.
The new stadiums, hotels, sports facilities, and ski resorts were also quickly built. The local residents were often perilously situated close to the construction; so much so that when it rains now, the land slips sometimes, and forested hillsides have smashed down onto a number of neighborhoods. If they're lucky, a family might find only a fallen tree in their backyard. If they're unlucky, their whole house will have slipped down the side of a hill or a mountain.
Landslides are not the only environmental problem. By the time the Olympians had packed their skis and headed home, Sochi had been afflicted with:
• the loss of many wetlands, buried under both the Olympic Village and the rubble left over from the Village’s construction;
• the deforestation of 8,000 acres of the Sochi National Park, for the construction of skiing and shooting facilities;
• the tainting of the water supply, via the illegal dumping of rubble in a water-protected zone. Some neighborhoods were told “Don’t drink the water” by unidentified officials. When they aske, “Why not?” They were told, “it contains something very dangerous. I wouldn’t even touch it”;
• the initiation of avalanches, induced when ski slopes were laid out to forever altered the precarious mountain snowscape;
• the destruction of pristine natural settings: In order to build ski facilities, ice fields in the mountains were destroyed, forested hills were denuded, and swamps filled in. The whole hydrological system of Sochi has changed, causing unforeseen flood events as well as local desiccation. Those parts that were wet have become dry, and those parts that were dry have become sodden all year round;
• wildlife disturbance: Many kinds of animals, from bugs to birds to bears, have fled to unknown locations in search of new homes--or simply died out. The sites of some of the Olympic venues were once a stopover zone for migrating birds, but now they are devoid of life;
• chronic corruption: The construction sector and local politicians have been implicated in corrupt activities on numerous occasions, and local residents have been illegally evicted from certain prime real estate areas.
In addition to all these problems, one particularly destructive road was cut through pristine woodland to connect the city with a new luxurious private villa built for President Putin atop a local mountain.
Worse yet, the Russian leadership has made it clear that anyone who speaks out against any of these problems will feel its wrath. Putin had a faithful "Sochi Posse" which aggressively pursued environmental activists to prevent any demonstrations that might have interrupted the Games, including jailing the most vocal of them for indefinite periods for very minor infringements, such as "swearing in public" or "being a nuisance." Members of the punk group 'Pussy Riot' were also detained during Sochi 2014 for such reasons.
As if all that were not bad enough, the 2014 Olympics served as a grand diversionary tactic for Putin as he amassed Russian troops ready to invade eastern Ukraine just a few hundred miles away on the north side of the Black Sea. The moment the Games ended, he sent them to invade Crimea.
Those residents of Sochi who survived the Olympic environmental onslaught had just about caught their breath, but then construction resumed for both the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the annual Formula One racing series. More vegetation was removed, more coastline despoiled, more environmental activists secured behind bars. This is the present and the near future of Sochi. Meanwhile, the people of other Black Sea countries, like Georgia and Moldova, lived in fear that Russia would use the World Cup to divert international attention away from Putin’s preparations to invade their countries.
Luckily for Sochi’s beleaguered citizens, and for Georgia and Moldova too, an unlikely environmental hero is emerging in the form of a bright blue and yellow parrot named Max. Max is really quite an average pet parrot, friendly and talkative, but unlike most parrots he has a luxury apartment in Trump Towers, Manhattan, all to himself. (Well, all to himself in addition to a couple of feline roommates but they get on pretty well by all accounts.) Fortunately for Max, he doesn’t have to fork out the $17,000 per month rental fee for his expensive roost, since it’s paid for by the ill-gotten gains of a guy named Chuck Blazer.
Chuck Blazer is Max’s owner. Here's Chuck meeting an old friend in Moscow.
Chuck Blazer is also, or was also, the US Secretary of FIFA, and he’s very wealthy. According to the FBI, Blazer gained his riches through a great messy bunch of corrupt deals between himself, FIFA, and the sports minister of the Caribbean nation of Trinidad.
Whether it was the parrot that chattily let out the secrets of the corrupt deals is not known but eventually the FBI found out about the decades-long misdeals. It seems that every four years, one or another FIFA representative bribed another FIFA representative in order to secure World Cup hosting rights.
Anyway, as the investigation proceeds, the concealed records of Max’s keeper are bound to expose the purported bribes at the heart of the Russian 2018 World Cup bid. Because of the FBI investigations, FIFA is under pressure to take the 2018 World Cup away from Russia and to let another country host it. If this happens, then the environmentally damaging construction in Sochi will grind to a halt immediately.
On the other hand, Putin will be absolutely livid. The FIFA World Cup is a prize so glittering that if he loses it, he’d take it very personally and might even send tanks into Georgia and Moldova out of spite, taking over every Black Sea port in a weird macho attempt to save face. Putin’s assistants will no doubt try to calm him down, by promising they’d work to make him 'President for Life', for instance, and by telling him that the city of Sochi will be renamed "Putingrad" in his honor after he dies.
