Olympics May Hit Old Believers

NOVOIMERETINSKAYA BUKHTA, Krasnodar region -- Sochi can relish its victory in the race to host the 2014 Winter Olympics but some local residents fear for their homes ahead of large-scale construction work.

Ivan Tereutov's ancestors spent a century wandering in exile in Turkey before they returned to their native Russia and settled in Novoimeretinskaya Bukhta, a quiet corner in a large valley on the Black Sea coast near Sochi.

Now, though, the Olympic Park -- comprising the Olympic Village, media centers, hotels and many competition venues -- will be built on their doorstep. It is unclear how many people, if any, will have to move. But local residents believe their way of life will change dramatically.

Standing in his neighbor's garden among rows of carefully tended vegetables, Tereutov shakes his gray beard, which tumbles down his chest. "Our forefathers are buried here," he said. "No one is going to leave."

Tereutov and his neighbors are "Old Believers" -- religious purists expelled from the Orthodox church 300 years ago because they rejected church innovations like baptizing believers by sprinkling water instead of immersing them completely.

Marked out by their beards and strict religious rites, they were persecuted at home for their beliefs. Many fled abroad, an exodus that created communities of Old Believers in Latin America and the United States that still exist today.

In a gesture of reconciliation, Tsar Nicholas II invited Tereutov's ancestors back home in 1911 and gave them the plots of land they have been farming ever since.

At the beginning of this year, local residents heard some of their houses would have to be demolished to free up space for the Olympic buildings. When the International Olympic Committee came to Sochi, they staged a public protest against these plans.

Andrei Braginsky from the bidding committee defended the proposals at the time, saying those affected would be paid at market prices for their land.

But prominent local campaigner Andrei Korutun says the compensation is several times less than the real market price, which will only increase as the Olympics loom.

Local people say the regional governor has since publicly assured them that no homes would be knocked down, but uncertainty persists.

"These are just promises. When I personally met the regional governor and the Sochi mayor, they promised this but said they could give no guarantees," Korutun said.

"We are for the Olympics but we are against resettlement," said Andrei Petrov in the shade of a sprawling grapevine by his house, where he was born in 1948 and lives with his family.

"We would be sorry to leave here and be put up in 'bookstands,'" he said in a dismissive reference to cramped apartment blocks.

"We are used to living on land all our lives."

After Sochi was proclaimed the 2014 Olympics host earlier this month, the local administration sought to reassure residents.

Alexei Khraban, who is in charge of Olympic preparations in the mayor's office, said that whatever happened in the area would be done in accordance with Russian law.

"No one will be forced out or have anything taken away," he said at a news conference.

But laws in Russia can change quickly, with the parliament rubber-stamping presidential proposals, and corruption is widespread. Property rights are a gray area in Russia, and few believe they will be protected.

"We live in an unstable country. We don't know what to expect," local Old Believer Lyuba Logareva said.

A major problem is that most Novoimeretinskaya Bukhta residents do not have documents showing that they own their property. Those trying to register their land face Russia's notorious red tape and protracted delays.

"If the law says it is our property it will be harder to talk to us from a position of force, so we are trying to make it legal," local resident Alexander Koval said.

The local authorities had until recently been discouraging people from legalizing their property, saying there is an unwritten moratorium on Novoimeretinskaya Bukhta, Korutun adds.

Korutun says Old Believers are not against holding the Olympics in the Sochi area.

But he added: "If you move these old people out of here they are going to die. It is like a tree -- if you take up its roots it dies."