Close to Sochi, Games change little for Russia’s bereft
SOLOKH AUL, Russia — Just 20 miles up the mountains from the Potemkin village of Sochi’s ostentatious $50-billion extravaganza lies the village of Solokh Aul, where 75 families make do without running water, gas or oil heat, or reliable electricity.
The village remembers the day in 2007 that Sochi won the Winter Olympics. People ran from their humble wooden huts and cheered. They cried. They drove the treacherous, serpentine road from their hamlet in the Caucasus foothills to the central square of Sochi, so they could join in the celebration.
And they hoped. They hoped that Sochi’s good fortune would help them get basic necessities. It never happened. All they got was a 115 percent increase in the price of a bus ticket and lights that flicker more than ever.
But they still call it “the day we won the Olympics.”
There’s a lot of national pride on display here, and that includes the people of Solokh Aul.
“Whatever money they spent and whatever didn’t happen for us and however poorly we live, I’m rooting for Russia,” said Olga Matveyeva, who runs the village’s only store. “We’re proud of our country, we believe in our teams, even if we don’t get anything from it. It still reflects on us.”
Matveyeva’s store sits at the end of the small, ascending row of wooden houses in various stages of disrepair that line the shallow rapids of the River Shakhe, many of them built in 1959, when the collective farm where most people worked was in its Communist-era prime.
It was not unlike the villages of greater Sochi that line the Black Sea, except residents there sometimes made out when Olympic construction began. Some were offered money, others, housing in better areas. Some, too, say they were swindled.
But nothing happened in Solokh Aul. They had already lost out just after the Soviet Union was disbanded, said Anatoly Petrov, whose family has lived here for generations. The workers at the collective farm, which produced tea, were left with nothing, but the director got fabulously rich, he said.
“Now she lives like a queen and I don’t know what happened,” Petrov said. “You see how we live.’’
He pointed out a few completely dilapidated houses whose owners have left or died, and to the satellite antennas protruding from the homes that still have four intact walls and a roof.
The biggest news of the day was that the post office may start selling fresh meat — so said a sign hung up at the bus stop — but that sounded too good to be true.
Russians, no surprise, easily outnumber those from other nations at these Games and about a dozen of the several dozen fans interviewed Saturday said they were from Greater Sochi. But up in Solokh Aul, Petrov said, no one is spending $28 for a ticket to a curling match, much less upward of $1,000 to attend the closing ceremony.
“My TV is always on right now,” he said, and gestured over his shoulder in the direction of the Black Sea. “I don’t know what they’re building down there, but I spend all my time here watching the Games.”
That is, all his time when the lights are working.
“We didn’t have constant electricity for two years, we would have no light for weeks on end,” Matveyeva said, leaning over a shelf stocked with candy bars and gum and fresh Russian pastries. “After a while, people dreamed about light and warmth, and to be left alone. The only boom we’ve had here is when the price of bus tickets went up.”
Seven years ago, she hurried down to Sochi, where strangers were congratulating each other in the streets.
“We were so happy,” she said, putting her face in her hands. “After all, we were happy for Russia.”
Matveyeva said she especially liked the Opening Ceremony, with its lights and computer graphics and complicated choreography.
Valentina Kovalyova, who sells mushrooms and honey to make ends meet, likes every event.
“I’m the No. 1 fan in Russia,” she said, glancing back at her living room from her courtyard, strewn with rusted metal, random pieces of wood, a bathtub and a kitchen table. “I was watching hockey, it’s Russia ahead of Slovenia, 2-0.”
Kovalyova, a retired construction company accountant, never considered going to Sochi to take part in the Games or marvel at the state-of-the-art venues in the sprawling Olympic Park.
“It’s too expensive,” she said, offering a spoonful of honey made from chestnut and linden blooms. “I don’t leave the television.”
Kovalyova just shook her head when asked what will happen to everything that has been built once the Olympics leave town.
“It’s not for us,” she said. “It's one disappointment after another.”
Lyuda Chertkova, who stood in front of a rusted, wheel-less Lada hatchback rusting in her courtyard, predicted the gleaming Olympic venues would do the same.
“It will all fall apart,” she said.
Her aunt, Tanya Chertkova, agreed.
“We thought it would somehow affect us,” said Chertkova, who said crops and 27 chickens sustain her family. “But the Olympics are for people with money, not us.”
Despite her disappointment, Chertkova is still cheering for Russia, and sounds a note of local pride.
“Sure, we never got gas, and we aren’t even hoping for it, and we still get our water from a spring,” she said, gesturing to a mountain that towers over the village. “And you know what? It is the best water anywhere.”