When discussing Sochi's future, we should acknowledge there is a dark history to Sochi that few Russians know about. Sochi is NOT actually a Russian city. It became part of imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century through the genocidal murder and displacement of a native people known as the Circassians. About three million Circassians were living in and around Sochi in the early part of the 19th century, and they regarded themselves as belonging to an independent state that comprised a collection of tribes--with Sochi as their capital. In their own language, the Circassians referred to themselves as Attéghéi. The name is believed to derive from atté (height) to signify a mountaineer or a highlander, and ghéi (the sea), which together signifies a people dwelling in the mountains near the sea.
Here's a photo of a group of their leaders taken in the 19th century.
As Russian imperialism grew in the nineteenth century, Britain and France tried to help the Circassians to resist Russia by supplying arms and munitions. However, after the Crimean war of the 1850s (which Britain and France actually won--but at great cost) European willingness to further help Black Sea tribes was sapped of impetus. Under these circumstances, during the 1860s, a crazed Russian military commander named General Yevdokimov rampaged up and down the coast near Sochi, slaughtering Circassians of all ages, burning their churches and mosques and shrines, destroying their towns and villages, and devastating their crops and livestock. By 1864, the Yevdokimov had taken Sochi. Today he is honored as a war hero by the Russians of Sochi with statues of him festooning the town.
Merely waging a war against the Circassians was not enough, however. The Russian Minister of War in 1860 drew up plans to eliminate the Circassians altogether, to either "kill them all or push them out into the sea." These plans, which were nothing short of ethnic cleansing, were published widely for all Russians to read and then endorsed by Tsar Alexander II.
Many Circassians chose to resist, and died for it—some 400,000 of them. Other Circassians believed their only chance of survival was to submit immediately to forced deportation. With Russian soldiers pointing guns at their backs, almost the entire Circassian population—millions of people—were moved on horseback or by foot to the ports of the eastern Black Sea, including Sochi. There they were crowded onto ships and sent off to Turkey, hundreds of miles to the south. Many reports from the time suggest that nearly half of them died of disease or hunger or exhaustion on the way. The Turkish portmasters noted how the ships arrived one by one like floating graveyards from Sochi.
Today, 150 years later, about four million ethnic Circassians are living in different nations of the extinct Ottoman-Turkish empire, mostly in Turkey itself but also in Jordan and Egypt. There are also a few thousand Circassians still in Russia. Many Circassians still identify strongly with Sochi as their homeland and feel aggrieved when it is touted as a great Russian city by Russian media. Circassians outside of Russia are trying to highlight the fact that the Olympic Games and World Cup stadia are being built on sites where their people were massacred (but those Circassians within Russia are subjected to arrest if they attempt the same thing).
As the decades of the twenty-first century come and go, the geopolitics of the Black Sea is bound to change, maybe gradually or maybe via a series of crises. One day, though, Russia may well be depleted of 'easy oil and gas', its economy is bound to stagnate, its people will slowly become unhappy with economic isolation. Also, any new military forays in the Black Sea aimed at strengthening Moscow's international standing may do just the reverse—costing it both diplomatically and financially. It’s quite possible that worldwide sympathy, and trade, will flow to the multiple smaller nations around the Black Sea instead of to Russia.
That noted, we can look forward to the far future of Sochi and describe a scenario of Circassian revival there. If the smaller nations around the Black Sea and Eurasia, like the Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnia, Bulgaria, Armenia, Crimea, Romania, Kazakhstan, Dagestan, Tatarstan, Moldova, Kurdistan, and Turkey, do become wealthier, and if they work cooperatively in business and diplomacy with the rest of Europe, with the odd anti-Russian rebellion erupting once in a while, then a Circassian uprising against Russian domination is possible. Here we arrive at Sochi 2121.
When the Circassians do make their way back to their home city, they are likely to find an industrialized, polluted city named Putingrad. However, this will hardly halt Circassians from rejoicing in being home again. It will take a generation probably, but they will slowly reinvent Sochi as their capital once more.
One part of this project may be the resurrection of traditional Circassian theology—which mixes monotheism with ancestor worship. Central within this theology is a providential god, named Tha, who expects nothing in return for the universe of goods he provides. Although Tha is not a judgmental God, the spirits of Circassians' dead ancestors are thought to be, since they hold view over everything that a Circassian person does in their lifetime.
The Circassian ancestors from the nineteenth century will probably look upon the Circassians of Sochi 2121 with grace and happiness, pleased that their descendants have recovered their homeland. But also, the ancestors will want Circassians of 2121 to do good things with their renewed capital, to respect Sochi as a place to forever call home, and to make an honorable living there —one that shows due regard for the mountains and the sea.
Sochi 2121 by Alan Marshall