The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus

An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus delves into the complexities of the region around Sochi, Russia, and its remarkable transition in preparation to host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. As a place where beach-tourism abuts terrorism, corruption, and poverty, it is full of contradictions. An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus draws viewers into the story of Sochi and the Caucasus, focusing on evocative individual narratives that collectively chronicle larger issues.

Recipient of the Dutch Doc Photo Award; Dutch Design Award; and Canon Prize for Innovative Photojournalism, 2014.


Improvised accommodation of fired Olympic site laborer Ivan, 2010.


Almost finished Olympic mountain cluster in 2013.

“The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.”

—President Vladimir Putin, 2007


Postcard from 1930s of the now most expensive road in the world from Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana.


“It’s not that I’m against these Games. It’s the way in which they’re being realized. Krasnaya Polyana was turned into a rubbish dump. Historical monuments are being destroyed.”

—Protester Gennadi Kuk, 2009


Gennadi Kuk in his hometown Krasnaya Polyana in 2010.


Katya Primakova and protesters in Sochi, 2009.

“Putin looked and looked, and then he found it: the only place in Russia without any snow, to organize the Winter Games.”

—Protester Katya Primakova, 2009


Sochi is Russia’s Costa del Sol, but even cheaper. It is famous for its subtropical climate, hotels, and sanatoria. People from across the former Soviet Union associate the coastal resort with beach holidays and first loves. The smell of sunscreen, sweat, alcohol, and roasting meat pervades the air. The sentimental music is deafening. Like any resort, Sochi has traditionally been deserted in the winter. That has all changed. To accommodate the Olympics, the city was turned upside down. The existing facilities did not meet the standards of the International Olympic Committee and the entire Olympics infrastructure had to be built from scratch: airports, commercial ports, motorways, tunnels, ski resorts, ice rinks, hotels, and villages. A budget of $12 billion was initially set aside for the enormous operation, but the final cost is estimated at $50 billion, around half of which disappeared into the pockets of contractors and subcontractors. With the Games completed, the city is intended to be Russia’s new sports and conference capital.


Hotel Zhemchuzhina (meaning ‘pearl’) on Sochi’s beachfront, 2011.


Natalia Shorogova, floor lady 2nd floor in hotel Zhemchuzhina, 2011.

“Sochi used to be much prettier. These days crooks from Moscow come here to build and sell.”

Tourist Viktor Alexeyevich, 2009


Soviet postcard from 1968 with tourist highlights from Sochi.


Dance floor of children’s camp Orlyonok, 2011

“The Olympic Games in the subtropics—it’s a fraud!”

—Oposition leader Boris Nemtsov, 2009


Less than five kilometers from the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics is the small country of Abkhazia, once part of Georgia. Abkhazia is a land of tea plantations and mandarin trees, a subtropical paradise where Stalin, Beria, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev once owned country houses. In 1993, a bloody civil war broke out between the Georgians and Abkhazians and more than 200,000 people fled. Many Georgian refugees still live in appalling conditions in Georgia, and Abkhazia stands empty and ruined. Only in 2008 was it officially recognized by a curious combination of nations: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Vanuatu. Despite official independence, Abkhazia remains impoverished. Economic developments benefit only a small elite. Peace with Georgia seems far off, and the refugee problem continues to hang over the country. The Olympics could have brought Abkhazia tourists, money, and fame. But the border with Russia was sealed during the Games, leaving Abkhazia more isolated than ever.


Abkhazian stamps, though Abkhazia has been cut off from the international postal system since 1991.


Director of the Abkhazian Post Eduard Piliya in 2009.

“You can’t stick Abkhazian stamps on your card abroad.”

—Post Office Administrator Suzanna Kaldzhan, 2009

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Soviet postcard and remake from tourist resort Pitsunda.


Former ballroom in seaside resort Pitsunda, 2009.


Former ballroom in seaside resort Pitsunda, 2013.


Empty, abandoned house in Sukhum, 2010.

“I’ll show you what our countryside looks like. Life may not be as luxurious as it is in the city, but we have everything we need and we know how to celebrate that.”

—Valentina, 2009

Mikhail Dzadzumiya start singing the Soviet song “Heart”, which was shot in Abkhazia.


Mikhail Dzadzumiya with daughter Natasha and friend Valentina, 2009.


Cultural center in Sukhum displays a tribute to war casualties, 2009.

“Most people in the Caucasus don’t know that democracy doesn’t mean you can do just anything at the expense of others.”

Nazi Madgeva, 2011


Brothers in Abkhazian mountain village Kuabchara, 2009.


