Long Read: “Putin’s Olympic Fever Dream”

Steven Lee Myers, “acting bureau chief of The Times’s Moscow bureau…at work on a biography of Vladimir Putin”, takes a gentle ramble through Putin’s Potemkin village:

… “This is one of the biggest frauds of the Olympics,” Boris Nemtsov said about the new road and railway, and the whole Sochi project, he says, is the biggest fraud in Russia’s history, “maybe even the biggest in human history.” Now 54, Nemtsov was once one of the brightest stars of the democracy movement that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. A mathematician and a physicist with a Ph.D. that he defended when he was only 25, he became involved in politics by protesting plans to build a nuclear reactor after the Chernobyl disaster. In 1991, he was appointed governor of Nizhny Novgorod, the formerly closed city of Gorky, and served until 1997, when Boris Yeltsin drafted him to join his government. He was so popular — young, handsome, intelligent — that he was widely discussed as a potential successor for the ailing Yeltsin. Those prospects crashed with the Russian economy in 1998 and, a year later, with the unexpected ascension of Putin. The two occasionally worked together in the beginning, but Nemtsov turned fierce critic after the arrest of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. He has since vehemently attacked Putin’s authoritarian instincts and the heavy hand of the security organs and has been arrested three times for taking part in anti-Putin protests.

“What is really interesting is that Putin believes nobody knows about the corruption,” Nemtsov said over dinner in Moscow. It’s not for Nemtsov’s lack of trying. In a report he co-wrote and distributes at political protests, he noted that Russian Railways contracted the bulk of the road and railway project to two companies, including one that is now partly owned by a businessman named Gennady Timchenko, who has longstanding connections to Putin. Nemtsov also claims that 15 percent of the entire Olympic budget went to companies owned by the brothers Rotenberg, Arkady and Boris, who were Putin’s friends and judo partners when they were coming of age in the 1960s. After Putin’s rise to power, they advanced in the ranks of Russia’s oligarchs. In an interview with The Financial Times in 2012, Arkady Rotenberg defended his friendship and said he had not used it for personal gain. “I have great respect for this person,” he said of Putin, “and I consider that this is a person sent to our country from God.”

Every Olympics costs more than the initial projections, but Russia’s costs have increased more than fourfold since Putin’s initial estimate of $12 billion. As Nemtsov figures, because most games typically double in cost, the difference in Russia — $25 billion to $30 billion — can be attributed to outright thievery. “This is a festival of corruption,” he said. And he argued that everything — from the choice of Sochi, to the design of the buildings, to the contracts parceled out — was effectively controlled by Putin. “There was no public discussion about the place. Zero. Not even one discussion in Parliament. Zero. No discussion on Putin TV, the zombie box. It was completely closed.”.

In December, a scientist and environmentalist named Yulia Naberezhnaya agreed to meet in Sochi, but only after certain precautions were taken to protect the now-secret location of her organization, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, which has been chronicling the abuses done to a fragile biosphere by the preparations for the Olympics. The alliance’s office in a nearby town was raided by security services in March, as was the home of one of its members, Vladimir Kimayev. Its leader, Andrei Rudomakha, was detained in October along with Naberezhnaya, as they were on their way to the office in Sochi… “We are not a powerful-enough organization to fight the state,” Naberezhnaya told me. “The only thing we can do is raise hell, and then see what happens. And even that is being taken away from us.”

Naberezhnaya asked that a colleague and I meet her at a bus stop in Bytkha, a working-class neighborhood that climbs into the hills along the coast and is likely to be trod by few, if any, of the visitors who come for the Olympics. It was already dark when we arrived, and she appeared at the bus stop a few minutes later. She took us on a rambling walk through darkened streets and alleys before we arrived at the back of a Soviet-era apartment building, with an expansive view of Sochi’s center and the mountains cast in silvery moonlight. An old shed had been converted into a crude apartment, sparsely furnished and occupied most of the time by a lone cat. Stacked around were boxes of campaign literature for Yabloko, one of the oldest democratic parties in Russia, to which many of the environmentalists also belong. It is here that Naberezhnaya is finishing work, in virtual collaboration with the alliance’s now-scattered members, on a final report on the environmental impact wrought not only by the Olympics but also by the rapacious development underway in the region’s protected parks, including a supposed research center above Sochi that is widely believed to be a personal mountain resort, replete with helipads and several Swiss-style chalets, for Putin.

