Diana Eksuzyan is standing behind the security checkpoint at the entrance to Olympic Park, she is wearing the blue snowsuit worn by all volunteers at these games. Behind her shine the lights of Fischt Stadium, where the opening ceremonies are about to begin while in front of her rises the oversized flame torch, still without its fire. Her eyebrows are neatly plucked, her lips have been augmented. Her job is to explain to visitors how to find their seats, telling them how far it is, pointing out the nearest restroom. And she has to smile. "It is supposed to be a smile that comes from the heart," she says, "not a Hollywood smile."
Eksuzyan is 22 years old and studies law and public relations in Sochi; she lives 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away on the border to Abkhazia. She is convinced that the Olympic Games are the best thing that could happen to Russia and, more specifically, to Sochi. "Finally, we once again have the opportunity to prove that we can achieve something great," she says. And smiles.
Blimps are hanging in the sky scanning the area, surveillance cameras are mounted on every corner and police stand guard at the old Orthodox cemetery that was allowed to remain even as thousands of residents were forced to relocate to make way for the games.
'Sochi Has Never Had Such Hope'
Eksuzyan , too, is keeping her eyes and ears open. She was trained to immediately report suspicious persons to the police. "I feel I am responsible for the city," she says. "One thing is certain: Sochi has never had such hope."
The city made a bid to host the Olympics three times before finally winning. The first was in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev was still the head of the Soviet Union. The second try came in 1995.
Finally, last Friday, the city on the Black Sea coast was able to host its own opening ceremony, and it was more of a folkloric history lesson than a party for the youth. It was not buoyantly chaotic, but neither was it exaggeratedly monumental. The floating troika, the gigantic train, the sheer mass of dancers, the ballet scenes from "Swan Lake" -- it was all more classic than pop. And there was a significant snafu, when one of the five snowflakes that descended to the Olympic rings failed to open up. In short, the opening ceremony was not a party. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be either, though.
A Fairy Tale with an Open Ending
Olympic hosts tend to present their guests with a fairy tale set in a world in which everything is just as it should be. At these games in Sochi, at the foot of the Caucasus mountains, on the Black Sea, in the subtropics, it is not at all clear that this fairy tale will end well.
Russia would love to return to its past glory and, with these games, the country wants to show what it is capable of in the 21st century. Sochi is symbolic of Russia's strengths, but also of its weaknesses.
Was it the right move to award the games to Sochi, located in the heart of this crisis-ridden region? In the run-up to these Olympics, the West spoke of the Circassians who were driven out of Sochi and the surrounding area 150 years ago. People spoke of homophobia and violated human rights. They spoke of Russia's role in Syria. Of environmental degradation and corruption. And of the €38 billion that these games cost, the most expensive sporting event ever held.
Sochi is difficult to pin down these days. Journalists stand on newly rolled out grass waiting for the bus that will take them to the press center, where they will write reports full of schadenfreude about hotels that have no warm water or Internet and serve up terrible food. There are athletes who are unsure if they should be happy about coming to Sochi. And then there are the Russians. Some are protesting against the games, some are ecstatic that they have finally arrived and some simply don't know what to make of it all.
The Office for the Development of Volunteerism is located in the heart of the city, not far from the university. An aquarium stands in the hallway. Diana Eksuzyan, the volunteer from the Olympic Park, enters a conference room full of black tables. Although she doesn't belong to a political party, she is the chair of the city's youth parliament. She is leading a group of 358 volunteers during the games. Eksuzyan speaks passable German and has friends in Berlin and in France. She says she has often been asked why she has become so involved in these games.
'The Olympic Games Have Brought Europe to Sochi'
And how does she respond? "The belief that we can't handle it, the view that we didn't earn the games -- that is the skepticism of Western societies," she says. She doesn't just shrug off criticism. Instead, she is driven by it. Russia simply doesn't want to make the effort to understand the West, but the reverse is also true.
In the recent weeks and months, Eksuzyan has even gone so far as to collect garbage in Sochi's pedestrian zone. Her motto is: "What are you doing for the Olympics?" She says there isn't a provincial city in all of Russia where things are better than they are in Sochi. Eksuzyan says she has traveled to Berlin six times and each time she was impressed by the city's cleanliness and by the punctuality of its regional trains. "Now, I don't have to be envious anymore. The Olympic Games have brought Europe to Sochi," she says.
Eksuzyan still lives with her parents. Not all that long ago, she needed one and a half hours to get to the university by bus. The new train now takes her there in just 45 minutes.
