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22 Mar 2010

Circassians' Anger at Sochi Games

Russian President Putin as The Thinker

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The United Nations has criticised the Russian government’s work on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, saying it risks causing irreversible harm to the pristine Caucasus environment, Oliver Bullough comments for IWPR.

By Oliver Bullough in London for IWPR

Russia has not hosted the Winter Olympics before, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who regularly skis in the mountains above Sochi himself – worked hard to secure the games.

The report, in which the UN Environment Programme called on officials to do more to monitor the effects of the building work, comes after the Worldwide Fund for Nature, WWF, strongly rebuked the supposedly “green games”.

Both statements will have been an embarrassment for Putin’s government, but that embarrassment may get far worse if activists from the scattered Circassian nation have their way.

They say the Russian government should apologise for the 1864 destruction of their people – which was once resident in Sochi, and which was destroyed in what I, in my new book, argue was first genocide in modern European history – and promise to disrupt the Olympics until it does.

They say the International Olympic Committee should never have granted the Games to Sochi, and that any celebration there on the 150th anniversary of their nation’s destruction is appallingly insensitive.

When I visited Sochi to research my book, Let Our Fame be Great, I was impressed by the beauty of Krasnaya Polyana, which will host the skiing events, and the gorge along which visitor will travel to reach it. It will be a magnificent venue.

But I was equally stunned by the complete erasure of the Circassians from this place, which was their heartland until their defeat and expulsion by Tsar Alexander II’s army. I found only a single pear tree, which was too old to have been planted by the aristocrats who colonised this remote gorge in the late 19th century, as proof that anyone lived here before the Russians.

The Circassians originally lived all along Russia’s Black Sea coast, from Anapa to Abkhazia, and dominated the lands eastwards to the borders of Chechnya. Loosely allied to the Turks, they blocked Russia’s advance southwards until 1864 when, deprived of their lands and stricken by plague, their resistance collapsed.

Russia was not prepared to tolerate the turbulent highlanders remaining in their inaccessible valleys, and troops pushed crowds of Circassians before them to the beaches, where they piled onto Turkish ships and left for the Ottoman Empire. Some 300,000 died of starvation or of the diseases that afflicted the desperate crowds.

Their final defeat came on May 21, 1864, in the exact location of the 2014 Olympics.

There is no memorial to show where the tsar’s soldiers paraded to mark their victory. In fact, the parade ground is now buried under a helidrome that will welcome the highest-profile visitors.

On March 1, the International Circassian Association appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev, asking that a symbol of their nation should be included in the games, in the same way that native Canadians’ emblems were showcased in the Vancouver Olympics.

It is unlikely the appeal will be heard, however. An ongoing campaign by Circassians in Russia to have their nation’s destruction recognised as genocide has been brushed off, and activists have been harassed by state officials.

More radical Circassian movements, most of which are outside Russia where only ten per cent of the nation lives, have other demands that are even less welcome to the Kremlin.

Activists from No Sochi 2014, which links Circassians whose ancestors fled to the Ottoman Empire and who now live in Israel, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere, protested in Vancouver, demanding that the IOC strip the games from Russia, and move them to another venue.

“We, whose fathers were subjected to genocide, once again underline that we condemn in the strongest terms the IOC’s decision. Don’t give the torch that the freedom lover Prometheus fired in the Mountains of Caucasus, to the murderer of liberties, Russia! Don’t let Sochi be again the host to a deliberate destruction,” it said in a statement.

Russia does not normally respond well to protesters and, as the Olympic Games approach, it is likely to become increasingly worried that the Circassian groups may disrupt its showcase. A series of Circassian protests last year were only stopped by the use of military checkpoints, and the games are still four years away.

Russia may find environmental problems as nothing compared to this potential publicity headache.


Oliver Bullough is the IWPR Caucasus Editor. His book Let Our Fame be Great: journeys among the defiant people of the Caucasus is published in the UK by Allen Lane, and will be published in the United States by Basic Books in June.

Editor's note:

This article originally appeared in IWPR's Caucasus Reporting Service. To view the original, please click here.

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Logo Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)