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At first you don’t see them, the white pillboxes sticking out of the snow alongside the winding road up from the Rosa Khutor resort that was built for the Sochi Olympics. But the higher you climb the mountain, the more of them there are. Soon, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you’re approaching something very important.
White-clad soldiers are visible inside the pillboxes, but only if you stare. A white tarp near the base of the hill hides a military truck. “I feel like we’re in North Korea,” one of the Russians driving with me says, as we climb the range known as the Psekhako Ridge. Nervousness is plain in her voice.
Near the top of the rise, we see it: a wood-walled compound that looks like a cross between a mountain ski village and a medieval fortress. But we can get no closer without a special invite. “Do you know whose dacha this is?” a soldier asks when a car rolls too close. Dacha is the Russian word for a country cottage.
Beyond the walls is an official guesthouse, built by the state-owned Gazprom oil giant, which locals say is really the dacha of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the former head of Gazprom. Documents uncovered by Russian bloggers show the land is owned by a private foundation known as Dar, which is controlled by a law-school classmate and former business partner of Mr. Medvedev.
Further into the mountains of the Western Caucasus that rise above Sochi is another compound, far too big to be called a dacha, used by Mr. Medvedev’s boss – President Vladimir Putin. The properties speak to the hands-on approach Mr. Putin, in particular, has taken to managing the Sochi Games. They’re also the centre of local resentment, and allegations of corruption.
Though it appears on maps as a “science research centre,” the sports buff Mr. Putin’s base is reportedly equipped with a ski lift, sauna, tennis court, two helicopter pads, and satellite communications infrastructure.
Opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who compiled an online record of the alleged corruption that he says contributed to the runaway cost of the Sochi Games, says a road connecting the “science centre” to Sochi was built at a cost of $64.2-million, with the contract awarded to a local deputy who is a member of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.
“It is logical to assume that the object was constructed for the recreational purposes of Vladimir Putin. Financing of the project was entrusted to the state company Rosneft,” reads an entry on the website of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “No tourists or scientists were spotted on the very secure resort guarded by the [secret service].”
From these mountain headquarters, Russia’s so-called power tandem (most of the real power resides with Mr. Putin) have been overseeing every detail the $51-billion Sochi Olympics, including the last-minute push to get the city’s sporting venues ready in time for the Games that began Feb. 7.
The two men have kept impressively busy schedules during the first week of events, hosting world leaders and appearing at events to cheer on a Russian team they’re desperately hoping will deliver a high medal total at the first Games to be hosted in post-Soviet Russia. The pace is such that Mr. Medvedev was caught by television cameras seeming to take a nap during the latter half of the almost three-hour opening ceremony.
Sochi has been nicknamed “Putingrad” by some of the President’s political opponents. It’s not an unfair moniker. This is a region Mr. Putin redesigned, and – when construction lagged behind schedule – whipped into shape in time for the world to arrive.
In the Russian President’s own telling, he was the one who picked the spot for where the main Olympics sites now stand. “In 2001 or 2002, I arrived here, as far as I remember, in an UAZ [Ulyanovsk Automobile Factory]-made cross-country vehicle,” he told a documentary that ran on state-run television last month, called The Philosophy of the Soft Way. “We drove about these parts and approached this small river. And I said, ‘Let us begin from here.’”