She cited a new law that was proposed by the Kremlin and dutifully adopted by both houses of Parliament in November 2007, effectively superseding all other relevant laws regarding the use of environmentally sensitive areas. “The territory planning documentation for the location of Olympic facilities shall be approved without holding public hearings,” the law declared….

Human Rights Watch and other groups like the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus have chronicled a range of abuses, including the gross exploitation of migrant laborers, many of them shuttled in from abroad. While Russian officials dispute the accusations of corruption, the evidence has mounted to the point that even a member of the International Olympic Committee, Gian-Franco Kasper, told Switzerland’s SRF radio this month that roughly a third of the spending on the games had been lost to embezzlement…

The pictures at the link are really impressive, too.

46 replies
  1. 1
    gogol's wife says:

    Literally nauseating.

  2. 2
    Tommy says:

    @gogol’s wife: Yes. Yes it is. I clicked through and saw what I had seen before. That they are saving snow, cause well it doesn’t snow a lot in Sochi. And they built a highway that cost a few hundred million, just to go a few miles.

    Look to host an Olympics costs a ton of money for the host country (I first wrote company and I guess, well). But this seems extreme and just graft.

  3. 3
    geg6 says:

    You know, I’m a big fan of the Olympics. And I acknowledge all the bad things about them — the corruption and grift and nationalism. But I always enjoy the sport of them and the athletes always fascinate me.

    But Sochi is really trying my fandom. It’s all so sordid and obvious that it’s impossible to overlook.

  4. 4
    WereBear says:

    @Tommy: doesn’t snow a lot in Sochi

    That’s insane.

  5. 5
    Tommy says:

    @geg6: I am with you. I played sports at a high level and next to finding a cure for cancer or brokering world peace winning a gold medal might be the thing I’d like to do the most.

    I recall sitting with my parents and watching the opening of the Olympics on a small b/w TV. Just being taken away. To want to be there. To stand up on a podium winning the gold, seeing my country’s flag, and my nations anthem being played for all to hear.

    Sochi is really trying my fandom as well to use your words.

  6. 6
    JGabriel says:

    Anne Laurie @ Top:

    Steven Lee Myers, “acting bureau chief of The Times’s Moscow bureau…at work on a biography of Vladimir Putin”, takes a gentle ramble through Putin’s Potemkin village:

    So that makes it … wait for it … a Putinkin Village?

    (JGabriel ducks and runs.)

  7. 7
    Tommy says:

    @WereBear: I am not making that up. You can see it in the pics from the story linked here. They have these tarps they are using to save snow from earlier for the Olympics. Actually I think from last year in many instances.

  8. 8
    PsiFighter37 says:

    I wonder what all the stuff built for Sochi in 20 years will look like. My guess is decrepit and falling apart.

  9. 9
    Ken says:

    I look into his eyes, and I see a kindred spirit.

    Or a corrupt authoritarian who uses the machinery of government to reward his friends and punish his enemies. Same difference.

  10. 10
    Ben Franklin says:


    But I always enjoy the sport of them and the athletes always fascinate me.

    I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief in the overriding importance of corruptive influence of the IOC. I feel sorry for any who participate with suspension, but I understand. Russia? The Collective rubber-band exercises it’s muscle-memory. They must go through the corruptive stage before they can move on.

  11. 11
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    @Tommy: doesn’t snow a lot in Sochi

    That’s insane.

    It is Insane, and FSM knows I’m not trying to defend Putin and the Russian Olympics Committee, but the IOC bears a fair chunk of responsibility. I mean, they didn’t have to select Sochi back whenever they made the decision.

    Don’t remember what year that was, and don’t recall what the rival bid cities were that go-round, so I’m off to consult Mr. Google.

  12. 12
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Here we go:

    Seven applicant cities presented bids to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics (formally known as XXII Olympic Winter Games and XI Paralympic Winter Games) to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC Executive Board shortlisted three cities—Sochi, Russia; Salzburg, Austria; and Pyeongchang, South Korea—with Sochi winning the IOC’s July 2007 final vote.

    Salzburg would have been a no-brainier for me. I know nothing about Pyeongchang.

    Guess that’s why I’ve never been asked to serve on the IOC.

  13. 13
    StringOnAStick says:

    The “research center”/private resort for Putin reminds me of the Eagles Nest that Hitler had built for himself and the inner circle. Yeah, I went Godwin; so sue me but before you do, tell me just how Putin’s graft and turning of business into a partner for state corruption is all that different.

