In Sochi's Shadow

Abkhazia is a lonely little non-country with big dreams just a few miles from where the Olympic Games will be held. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt

"Our dream is to compete in the Olympic Games as Abkhazians," Djarnaz Beniya told me. Beniya, a wrestling trainer who coached Denis Tsargush to a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympic Games, is a resident of Abkhazia, a breakaway territory from Georgia whose border is less than 10 miles from Sochi Olympic Park in Russia. Abkhazia fought a war with Georgia in 1992 and 1993; it declared independence after that and fought again with Georgian troops in 2008, forcing the last of them out. Today, Russia has a strong presence in Abkhazia, which has had a "special relationship" with Russia's security services for decades. Only Russia and a handful of other countries have recognized the independence of this economically depressed former Soviet republic.

Not only does most of the rest of world not recognize Abkhazia as an independent country, neither does the International Olympic Committee; any athletes from Abkhazia would have to compete as Russians, although none are going to the games. When I visited them last summer, some students at Abkhazia State University told me that they are proud of being Abkhazians but they also know the future of the country is uncertain. "I love the country, and I am proud of my country, but I know the situation is a deadlock now," one student said. "It is our generation who have to find their own path for the country."

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Abkhazia is bordered to the southwest by the Black Sea. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
A child plays at a small amusement park. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
An abandoned installation in Tkvarcheli, once an important coal mining area in Abkhazia. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
People gather at the monastery in Novy Afon, Abkhazia. This monastery wants to be independent from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has thrown it into conflict with other churches in the region. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
A boy watches a children’s television program. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
An abandoned and collapsed building – and a horse – near the town of Tkvarcheli. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
International relations students take a final exam at the Abkhazia State University in Sukhumi, the capital. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Djarnaz Beniya, a wrestling coach, sits in his office. Many Abkhaz children from the Gudauta region come here to train to be Olympians. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Women living in the same apartment building gather to talk. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Member of the Abkhaz military train in Sukhumi. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Newly recruited soldiers study in the Abkhaz military school. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
One of the many war veterans in Esher, a small village near Sukhumi. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Alik Zantariya, 53, works at the still-functioning electric substation in Tkvarcheli. The main building was destroyed during the war of 1992 and 1993. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
At the Abkhazia-Georgia cooperative electric substation in Abkhazia. Surprisingly, many Georgians still work at the substation even though it is located on the Abkhazia side. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
The destroyed former parliament building in Sukhumi. The building became a symbol of Abkhazian independence as they took it from the Georgians during the war in the early 1990s. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Young wrestlers from Gudauta. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
Abkhaz girls after graduating from high school in Tkvarcheli. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
A coat hangs in an abandoned closet in a village near Tkvarcheli that was destroyed during the 1992–1993 war. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt
A young Abkhaz soldier and his girlfriend on a Black Sea beach in Sukhumi. Kosuke Okahara/Prospekt