The announcement in 2007 that the 2014 Winter Olympics would be held in Sochi was met with a near universal “where?” Smuggled down the Western side of Russia, on the coast of the Black Sea, Sochi was a quiet subtropical backwater hitherto frequented by Russians seeking sunshine on a budget. Fast-forward seven years, via a regeneration campaign costing an unprecedented $51 billion, terrorist threats from Muslim militants, a dearth of snow and vigorous protests from gay rights protesters, and Sochi looks set to be one of the most controversial games in history.
"Fast-forward seven years, via a regeneration campaign costing an unprecedented $51 billion, and Sochi looks set to be one of the most controversial Olympic Games in history"
Long aware that the road to the Sochi Games was likely to be paved with drama, National Geographic commissioned Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak to document the Sochi region as it prepared for the Olympic cavalcade to roll so spectacularly into town. His images, now collected into a limited edition book titled Beyond Sochi, form an illuminatory scrapbook of a region undergoing delirious change, peopled by the individuals who are creating the change – Putin freezes the camera with a Medusa-like glare – and those who are bemusedly watching the frenzy from the sidelines. It is both a fascinating study of political posturing and an important reminder that beyond the shimmering steel and blinding new concrete structures, there is a society that has yet to catch up; whose needs and aspirations have been ignored throughout the hysterically paced regeneration, and will be immediately forgotten once the Olympic spotlight has departed. The Sochi depicted in Dworzak’s photos, and elegantly described by Brett Forrest in his fascinating National Geographic article Putin’s Party, is not the glossy utopian vision presented by Putin’s propaganda machine. Rather it echoes the same sludgy tale of disappointment and corruption that continually trickles from behind Russia's firmly closed front door. With the Opening Ceremony taking place next Friday, the National Geographic’s work is an important reminder of why we should keep asking questions about these Olympics, and, vitally, make sure we fully assess the answers Russia deigns to provide.
Beyond Sochi by Thomas Dworzak is published by Editions Seriti & Magnum Photos. There will be a launch event on 7th February at the Magnum Print Room, 63 Gee Street, London.
Text by Tish Wrigley