When the crème de la crème of cold-weather athletes finally descend on the Russian resort town of Sochi for the Olympics next month, none will be able to claim higher honors than the country's strong-armed president, Vladimir Putin.
Like many leaders before him, Putin has made hosting a world-class event a personal triumph -- and he's spared no expense in investing Russia's political and financial clout into realizing his dream.
Built from scratch, the games' installations are expected to cost Russia an estimated $50 billion -- more than any other country has ever spent in hosting the competition. Ahead of the games, activists have doubled downed on efforts to spotlight the Russian administration's shabby human rights records. And just last week, two suicide bombings killed more than 30 people in the southern city of Volgograd.
Reporter Brett Forrest and photographer Thomas Dworzak traveled to Russia for the January issue of National Geographic magazine to chronicle the preparations for Putin's personal party, as well as the challenges that come with it.
Russia is an empire no more. Like other great and large nations, however, it still aches to be one. It must find an outlet for its urges, and over two weeks in February, it will have it. Through force of Russian will, the Winter Olympics are coming to an unlikely location. The Sochi Games on the Black Sea coast will take place in the backyard of a recent war with Georgia, on the site of what many call the genocide of a people (the Circassians), and in the orbit of an Islamic insurgency (in Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya). The state has resurrected a fearsome militia, the Cossacks, to help keep the peace that some might design to upend. Allegations of graft circulate widely, high temperatures threaten the snowfall necessary for competition, and activists have called for a boycott over antigay legislation enacted by the Russian parliament. In response Putin has banned protests and rallies in Sochi during the games.
Take a look at Thomas Dworzak's stunning photos of the Olympics preparations in the slideshow below.