North Caucasus
On the other side of the mountains from Sochi is the North Caucasus, the poorest and most violent part of the Russian Federation. Russia has tried to subdue the North Caucasus for 300 years. Between 1817 and 1864, it fought the Caucasian Wars that led to definitive colonization of the area. Stalin deported five ethnic groups to Central Asia and populated the region with “friendly peoples.” Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, war and terror ignited the region again. After Russia’s victory in the Second Chechen War, separatists withdrew into the forests and mountains, from where they orchestrated all the major terrorist attacks that have plagued Russia in recent decades. The region was the Olympic organizers’ worst nightmare: would they succeed in keeping attacks at bay? In the run-up to the Games, local rulers were given carte blanche to restore order. They failed. Instead, the number of cases of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has soared.

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Images tweeted by Kavkaz Center, the insurgents’ news and propaganda channel, 2012.

“Recently, a couple of officers were shot down by someone passing on a bike. We never practiced that scenario.”

Anonymous, 2012


Policeman Salman Aliev from Nazran, 2012.


Ingushetian policeman Hamzad Ivloev, 2012.


“I’m going into the woods. I’m joining the Mujahedeen brothers. Don’t register me as missing; it will only result in unnecessary unpleasantness for you. I can’t come back. I ask you not to stop [my sister] Nargiz from saying her prayers.”

—Farewell note, 2012


Fifth time in two years that his liquor store has been blown up, 2012.

Security camera caught a bomb attack on the liquor store in Ordzhonikidzevskaya, Dagestan.


Saidachmed Nasibov was shot dead in 2012.


Wrestling trophy from one of Nasibov’s sons, all killed before him.

“If I were young and naïve, and unaware of the consequences, I would join the militants in the woods.”

Saidakhmed Nasibov †, 2012


“Human rights are actually very well defined here. But that’s on paper. As soon as you run into a uniform and a gun, it’s over.”

—Human rights lawyer Amir, 2011


Aslan was tortured to death by security forces while being interrogated, 2012.

In one of the few pubs in Grozny where beer is served we watch the waitress dancing, 2011.

“Their lavishly illustrated book conveys the texture of this impossibly multilayered region more powerfully than any other I’ve seen.”

—New York Review of Books, 2014



Text: Arnold van Bruggen. Design: Kummer & Herrman.

The book - published by Aperture, New York - is a 412-page atlas featuring full-page photos with extensive captions, sprawling stories, maps, half-page inserts and a forty-page travel journal. Publisher’s text: ‘Hornstra’s photographic approach combines the best of slow-form documentary storytelling with contemporary portraiture, found photographs, and other visual elements collected over the course of their travels. Designed by long-standing Sochi Project collaborators Kummer & Herrman, The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is the culmination of this five-year project, a contemporary masterpiece of photography and journalism in the tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans.’

English, hardcover, 392 pp + 16 half pp insert, 302 x 250 mm (10 x 12.2 in).

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“The book is such a wonderful object, containing content that will remain relevant for many years. An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus demonstrates what the medium photobook is capable of, when it is used by people like Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen: An in-depth exploration of something large parts of the media have started to discover only maybe four weeks ago.”

—CPH Magazine, 2014

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Second edition (2015).


The full version of the exhibition ‘The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus’ is divided into three chapters (regions). The core of the exhibition is printed on newsprint, to emphasize the narrative character of this project. Text plays an important role in the exhibition. Broadsheet newsprint photos are intertwined with videos, texts, publications, quotes, framed photos and a big geographical map of the working area of The Sochi Project. Optional are Sochi Singers billboards and a Travel Journal.

Required dimensions for this exhibition: 35 - 150 running meters of wall. The use of chapters allow us to adapt the exhibition o the magnitude of the space. All exhibitions are custom designed and adapted to the interior of the hosting institution. For more information and rental prizes, please contact


FoMu, Antwerp, Belgium, 2013


Contact Gallery, Toronto, Canada, 2014

“An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus brilliantly merges journalism and storytelling with found photographs and formal portraits to create a profile of a potentially dangerous region.”

—The Guardian, 2014


De Paul Art Museum, Chicago, US, 2014

Barcelona, Spain, 2015


Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 2014

“Hornstra’s portraits nail beautifully the regional cocktail of stoicism and gloom.”

—Mother Jones, 2014


M. Žilinsko gallery, Kaunas, Lithuania, 2016


Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 2014


Noorderlicht Gallery, Groningen, NL, 2014.


Aperture Gallery, New York, US, 2014.

“The fantastical stories and compelling images collected in The Sochi Project will serve as a record of this region and its people unlike any other.”

—Truthdig, 2014

De Paul Art Minute, Chicago, US, 2014


Welt am Sontag (Germany), November 2013


Corriere della Sere (Italy), January 2014


Le Monde (France), January 2014

The decision not to renew Hornstra’s visa has caused surprise given that it comes after the completion of The Sochi Project. Hornstra said: “It’s a fantastic promotion for our project but if I could change it I would prefer a visa.”

The Calvert Journal, September 2013

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Financial Times (UK), November 2013


de Volkskrant (Dutch), September 2014


De Morgen (Belgium), October 2013


Edito (Italy), January 2014