That small river was the Mzimta, which runs through Rosa Khutor on its way to the main Games venues in Adler, a suburb of Sochi city. Critics say the Mzimta has been heavily polluted by construction materials and runoff from the Olympic sites, part of a grim environmental legacy that includes carving Rosa Khutor into the middle of a national park.
Mr. Putin’s mountain compound is at the centre of another controversy. According to maps, the area – known as “Lunnaya Polyana,” or “Lunar Field” – is in the middle of a UNESCO-protected Western Caucasus region, which stretches from Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, to the Black Sea, provoking warnings from UNESCO about construction in the area. Others question why the mountain headquarters is necessary in addition to a government-owned official residence in Sochi, on the Black Sea coast.
Those who helped construct Olympic Sochi deny corruption allegations, but marvel at how personally involved Mr. Putin was at every stage. “He drove around thousands of times and told people exactly what to do and then came back and checked whether they did it,” said Vyacheslav Semenduyev, a 53-year-old Moscow entrepreneur who was tasked with redeveloping the centre of Sochi itself (the city is a 45-minute train ride north of the main Games sites in Adler).
Mr. Semenduyev’s experience trying to redevelop a plot of land across from Sochi’s main train station is illustrative. He bought the land from the city in 2006 with a vision of building a group of skyscrapers that would act as a business hub that would attract conferences to the city of 343,000 long after the Olympics were over.
But the Kremlin had other ideas. Mr. Semenduyev says he was summoned to meet Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak – Mr. Putin’s point man for Sochi and the surrounding North Caucasus region – three times at the White House government headquarters in Moscow.
“I had to change my idea to their will,” Mr. Semenduyev said as we watched the first Olympic events on a television in a Georgian-style restaurant he owns in Sochi. “They didn’t want such tall buildings in Sochi, and they were right.”
But the back-and-forth over the plan left Mr. Semenduyev with just 18 months to get the construction done. The end result is a thatch of medium-rise buildings on Sochi’s main square that sit finished but empty as the Games unfold. There’s a bustling McDonald’s in one, and a half-finished café in another. A hotel that Mr. Semenduyev says will be “four-star” missed the Olympics, but will hopefully be open by May.
Six of Mr. Semenduyev’s seven buildings have no ready tenants for what will likely be the busiest period Sochi will ever see. Mr. Semenduyev says he spent “tens of millions” of dollars on the project.
In a hint of how business was done in the Olympic city, Mr. Semenduyev says 84 homes were demolished to make way for his new business park, residents to whom he says he paid fair compensation, though the Games have been haunted by stories of residents receiving payments that amounted to less than half the value of their homes. He was also instructed to build – at his own cost – a small park on the square just across from Sochi’s train station.
“The mayor asked me [to build it],” Mr. Semenduyev sighs. “I did it because I wanted to have a good name in the city. But no one remembers.”
Mr. Putin frequented, and favoured, Sochi long before he persuaded a 2007 meeting of the International Olympic Committee to award the Winter Games to the city. Allegations surfaced last year that he is the owner – de facto, if not on paper – of another residence, a villa on the coast north of Sochi that is said to have cost millions. Accusations that Mr. Putin is a major landowner in the Sochi region were first made by Sergei Kolesnikov, a businessman who went into business with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. He is now believed to be living in self-imposed exile. His claims have been officially denied by the Presidential Administration.