By Claire McNear, on 13 February 2014
By Anouk van den Akker
Russia has met a great deal of criticism in the run-up to the Winter Olympics: over the government’s anti-gay legislation and the nation’s broader human rights issues, the enormous budget of the Sochi Games, corruption, and the terrorist threats in Sochi. There is another morbid item to add to the list, though so far it has received little attention from the international media.
Exactly 150 years ago, the nation of Circassia, a small country along the Black Sea, was conquered by the Russians at the end of the Caucasian War. The invasion of the Russians occurred in Sochi, then known as Ubykhia, where roughly 90% of ethnic Circassians were annihilated. It is unclear how many Circassians died at the hands of the Russian army: reports range from tens and hundreds of thousands to more than a million victims. Those who did survive the bloody war were either forced to become Russian nationals or were deported to the Ottoman Empire. Of the 3 million ethnic Circassians alive today, the largest Circassian diaspora is located in Turkey, with other communities spread across other nations in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. What happened in Sochi 150 years ago was a violent episode that the modern Circassian community wants recognized as genocide but which the Russian government refuses to discuss.
In fact, when addressing the International Olympic Committee in July 2007 “to win the games for Sochi,” President Vladimir Putin emphasized Sochi’s rich cultural history, mentioning the ancient Greeks who occupied the city many centuries ago. He failed, however, to bring up Circassia, which dominated the region for hundreds of years prior to the Russian conquest. It has been argued that the Winter Olympics are being used as an “information war” where the Russian government aims to eliminate all traces of the Caucasian War and the genocide of the Circassian people, while Circassian descendants fight to preserve their people’s history.
Sochi’s new $8 billion ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, which was completely overhauled for the Olympics, is built exactly on the site where most of the Circassians were “cleansed.” According to Sufian Zhemukhov, a visiting scholar at George Washington University, “this was perceived as an insult and really fomented Circassian activism around the world.” Some Circassian descendants have compared the competition at Krasnaya Polyana to having the Winter Olympics held at Auschwitz. The locale has struck many as particularly galling given the timing, with the Sochi Games coinciding with the 150th anniversary of some of the darkest days of Circassian history.
The lack of domestic and international attention to the mass graves that Olympic athletes are now skiing over can be seen as a reflection of the general sentiment toward the Circassian people. Namely, that their ancestry does not matter enough, and that in the eyes of Russia, and perhaps of the international community, they simply do not exist. Although other ethnic minorities from the Caucasus, such as those belonging to the Caucasus Emirate, have used the visibility of the Sochi Games as a platform for demands of independence from Russia, often coupled with threats of violence, it is not expected that the Circassian community will resort to similar measures. Instead, they have mainly attempted to raise awareness via the Circassian-led “No Sochi 2014” campaign which aims to raise international recognition of the genocide and “the right of Circassians to return to their homeland.”