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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.’”
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.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev aren’t the first Russian leaders to treat Sochi as a second home. Atop another hill – this one much closer to the city and the Black Sea – sits the green-painted dacha where Joseph Stalin spent three months a year for almost all of his three-decade reign atop the Soviet Union. Like the tandem’s fortresses up in the mountains, the approaches to Stalin’s dacha are guarded by camouflaged pillboxes.
Now open to tourists, the dacha is a monument to the paranoid life Stalin lived even here, while running the country by phone, far from the usual Kremlin intrigues. The doors can only be opened if someone on each side simultaneously turns their key, and the lone couch in what was Stalin’s office is built with arms thick enough to stop a short-range shotgun blast. “Stalin didn’t trust anyone. He never slept in the same place,” explains Tatiana Dashyana, the dacha’s 60-year-old caretaker and tour guide.
Ms. Dashyana says Mr. Putin hasn’t been to visit Stalin’s dacha yet, but she “would welcome him.” She admires strong leaders and relates how first Stalin – an ethnic Georgian who preferred the warm south to Moscow’s cold greyness – and now Mr. Putin have built Sochi from a tiny fishing village into what it is today.
“Putin’s always here. He lives in Sochi,” she tells me, relating – like everyone here – how she often sees the presidential motorcade in the city. “Putin has done a lot for the city. He’s built kindergartens here, and children’s playgrounds.”
But what will become of Sochi after the Olympics are done? Critics say the Games will leave a ghost town behind when they’re over, an impression reinforced by the lower-than-expected number of tourists during the first days of the Olympics.
“Who is this for?” asked Andrey, a taxi driver, as we drove past the main venues in Adler on the night of the opening ceremony. “Who needs this?”
Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon