Hamid Ismailov investigates the underside of the Sochi Olympics for PEN Atlas: while the Western media focuses on LGBT rights, there is also the shocking unheard story of migrant labourers held in captivity, mercury and uranium deposits from construction work, jingoism, corruption and worse
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the Olympics, be it in the summer or winter, and this includes Sochi. From a very early age, in our Soviet childhoods, we were encouraged to wake up in the middle of the night to watch our ice hockey team playing in Sapporo or Calgary, cheering when they would beat the Canadian team and weeping as they lost to the Czechs. There was an iconic Soviet song at the time: ‘We seek victory, nothing else, but victory for us all, and we don’t give a damn about the cost’. Nowadays, with hindsight, I’m a bit disturbed by these words.In my novel, The Dead Lake, published by Peirene Press this February, I looked at the Soviet nuclear site in Semipalatinsk, which was one of the key sites in the nuclear race between the USSR and the US to produce the deadliest bombs – another example of when we didn’t give a damn about the cost. What I tried to describe in this book is what happens when countries and their elites try to jump higher than the rest of the world – speaking figuratively, it results in their trousers tearing. And those who are left to pay the price or who are left naked in the metaphor are not the elites themselves, but the little people.I find the same disturbing signs with the Sochi Olympics. Here again, the Russian authorities, under President Putin, took up the same motto: ‘We seek victory, nothing else, but victory for us all, and we don’t give a damn about the cost’ – in order to establish the image of Russia as a re-emerging global super-power.First of all, the literal cost of this Olympics is, at a modest estimate, over £30billion – this is as much as all previous winter games combined. When I ask my Russian friends why it’s so excessive, as though the organisers are going to present every single participant and spectator with a personal hand-made snow-flake, they reply with this popular Russian joke:’There was once a tender put out to build an object, and three organisations bid for it. First, an organisation of migrant workers put forward their application: “We’ll build the object very quickly for three million, but no warranties.” Then the state organisation offered their bid: “We’ll build it for six million, but slowly and with guarantees.” Then a bunch of crooks and gangsters bid for the same tender: “It’ll cost nine million: three million to you, three million to us, and then we’ll hire the migrants to build it for three million.”‘Russian authorities vehemently deny allegations of corruption, but both Russian and Western journalists have reported many cases reminiscent of this joke… My BBC colleagues Lucy Ash and Anastasia Uspenskaya are running a series of investigative programmes looking into this problem, as well as other problems regarding the so-called ‘cost’ of the Sochi Olympics. Their conclusion is: the Olympics have brought to Sochi, and to Russia as a whole, an array of new first-class sports complexes, hotels, jobs, entertainment, as well as amnesty to Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot, yet in the shadows of that shiny, glossy and encouraging facade there are many untold, darker stories.The Western media have focused a great deal on LGBT rights, but after President Putin’s confession to Andrew Marr that he ‘has gay friends’ it seems that the issue was dropped from the headlines… Less is known in the West about the issue of widespread abuse of migrant workers’ human rights, workers who’d been building the Olympic complex in great numbers. There are reported cases of migrants being severely beaten-up by Cossack vigilante groups, encircled like cattle and kept in metal hangars for several days without food and water, in the middle of the cold winter. Many of them were later deported by force and without any payment for their work.The unpredictable environmental costs of this showcase of Russian might are another worry for local and international activists. On the one hand, activists are worried about the proximity of the gigantic Olympic facilities to the Caucasian and Sochi National Park, with its rare plant and animal species, some of them under threat of extinction. On the other hand, facilities built on the hills by the seashore are under threat of landslides, according to activists, and the excessive use of concrete foundations and stilts may affect the structure of the ground and of the underground aquifers of mineral waters. There were also many concerns about the newly-built cargo port and fears that mercury and uranium deposits might become hazardous because of inappropriate construction work on the slopes. Moreover, while building these facilities on the shore, hundreds if not thousands of ordinary people’s houses were demolished without their consent and in some cases without any compensation…Once again, the same philosophy: ‘We seek after gain so much that we don’t give a damn about the cost’. These poor people are still campaigning for a boycott of the Games. Their voices though remain unheard.About the authorHamid Ismailov is an Uzbek journalist and writer who was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1992 and came to the United Kingdom, where he took a job with the BBC World Service. His works are banned in Uzbekistan. He published dozens of books in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish and other languages. Hamid Ismailov translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and some Western languages.Additional informationThe Dead Lake will be launched with three events. The author, Hamid Ismailov, and his publisher, Meike Ziervogel, would be delighted if you could join them. Booking is essential.Tuesday 25th February: Peirene Experience, with music & dramatic performance at Big Green Bookshop.Thursday 26th February: Peirene Supper Club at Book & Kitchen. Join the author for an evening of delicious food, good conversation and great literature.Saturday 1st March: Peirene Salon: An evening of literature, dinner and drink at the publisher’s house.