Photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen have been embedded in Sochi — the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games — since 2007. They produced an immense amount of documentation, research and striking visuals for a story that is just not told. And now, they will never get to finish it.
While the international press has been attempting to cover Putin-systemized, gross social injustice against LGBT including and the role of the “gay propaganda ban” at the Olympic Games, a more general issue emerges. Some of the most elaborate and extreme limitations have been put upon the incoming press by the Russian government. Even the state-controlled press has been gutted and restructured to be more state-controlled. And in this climate of escalating censorship, Hornstra and van Bruggen told the story of Sochi in Abkhazia, a Civil War-annexed former part of Georgia, its villages torn apart by decades of conflict, genocide and poverty surrounding a long-over-glorified ex-Soviet sanatoria resort hot spot — literally a hot spot, “the Florida of Russia, but cheaper” known for its subtropical climates extremely ill-fitting to “winter games” of any sort. And that’s just in the first chapter of the Sochi Project, a visually dynamic, epic project.
On the other side of the mountains from Sochi is the North Caucasus, the poorest and most violent region of Russia. While in Sochi 50 billion dollars are being invested in the Olympics, many villages here barely have running water or gas.
The small town of Sochi has been riddled with abandoned construction sites, looming skyscrapers and “miniature Versailles.” There is devastating environmental damage. There are people and stories, suspected Islamist terrorists tortured to death by interrogators, collectives of activists and protestors in the mountains. They covered it — from the trash sliding down the mountains to the surreal Sochi karaoke bars (as in Hornstra’s World Press Photo award-winning series) and into the corrupt and festering core of the Olympics, they covered the hell out of this story.
Hostra has been recently denied a Russian visa to enter Moscow. He and van Bruggen are banned from Russia. Hostra told the Guardian:
I have been working in Russia since 2003 and I love the country, the culture and many of the people… I have friends there who I can’t visit any longer. I really regret the decision of the Russian government and I don’t understand it. I mean, how bad are we? We are part of our stories, and this is completely in line with the stories we tell.
Now, journalism is virtually illegal when it comes to Putin’s 50 billion dollar sham show.