National Geographic : 2014 Jan
Sochi 117 29 miles east into the Caucasus range. Nearly every venue for the games has been built from scratch—the ice rinks in Adler, the bobsled run and facsimile alpine villages of Krasnaya Polyana, the rail and infrastructure that connect and enable. The current official price tag, $50 billion, is probably lowballed. Even so, the Sochi Olympics have cost more than any games before them. With many billions of dollars conjured up and carried away, this is not the tightest business plan ever designed. But this is not business. Nor is it mainly a sporting matter. The event is intended to be the culmination of the achieve- ments of Putin, a leader who many Russians believe was dispatched by God to guide Russia away from its defeats and ignominies. The seed of these games was planted in his mind more than a decade ago. A SINGLE TWO-LANE ROAD runs through the valley formed by the many Caucasian peaks of Krasnaya Polyana. Just a few years ago this was a humble skiing village of a few thousand people, its innocence guarded by the local off-piste crowd, an insular place of insider’s lingo and cyclical avalanche. That’s all gone now with the mass con- struction and the 20,000 migrant workers who have arrived to remake the village. Further back in time, this valley bore witness to the destruc- tion of a people who were all but forgotten by the outside world until the Olympics resurrected their memory. Up a side road on a winter afternoon, Astemir Dzhantimirov sits at home, waiting for his boss to dispatch him on a job. Dzhantimirov works for the city’s gas utility, Gorgaz, installing new canisters, fixing old ones. His profession is not his distinguishing feature, however, nor is his prominent nose or his forthright manner. Dzhantimirov, the Russified ending of his fam- ily name notwithstanding, is Russian only by citizenship, but this is not what makes him stand out from the many laborers who have flooded the valley. He is Circassian, an ethnic group near- ly eliminated from the area 150 years ago, when the tsar’s army overran the mountain dwellers. He lives with his wife and three children on the second floor of a small house. The several inter- locking rooms are in good order, quiet as the family tends to homework and chores. Dzhantimirov describes how he learned the old Circassian stories when family would gather at funerals in the Cherkessk region, over the mountains northeast of here. “ This was the time when my ears were on the top of my head,” he says. Aunts and uncles told how the armies of the tsars arrived in the early 1800s, how the Caucasus War continued sporadically for decades, how the Circassians lost the land and much more. When Russia gained the Caucasus, the tsars and their generals knew very little of the region, nor of the numerous tribes and tongues that dwelled within the rocky folds of the range. The Kuban Cossacks, vagabond warriors, patrollers of Russia’s southerly margin, knew better than to penetrate the pined cliffs into which others had roamed to ultimate peril. The stray Russian soldier or wanderer routinely fell into bondage in this territory, bartered from tribe to tribe for goats and herbs and other captives. The Russians gained title to these tactical lands—fulfilling what they considered their expansionist destiny— by battling the sultan and the shah, but they also understood that a special effort would be required to make them their own. The Circassians and other local peoples fought against the Russians in a determined guerrilla campaign, but not a winnable one. The Rus- sians felt a special pull to the Caucasus—to the liveliness of frontier combat, to the forbidden romance of Circassian tribeswomen, to this pre- cipitous place of emotional searching, where a St. Petersburg aristocrat could discard the rules that had molded him and become a new man altogether. In time these mountains would be- come the place of poets and writers, of Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy. Ultimately, Rus- sian military capability proved too much for the Brett Forrest wrote about a new Eurasian railroad in our August 2010 issue. Thomas Dworzak’s most recent book, Kavkaz, showcases many years of work photographing in the Caucasus.