Sochi’s Internal Refugees

In the shadow of the Winter Games in Sochi, families kicked out of their homes to make way for Olympic construction are desperate for some compensation for their lost lives.

02.08.14 10:45 AM ET

Vova’s little eyes gleamed with a mischievous light upon hearing the word “games” and the three-year-old generously offered a visitor the chance to play with his colorful toy cars. He poured heaps of them onto a bed and set about sorting the jumble of tiny vehicles. “Games” was a word that Vova understood when the adults talked in serious conversation, but nobody seemed to be interested in playing with the boy. His grandmother, Lyudmila, was actually sobbing, looking at photographs of the family’s house, which had been demolished by authorities during the recent Olympic construction boom.

The boy’s mother, Natalya, reminisced about her happy but lost life in Sochi—and with the Olympic Games just days away in her hometown, she could think of nothing other than her family’s potentially homeless future. “Not now,” the family’s neighbor, Andrew Martynov—also a victim of forced evictions—told the boy with a weak smile. He was not in the mood for playing with toy cars, either. Sochi’s big moment has arrived and many athletes and visitors are surely giddy with excitement. It’s a joy that cannot be shared by the evicted families whose plots of land became highways or hotels.

Last week, days before the official opening of the 2014 Winter Games, Sochi traffic policemen checked Martynov’s documents on the road, and decided they didn’t like his registration. They took his license plates away, leaving the professional driver without a job for at least a month. “The Olympic Games, like a big bulldozer, keep rolling all over our lives,” Martynov said with a sigh.

Vova’s efforts to amuse the adults around him remained futile. He had poured his toys right over the thick files on his grandmother’s bed, full of court statements and letters, gray as cement, from the authorities: the evidence of the Savelyev family’s two-year-long struggle to defend themselves against the inevitable Olympic demolition. In the past, such papers had bought time for their family home, which held nine members of the Savelyev clan. The house stood until the end of 2012. But eventually, the family lost their case at each level of the Russian court system. Their last hope for justice is now in the European Court of Human Rights, which one day might oblige the Russian authorities to pay them some compensation for their lost home.

Driving around Sochi, guests of the Winter Olympics might notice the layers of the city’s history: Stalin-era spa hotels decorated with neoclassical columns, pompous arches, grandiose fountains and statues, next to busts of Soviet heroes lying under magnolia and cypress trees—all that remains of the once-peaceful small town on the Black Sea. Now, overlaying it all is the glass and concrete jungle of the Olympic era.

Andrey Martynov sits on a stool, one of his few remaining pieces of furniture, as he poses for a picture near the site of his former property that now lies within the boundaries of the Olympic Park in Sochi October 5, 2013. Martynov was granted temporary shelter at a Soviet era tourist hostel, where he shares an eight square-meter room with his wife. Martynov says he was first deprived of his land by a real estate agent who cheated him with fake land-survey documents. During litigation, he ultimately lost his property to the state corporation responsible for building the Olympic Village in Sochi's Adler district. He said he has not received any compensation for his loss and city authorities deny registration at the hostel, rendering him legally homeless. Spending on the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi is expected to pass $50 billion, and the Games are a priority for President Vladimir Putin who wants to use them to showcase the country's modern face to the world over two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. But locals have expressed concern about various difficulties they are facing as the city gears up for the Olympics, ranging from disruption to a local water supply, to damage to housing. Picture taken October 5, 2013.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter (RUSSIA - Tags: SPORT OLYMPICS SOCIETY BUSINESS REAL ESTATE TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX164GF

Thomas Peter/Reuters

A few years ago, some inhuman power barreled through Russia’s only subtropical resort, leaving holes in the ground where gardens once blossomed and planting skyscrapers with luxurious apartments for people with money. At a time when Russian authorities and investors were pouring more than $50 billion into highways and railroads, new luxury hotels, skiing resorts and Olympic venues, the Vingradov family—including Kira, age 11, and Aleksei, age four—were living in a metal wagon on Zheleznodorozhnaya Avenue. Several generations have been born and have grown up in these cheap sheet-metal homes, begging the state for help.

What will be the memories of the 2014 Winter Games for the children of Sochi?After all, children played a key role in the Opening Ceremony of the Games, where a little girl in a white dress appeared to walk on air, carrying a red balloon, floating above scenes out of Russian history.

One child, seven-year-old Kirill Dragon, remembered that right before the whole world arrived in his home town, authorities demolished his family’s outhouse and built a huge highway in place of the green lawn where he used to play, raising a 12-foot-high wall right in front of the house and blocking the view of the snowy mountain peaks.

The long scar on Vova’s forehead might remind him one day of the time his family lost their home, and he had to move to a temporary shelter. A little baby at the time, he suffered a fall in the midst of the move and received a concussion. By the Olympics, he was healthy again playing with his cars in a tiny and stuffy room of nine square meters, serving multiple purposes: bedroom, office, dining room and play area for two children.

Almost every family in Vova’s multi-stoey building, the former Soviet Hotel Neptun in Sochi, had lost their houses to natural disasters,  fire or pre-Olympic legal disputes and forced evictions. In vain, they hoped that bits of aid would spill over to them from the Olympic party. As athletes from all over the world were arriving to compete, little Kirill on Accacia street invented his own competitions, based on dumping old tires and construction waste—whoever could throw garbage farther, won. On the other side of the wall, cars zipped by on the new federal highway and could not see Kirrill’s games.