Sochi Locals Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Olympics

Locals suspend protests at construction dumped on their doorstep ... for now

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David Goldman / AP

Local residents walk down a street separated by a security perimeter from the Iceberg Skating Palace, seen in the background, Feb. 5, 2014, in Sochi.

In early December, trucks loaded with industrial trash began driving through the quiet village of Vesyoloe—”Happy” in Russian—and dumping their load on the hillside that overlooks Russia‘s main Olympic venues in the nearby city of Sochi. It was mostly junk left over from Olympic construction sites, and as the trucks kept coming, it began piling up around the property of Olga Fisko, who had moved from Moscow to Happy in 2010, just a few years after Sochi won the rights to host the Winter Games.

Fisko and her neighbors called the police every time the trucks arrived, but their promises to investigate went nowhere. Letters to the local government and to the Kremlin also had no effect. So in January, a few weeks before Games, Fisko’s small community decided to take drastic measures. They planned to burn the trash on the night of Feb. 7, just as President Vladimir Putin would be presiding over the opening ceremony of the Games. “That would show them,” Fisko told me at the time. “They’ll be lighting fireworks, and in the background they’ll have big, black plumes of smoke. Maybe then they would start to pay attention.”

Yet when the time came, the villagers couldn’t bring themselves to do it. “We watched the fireworks instead,” Fisko says the day after the opening ceremony. The trash was still laying around her hillside property in giant heaps, but the beauty of the spectacle below seemed to infect her with the Olympic spirit. The next day, Feb. 8, she and her family went for a walk around the stadium complex, where the Olympic torch had been lit the night before. “We gave up and just decided to enjoy it,” she says.

(MORE: Game On: U.S. Takes First Gold On Day 1 of Sochi Olympics)

And with that, a truce of sorts took hold in the long-running battle between the organizers of the Games and the local residents who have been impacted by Russia’s grand Olympic project. The truce wasn’t universal. In Moscow, a group of activists were arrested staging a protest during the opening ceremony against Russia’s controversial law banning “homosexual propaganda” among minors. But on the whole, the brilliance of the spectacle changed the tone even among the Games’ harshest critics.

The Western media, which had spent days harping on all the many oversights and imperfections of the Olympic preparations, joined in a chorus of praise for the undeniable beauty of the ceremony. That was the goal of the official who oversaw its design, Konstantin Ernst, who said on Friday that he wanted to present “the real Russians, untainted by decades of propaganda and the cold war.” It seems he pulled it off, as Russian officials from Putin to the Sochi city council had hoped.

Eleonora Evrandyan, the councilwoman who represents the village of Happy in the local legislature, says she had no doubt that the locals would get into the spirit eventually. “The Olympics always require self-sacrifice,” she says. “It’s like when a bunch of guests come over to your house for a party. You have to open up your heart and accept that your usual routine may be disrupted.”

When the Games are over, Evrandyan says, the local authorities will continue trying to deal with the complaints of residents that went unanswered in the final weeks and months leading up to the Games. “There are administrative mechanisms in place for this,” she insists.

Fisko isn’t so sure. When the Games leave town, she fears that Happy’s trash problem will continue to be ignored, especially as the attention of the global media will move on along with the Olympic torch. But for the next two weeks, she plans to ease up on her activism and attend some of the events. She and her husband already have their tickets in hand.