    The Olympic committee should have never awarded the Olympics to Russia, and that fact that they did and for an area that never gets much snow tells me that the graft and corruption isn’t just Putin. The Olympic Committee looks super dirty and compromised to my eyes.

    I don’t want to see the Olympics end, but if it is going to be nothing more than an ego boost for corrupt dictators, then end it. The better option is to choose let’s say 3 countries for the summer venue, and 3 for the winter, and just rotate the events between those locations. The expense of building the facilities is too much to expect to happen without too big of a burden placed on the populace or on the environment.

  14. 14
    beltane says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Salzberg would have been an ideal venue. Heck, they should just make it the permanent venue for the winter Olympics. They must not have offered the IOC enough in the way of hookers, blow, and cash.

  15. 15
    Villago Delenda Est says:



  16. 16
    JoyfulA says:

    @geg6: I haven’t paid any attention to the Olympics since the late 70s, when the US Olympic Committee sued an old Greek guy running a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the Olympia, for trademark infringement.

    (Have they sued the state of Washington yet?)

  17. 17
    Tommy says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: No the IOC is at fault. No need to award a bid there.

  18. 18
    dmsilev says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: South Korea will host the next Winter Games after this one. Guess they took their 2014 bid and did a search/replace on the date.

  19. 19
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    “Dough, a bribe, a grifting bribe….”

  20. 20
    Pogonip says:

    “…aPhD that he defended…”. Does anyone understand that reference? I don’t. Defended how, from whom? (I envision a brawny fantasy-barbarian brandishing a sword while wearing a tasseled graduation cap.)

  21. 21
    raven says:

    @Pogonip: You write a dissertation and then you defend it.

  22. 22
    Pogonip says:

    @raven: From whom?

  23. 23
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    In 1996 they sued Atlanta’s famous Varsity Restaurant for using their world-famous onion rings as a light-hearted Olympic Rings symbol. IOC made them cease and desist.

    I knew a guy who managed to acquire a few of those pins before the jackbooted IOC thugs came storming in. Last I heard, they were worth quite a lot as collectibles. I hope my friend’s widow made out like bandits on EBay.

  24. 24
    dmsilev says:

    @Pogonip: The last stage in the PhD process is ‘defending your dissertation’. At least in my field, that amounts to standing up and giving a 30-45 minute talk on the dissertation and then answering questions from the panel of faculty who have to sign off on it. It’s vanishingly rare for anyone to fail their defense nowadays, though it is in principle possible.

  25. 25
    Roger Moore says:


    Look to host an Olympics costs a ton of money for the host country (I first wrote company and I guess, well).

    The Olympics cost a lot because the people in charge want to spend a ton of money. Instead, the Olympics are treated as an excuse for a municipal building boom, both in sports venues and general infrastructure, and is usually attended with higher than normal levels of graft. A city that wanted to avoid breaking the bank could follow the Los Angeles 1984 model of aggressively re-using existing facilities, building temporary ones to fill in the holes, and not going crazy rebuilding the whole transportation system. That they generally don’t do that is a sign that the cost, especially the graft, is a feature, not a bug.

  26. 26
    My Truth Hurts says:

    That level of crony corruption and doling out of construction contracts is an echo of what would have happened had Chicago won the 2016 games. Although even ex King Mayor Daley would have shown a bit more restraint and not grafted SO much cash.

  27. 27
    Tommy says:

    @dmsilev: You have your major professor and then the others that sit around. I only did it for my thesis. Not my PhD. But it wasn’t a joke.

  28. 28
    Roger Moore says:


    Guess they took their 2014 bid and did a search/replace on the date.

    I bet they spent a lot more on the bribes song and dance routine for the IOC this time around.

  29. 29
    Tripod says:


    20 years? Beijing’s venues are already empty hulks. It probably ought to be a bid requirement that there is a re-purposing plan (and funds) in place.

  30. 30
    Roger Moore says:

    My impression is that these days the defense is more before the public dog and pony show than during it. The grad students I’ve worked with meet their committees regularly and have already been forced to make a bunch of changes to their dissertations long before the public defense. The talk is mostly a formality.

  31. 31
    dmsilev says:

    @Tommy: Not a joke, certainly, but generally not an adversarial process either. Usually the committee will have some minor revisions they want made to the dissertation (sometimes very minor; I got one request to change the font size), and that’s it. However, it is a chance for the graduating student to show off the work they did to their peers and to the rest of the department, and in that sense it’s very important.

  32. 32
    JoyfulA says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: I’m sorry to hear the IOC thugs continued beyond the 1970s into the 1990s. I hope they’ve stopped now, but I doubt it.

  33. 33
    Ben Franklin says:

    @My Truth Hurts:

    Same as would have happened with Daddy Daley if the DNC had held their convention in 1968. What were they, Yuppies or Yippees?

  34. 34
    Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN) says:


    . . . if it is going to be nothing more than an ego boost for corrupt dictators . . .

    It isn’t. As I’ve said before I’m actually in contact with a few of the athletes this time around and you can’t overstate how big a deal this is to them. For most of them, this is the biggest stage they will ever perform on and they’ve spent years getting ready. And I’ve participated in fund raisers to help their parents make the trip to watch them.

    I understand the calls to boycott the Games over the various evils of the Russian government but I can’t go along. Not when I can see up close how it would crush the athletes.

  35. 35
    raven says:

    @Pogonip: You defend the work to your dissertation committee, a group of faculty that has served to guide your research. Generally their is your major professor who you work most closely with. There may also be a methodologist but, in my case, my major prof (chair) served that role as well. I’m sure someone will chime in with a different structure but that’s a general outline.

  36. 36
    raven says:

    @dmsilev: It is the job of the committee to make sure the student is capable of completing the work and generally, if they are not, they should not pass the prospectus stage.

  37. 37
    raven says:

    @Roger Moore: I had a number of revisions after my defense.

  38. 38

    @Ken: But what do Snowden and Greenwald think?

    Just asking…:)

  39. 39
    Pogonip says:

    @dmsilev: Thanks! You too, Raven.

  40. 40
    Pogonip says:

    And the rest of you. One learns something new every day here. This may not be as important as learning that you should never try to shave the south end of a cat facing north, but it’s interesting.

  41. 41
    Tripod says:


    Maybe they can arrange a trade for snow and cold with Roger Goodell. A February Superbowl in an open-aired New Jersey stadium? Brilliant!

  42. 42
    Spike says:

    @Roger Moore:

    A city that wanted to avoid breaking the bank could follow the Los Angeles 1984 model of aggressively re-using existing facilities, building temporary ones to fill in the holes, and not going crazy rebuilding the whole transportation system.

    Vancouver followed this model reasonably well. They built a new rapid transit line to the airport and Richmond that was on the drawing board already (though they did make a few regrettable design decisions while trying to ensure it was ready for the games), and widened and updated the road to Whistler. New facilities were converted to community centres and a convention centre expansion after the games ended. The city got burned by a real estate boondoggle on the athletes’ village, but that looks tiny and insignificant compared to what’s going down in Sochi.

  43. 43
    chris9059 says:

    Putin is certainly enormously corrupt but it is hard to swallow the tone of moral outrage from Nemstov who was himself party to pehaps the greatest chain of thefts in human history, that is loans for shares scheme and the rest of the privatization scandal of Russia in the 1990s.

  44. 44
    StringOnAStick says:

    @Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN): The athletes will always be the victims if the process is basically a way for the ICO to wet their beaks while in the process of choosing who the lucky winning country/graft machine gets to be. The athletes would best be served by the “3 and 3” model I described, and the system would be much more stable.

  45. 45
    e.a. foster says:

    Very interesting post. I just finished watching a Russian documentary, “Putin’s Games”. It was shown this weekend on C.B.C., Canadian Broadcasting Corporations, Passionate Eye. The Passionate Eye usually shows interesting documentaries from all over. Putin’s Games is worth the watch and its funny. The music, is very much like that of the Keystone cop movies. To see the corruption and destruction of neighbourhoods and the enviornment is amazing. It is hard to fathom how this will all be paid for by the Russian citizens

    At the end of the documentary, it says the group who made the documentary were offered 600K euros to not show it. They took it to a documentary exhibit in Moscow instead.

    Everybody should watch the movie and then think of all the waste of money the Os create. It is time to end the Os or find two places to hold them every 4 yrs, every time None of this new site business every 4 yrs. there is way to much money and bribery involved. One of the conditions for a country having a permanent site is they must be able to demonstrate they are a functioning democracy and the games will not result in undue hardship of the citizens.

    There has been much discussion regarding terrorists and the Sochi games. after watching the documentary, the real terrorists are the ones building the games.

  46. 46
    moops says:

    I’m just stunned that they have known it was going to happen in Sochi since 2007 and they are still running like mad to finish on time.

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