The birth rate in Sochi has climbed by 38 percent in the last seven years and the number of students attending the city's university is likewise growing. A film festival has been launched, there is a new seaside promenade, an investment forum and this fall, the city will host a Formula One race for the first time. Eksuzyan believes the city will profit from the games for years to come.
Indeed, when the athletes head home, they will leave behind three new hospitals, six recreation centers, 19 new cultural centers, 800 kilometers of new power cables, 4,000 freshly built apartments and a ring road, which will relieve traffic in the city center. In the run-up to the games, there were 206 construction projects; fully 176 of them were not directly associated with the Olympics.
Critic Views Games as a Crime
But how high is the price that Sochi will have to pay for the turbo expansion? Stories of unauthorized garbage dumps, shifting houses and immigrant labor working for starvation wages are well known. "The Olympic Games are a tragedy," says Vladimir Kimayev, an angry man with a firm handshake who works for Environmental Watch on North Caucasus.
Kimayev is sitting in a café on the Sochi harbor; one can hear the pounding base from a stage nearby. He says he won't watch the games at all, neither in the stadium nor on television. "Not for a second," he says.
His group was able to block some projects, such as the construction of the bobsled track in a nature reserve. A new harbor for Olympic Park was also prevented as was the construction of a power plant in the middle of the city. "But we couldn't stop the worst," says Kimayev. He is referring primarily to the 48-kilometer-long highway and rail line up to Krasnaya Polyana, near where the skiing events are taking place. It cost at least €6 billion to build.
"The construction workers took out many trees and the ground is no longer stabile," Kimayev says, adding that erosion is a certainty. "The road will begin sliding, as will the hillsides next to it."
'Stress, Dust and Accidents'
He sees the games as a crime. "Seven years of stress, dust and accidents. For nothing," he says. There are still areas of the city with no natural gas or sewage. "The only ones who profit are the contractors," he says. "Any crook could buy a building permit and make whatever he wanted." He says there are even plans to build new casinos in Sochi.
Kimayev's outspokenness has not come without a cost. Last May, Sochi police raided his apartment looking for weapons and he was also stopped in his car by secret service personnel. One of his fellow campaigners has to appear in court one day before the end of the games due to accusations that he damaged a fence during a protest march. He could face up to three years in prison.
But Kimayev is not giving up. Last week, he took part in a demonstration in Akhshtyr, a town in the mountains where construction waste was illegally dumped. "It's about compensation," Kimayev says. "Maybe some things can one day be reversed. It's not too late yet."
Russia's Nice, St. Moritz and Macao in One
In the city, the mood is more cheerful. The sun is shining and the sea is sparkling. The yachts of the rich bob up and down in the harbor while the beautiful do their shopping at Gucci and Louis Vuitton. At the market, dried apricots, chestnut honey and feta cheese are on offer. Volunteers, very few of whom can speak fluent English, are waiting at the Paulaner Restaurant should they be needed. There are some among them, however, who will personally guide guests to their destination when asked for directions.
Out on the water, warships cruise back and forth, but the 50,000 police officers, soldiers and security personnel who are said to be on hand were virtually invisible in the Sochi city center in the week prior to the opening ceremony. When one did see them, they were patrolling along the tracks and bus stops, looking bored. Walking through Sochi, one wonders why, for example, the athletes from Australia were forbidden from leaving the Olympic Park. But perhaps things will change as the games progress.
Where security efforts do start to become visible, though, is when you travel up the mountains to Krasnaya Polyana, where all the Alpine and Nordic sporting events are being held. Steel nets and barbed wire are erected on the hillsides on both sides of the road, and police stand guard about every 300 meters (980 feet). Buses shuttling reporters up to the slopes are sealed before they depart from downtown Sochi. Police wearing white overalls that blend into the snow conduct patrols on the switchbacks with automatic rifles. White police tents are located on the hilltops. It feels as though one is traveling to a battle front rather than to a ski event.
'A Lot Different Than I Thought It Would Be'
On the day the games opened, John Jahr, the skip of the German curling team, was sitting under a United Nations flag in the Olympic Village. Jahr is a member of a Hamburg-based publishing family and heads a real estate firm. He said he read everything that had been reported about the city in the media before arriving in Sochi. When he boarded his flight, Jahr says he was feeling a bit uncomfortable about the trip. But last Friday he looked completely relaxed as he took a drag from his cigarette. "It's been a lot different than I thought it would be," he said.
Police checks, he noted, had been rare. He also praised his room in the Olympic Village as well as the cafeteria and the billiards room. "I feel like I'm in a wellness hotel," he said, adding that it takes less than five minutes for him to walk to the curling hall.
After only a day in the city, Jahr already had a different view of the Olympic Games in Sochi. Russia, he noted, is the world's biggest country, but prior to the Olympics, it didn't even have a modern ski resort. He said he was aware that many mistakes had been made, but also that "the games could give the entire region a boost." He argued that the Olympics in Turin eight years ago were more questionable. "Turin is a city of industry -- it doesn't require any further development," he said.
Jahr also believes Germans should be more reserved in their criticism. "We were plenty enthusiastic about ourselves in 2006 during our summer World Cup fairy tale. Why can't we let the Russians enjoy an event that promotes a national identity?" Jahr said he doesn't plan to just hang out in the Olympic Village -- he wants to get out and explore a bit of Sochi. "I'm a discoverer."
Traces of the Old Sochi
One stop could be the Ordzhonikidze Sanitarium located on a hillside at the edge of Sochi. Josef Stalin ordered its construction in 1937 and it only closed four years ago. It's a nostalgic place -- columns, mosaics, decoratively painted ceilings, wrought iron railings and a Greek fountain. The sanitarium used to be home to 400 doctors, nurses and care workers who looked after around 680 patients.
Today, only eight men and women continue to work here as they try to keep the place from falling into permanent disrepair. Valentina Korsh, who works as a gardener, wears a leather jacket that looks a bit worse for wear. "I don't understand how they can allow something this beautiful to crumble," she says. Her own biography is intrinsically linked to that of an old Sochi that has disappeared in order to make way for the Olympics.
Sochi has been a spa and seaside resort since the end of the 19th century. Its springs are the source of water containing high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. The smell requires some getting used to, but doctors inside the sanitarium used it to treat more than 150 different illnesses. At first, government officials and soldiers visited the sanitarium for needed relaxation, followed later by metalworkers and miners.
Half of Sochi's sanitariums have since closed, with many transformed into hotels or apartment blocks.
' Nobody Needs Me '
Using garden scissors, Korsh clips a few branches from a laurel tree. "I can't keep up with the work," says the 63-year-old, her back stooped. Korsh has spent half her life working at the sanitarium. When plans were announced to close it, she and her colleagues wrote a letter to the president. They didn't send it in the end because they didn't think he would read it. Korsh says she's sad because people made her feel like she was some kind of relic. She says she's even heard a rumor that someone wants to rescue the sanitarium, but she doesn't believe it. "No one needs the sanitarium anymore," she says. "Nobody needs me."
Sochi is a city undergoing massive change. Its post-Olympic future has already been prescribed for it. Once the athletes have left, it is to become a four-season resort, replete with casinos for the tourists. It is to have something of everything -- a Russian Nice, St. Moritz and Macao all in one. Of course, Korsh and her sanitarium don't fit in with that image.
But that doesn't mean she's opposed to the Olympics. She's just a person being jerked between the present and the past. Korsh has purchased tickets for figure skating and ice hockey events. She also shrugs off corruption and mismanagement, saying they are as Russian as vodka and borscht.
The New Russia
She is also a big fan of the new road winding into the mountains up to Krasnaya Polyana. "I used to be afraid to drive there, but it's great now," she says, stretching her fingers upwards to give it two thumbs up. However, there are a few things she doesn't care for at all -- like the new high-rises around the harbor. You used to be able to see the Black Sea from the train station, but the view is now obstructed.
A ban was actually put in place on erecting buildings larger than five stories tall, but rules like that often mean little in Russia. "It looks terrible," Korsh says. "When I walk along the path in the park, I constantly have the feeling I've somehow landed in America."
Instead, it's the new Russia -- a term that can also apply to people. The night before the games began, these new Russians also turned up in Sochi's old port building. They were guests of Mikhail Kusnirovich, owner of the Gum luxury department store on Moscow's Red Square, the official outfitter of the Russian Olympic team. He's estimated to be worth about a half-billion euros. At the party, the whiskey, champagne and red wine flowed freely.
A deputy prime minister attended, the head of the Bolshoi Ballet, actors, former athletes and singers too. The women wore high heels and short skirts. The DJ played electro music and hostesses loaded guests' plates with sushi and handed out souvenirs. The party went until 5 a.m.
Outside, the people of Sochi stood behind a barrier. One man in worn out shoes shook his head with a combination of fascination and bewilderment. A woman wearing an apron and a headscarf held up her mobile phone and tried to take pictures.
Such scenes may be a novelty, but it's a spectacle they are likely going to have to get used to in the new Sochi.