New York Times News Service
KAZACHY BROD, Russia - Even people who live 10 minutes away do not seem to know how to get to Akhshtyr, a mountain village that theoretically should be basking in the warm glow of the multibillion-dollar Olympic construction bonanza all around it.
“Walk over the bridge,” Valentina Kvasnikova advised on a recent afternoon, gesturing past her house toward a swaying, bouncing structure made of rickety, indifferently nailed-together wooden slats suspended above the turbid Mzymta River. Once the bridge was negotiated (and it was hard to know whether to crawl or to run), Akhshtyr loomed tantalizingly close - just across the new 30-mile high-speed railway tracks and the sleek new superhighway linking the Black Sea resort of Sochi to the mountains high above it.
But no ramp connects Akhshtyr to the new road. The train does not stop in the village, and according to eight police officers who emerged from different directions to deliver eight variations of “you can’t get there from here,” pedestrians are strictly forbidden to cross from one side to the other.
Being cut off from the main road is not the only indignity faced by Akhshtyr’s 200 or so residents since Russia decided to spend as much as $8 billion on a wildly ambitious plan to turn a sleepy Caucasian road into a major transportation corridor for its grand Olympic project.
Every Olympics has its local casualties - displaced neighborhoods, merchants who lose business, residents grumbling about traffic - and some communities here have fared better than others. Akhshtyr, a hodgepodge of ramshackle houses and meandering farm animals nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful mountains between the Olympic Park on the Black Sea coast and the snow-sports venues of Krasnaya Polyana above, has fared very badly indeed.
For the past five years, construction trucks have rumbled day and night through the street that bisects the village, on what used to be a gravel road but was paved over for Olympic building purposes. The village has gone without fresh water since 2008, ever since its drinking wells were wrecked by the vast new waste dump serving the vast new gravel quarry on the mountain. Now residents rely on intermittent water deliveries from the authorities.
“At times, layers of dust - up to 5 inches thick - cover the road and residents’ houses, yards and gardens,” the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a report released in December.
Things are not necessarily great in the communities around Akhshtyr, either, but at least you can get to them. Loath to criticize the government when swarms of law enforcement officials brought in for the Olympics are lurking seemingly everywhere, nearby residents said they hoped that some of the money pouring into the region would find its way to them.
In Kazachy Brod, Kvasnikova, 59, was shaking out her bathmat in front of a tired-looking four-story apartment building, with residents’ laundry suspended on an elaborate clothesline connected to a treetop. She said she was excited “the whole world is coming here” for the Olympics. Not only had her building been repainted - albeit not very recently, at least judging by its appearance - but “they’ve been promising to bring in a gas line,” she said.
On the other hand, Alexei Ivanovich, 36, who works in Kazachy Brod’s major tourist attraction, a trout fishery, said that nothing good had come from the Olympics so far, at least for him.
“It’s clearer to see the benefits for the government,” said Ivanovich, who was resting in the front seat of an old, battered car, 1980s American rock music blaring from the speakers. He and his wife live with their four daughters in an apartment that is barely 150 square feet, he said.
“It will be good if you tell Mr. Putin to pay attention to families with many children,” he said, referring to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
A law enforcement official was standing for no obvious purpose next to what looked like a disused hut to Ivanovich’s left. With the Olympics underway and security a major concern, such officers are visible everywhere along the new transportation corridor: in embankments, on mountain paths, in bus shelters, along guardrails, outside railway tunnels, even behind trees.
As inaccessible as it has become, Akhshtyr seems to have attracted more than its fair share of such officials. A group of them was massed recently at the far end of the village.
“There’s a military post guarding strategic objects,” said one officer, who leapt out of a van to record the names of a reporter and a photographer in his little green notebook. “No photographs.”
It turns out that there is a way to get to the village: by driving from the other direction on an old, winding road with no exits, leading from a single entrance near the Sochi airport. This is extremely inconvenient for the villagers, many of whom do not have cars. For as long as they can remember, they happily came and went on foot across the river the other way. Instead of walking to school, their children now have to take a bus from Akhshtyr down toward the airport and then up an old road on the other side of the highway, an undertaking that adds about 45 minutes to their trip.
“In the old days, we could go across the river and pick up the bus from the trout fishery,” said Sergei Shegevsky, 32, a security guard from Akhshtyr. Interviewed at the town’s sparsely stocked general store, he said he was exasperated by what he said were unfulfilled promises by the government.
“For instance, they promised us there’d be an exit onto the main road, but now they said it’s not possible,” Shegevsky said. “It’s just unpleasant. We haven’t felt any benefits from the Olympics.”
The water situation is another problem.
After the new dump poisoned the villagers’ water, the authorities promised to provide a new source and installed a water pump - a hand-operated one that “looked like it came from the 19th century,” said Jane Buchanan, the associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. The installation received great fanfare, with an opening ceremony of sorts attended by regional dignitaries. The pump worked that day; it stopped working the next.
“It is incredibly emblematic of what has happened,” Buchanan said. “When the Olympics were scheduled to come to Sochi, the government promised, and Putin promised, that no harm would come to anyone. For this village, they were living in threadbare circumstances before the Olympics, and the Olympics made it worse. This is real disregard for the basic needs of the people.”
Down the street from the store, Alexei Gregorian, 80, paused from chopping wood in his daughter’s backyard - next to a junkyard strewn with old car parts, piles of rags, dormant bonfires and clusters of empty soda and vodka bottles - to muse on some broader questions.
“The Olympics are the Olympics,” he said, shrugging. “They already stole three-quarters of what they spent on it.”