As does Grozny’s glitz as soon as we leave en route to our final destination, the Olympic city. Before long, the road dissolves into a potholed, muddy mess broken by checkpoints manned by Russian soldiers searching for bombs and weapons.
This, after all, is the logical source of the threat to the Games.
Sochi: ‘A massive crime’
It is too soon even to guess whether Mr. Putin’s greatest legacy project will be a success.
With days to go, contractors were scrambling to finish sporting venues and hotels amid allegations that workers brought from former Soviet republics had been sent home without being paid.
But much of the controversy surrounding the Games is of Mr. Putin’s making – his demonizing of gays and lesbians has inspired protests around the world, while the palm-greasing that helps to keep the bureaucracy loyal to the Kremlin seems to have spiralled out of control in Sochi.
Only part of the $50-billion-plus came from directly from the government’s coffers. In Sochi, the various Olympic facilities are nicknamed after the state-owned enterprises and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs that paid for them: the Gazprom ski lift, the Sberbank ski jump and a ski slope for Vladimir Potanin, a mining magnate close to the administration.
Critics say paying for Putingrad is an easy way for a business to stay on the President’s good side, which appalls civic activist Valeri Suchkov.
“When a massive crime is committed, you can’t talk about the positives – you have to call it what it is, and demand an investigation,” he tells me over coffee in “real” Sochi, beyond the Olympic park where nearly all the city’s 343,000 residents live.
But more worrying to visitors than corruption is the prospect of an attack. Soldiers and police are tightening their cordon around the city, hunting for suspected suicide bombers even as athletes such as hockey star Sidney Crosby openly worry about their safety.
There are reports that as many as three would-be bombers may already be in Sochi, and terrorists make no secret of their desire to exact revenge on the President for crushing Chechnya.
In a video posted online, two men believed to have carried out suicide attacks that killed 34 in Volgograd last month, warn of a “present” awaiting when he arrives.
Still, if the Putingrad Games end up a shining success, he will receive the credit – and Zurab Tsereteli is ready.
Now 80, Mr. Tsereteli has built a career on sculpting the great figures in Russian history, from Stalin to Peter the Great, whose colossal monument dominates (scars, some say) the Moscow skyline. A few years ago, he created a larger-than-life bronze of Mr. Putin, something he has done for neither Mikhail Gorbachev nor Mr. Yeltsin.
“I get on my knees before giants,” he explains.
It is recognition that, for better or for worse, Mr. Putin has made a lasting impression. He is now Russia’s longest-serving leader since Leonid Brezhnev, a tenure comparable to those of both nation builders, such as Peter the Great, and far less beloved rulers, such as Ivan the Terrible.
Mr. Tsereteli’s five-metre-high statue shows Mr. Putin (who actually stands 5-foot-7) in his judo outfit, steely gaze locked on the horizon, and is on display in his Moscow gallery.
But there are constant whispers that it could soon find a prominent outdoor home. The city has been debating when, not if, to erect a monument of some sort to the man who remade Russia.
Mr. Tsereteli says he has a place in mind, but admits that the jury still out on Mr. Putin’s place in history.
In other words, even he isn’t really sure whether his statue depicts Vladimir the Great or Vladimir the Terrible.
1998: 147.7 million
2012: 143.2 million
2012: 261.9 million
1998: 1.4 million
2012: 66 million
2013: 3,309 (vs 75,033 refugees who fled the country)
Health spending (% of GDP)
Alcohol consumption (litres of pure alcohol per capita)
Research by Stephanie Chambers of The Globe and Mail
Sources: OECD, World Bank, Computer Industry Almanac, UNHCR, WHO, BBC, Dow-Jones.