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For Russians in Olympics' shadow, Sochi construction leaving them in the cold

Carlo Angerer / NBC News

Atop a small mountain ridge just outside Sochi, 73-year-old Nadezhda Kuharenko's small house stands in the middle of a vegetable garden.

SOCHI, Russia — Atop a small mountain ridge just outside Sochi, 73-year-old Nadezhda Kuharenko’s small house stands in the middle of a vegetable garden.

“It’s like paradise here,” she said looking across the valley lined by green trees, snow-covered mountains in the horizon.

But her paradise is crumbling. Ever since construction for the Olympics began in 2009, huge trucks with heavy equipment have rumbled past her house in the village of Akhshtyr, leading to cracks in her home's walls and a leaky roof.

A stone quarry just a short walk from her house has been in constant use until recently to support construction of the Olympic traffic artery in the valley below. A new highway and rail line connecting the seaside venues to the mountain cluster pierce through the river area.

The construction effort for the upcoming Olympic games has been estimated to cost over $50 billion, the most expensive winter games yet. The Russian government had promised that these would be green games, but the construction of roads and the need to construct dozens of hotels has severely affected the environment and residents.

"It felt like an earthquake, when the trucks went by and machinery worked in the quarry," Kuharenko said. She has lived in the house for 30 years and is afraid she is going to lose it completely.

Kuharenko is holding on, patching the roof with plastic foil and the walls with cardboard to keep the rain and wind out. But it's barely working; her furniture has been ruined. Her pension of 6,800 rubles (about $200 a month) is not enough to fix her house.

"You can’t save anything from this pension, it’s not even enough for new clothing, barely enough for food," she said. "And food has gotten more expensive since the Olympics have been announced."

"I got nothing from the Olympics, just a crumbling house and health problems," Kuharenko said.

"I’m so tired of this life. Even having to do these little things is difficult in my age," Kuharenko said, adding that officials have visited her, but never offered any concrete assistance.

Hers is not an isolated case. Villagers said that nearly all their houses have cracks as heavy trucks — as many as 250 per day — rumbled through the main street.

And they say they have been cut off from the neighboring village across the valley by the newly built Olympic road and railway.

“They promised us our own ramp to the Olympic road, but never built it. The next one is far away,” he said. “We used to just walk to the other side of the valley but now it’s a 40-minute walk instead of 15.”

The only river crossing to the neighboring village is a shaky suspension bridge, and many of its wooden planks are broken, some completely missing.

Activists, in fact, have repeatedly criticized the impact of the games on the environment and the community.

Julia Naberezhnaya, who works with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, said that huge amounts of money have been spent but that they will not have a positive impact on regional development.

“Instead, dramatic damage was inflicted to local ecosystems,” she said.

Environmental activist Olga Noskovets, a member of “Green Russia,” an ecological faction of Russia's Yabloko Party, said that the affected community members have a difficult time receiving help from authorities.

“In my experience, [authorities] do their best to gain time and complicate the process, which includes gathering costly and time-consuming expert reports to prove the damage,” she said.

Irina Vorovchkova even sued Olympstroi, the Russian state corporation overseeing all construction projects for Sochi 2014, over damages to her house.

She lost — and claimed the local courts are biased toward the Olympics.

“You don’t want to mess with the Olympic Committee,” she said. “The government doesn’t care, Putin just wants things to be his way. We are waiting, maybe after the Olympics we get some compensation.”

Vorovchkova said she's still awaiting compensation for the damages to her house, including large cracks in the foundation and in the walls.

“You can fit your hand in all the holes,” she said.

One of the walls is already gone completely, the stairwell only protected by a tarp. Vorovchkova said it all began when new electricity lines, part of the Olympic infrastructure, were put up on the hillside behind her house. The soil has shifted and heavy streams of water now flow down during rain showers.

Fearing that her house will completely crumble, Vorovchkova has moved part of her family into temporary housing across the muddy street for the better part of the last two years.

“They only gave us these sheds, where it is terribly cold, just freezing,” she said. “We only sometimes get running water and electricity.”

Oleg Kharchenko, chief architect of Olympstroi, the state agency responsible for the Sochi 2014 constructions, defended the building efforts.

"You should have seen what the place used to be. This was just a bog! With ramshackle buildings," he said at a recent press conference. “People had these holes in the ground to wash their cars. This was not normal. We have built a new city."

When asked about the stone quarry at Akhshtyr, he said it would be recultivated and the houses would be repaired.

"Whatever damage occurred during construction will be fixed," he said.

For now, the villagers are still waiting. On Sunday they held a rally on the small main road hoping for more attention their plight. Nadezhda Kuharenko was there as well leaning on a crutch, fighting for her crumbling paradise.