Alexei, a tall, solid, blonde Russian young man, stands blindfolded with a black strip of cloth. A slender young Circassian woman, shorter than him, dressed in a golden traditional costume, is holding him delicately by the hand. Alexei is wearing a yellow T-shirt (bought from the bazaar on the beach) on which Lazarevsky, the name of the nearest resort, is written in capital letters. He is from Nizhny Novgorod and the young woman holding his hand was born in a Circassian village in the valley advancing from Lazarevsky towards the summits of Caucasus. The resort was named in honour of Mikhail Lazarev, the admiral of the army of Tsarist Russia, who headed the operations of annihilation of coastal Circassian villages 150 years ago.
The two youngsters are holding the spotlight on the stage of a summer theatre. Alexei is the voluntary tourist, a bit out of place. The young Circassian woman is the one entertaining everyone with the dances of the evening. In the background, an idyllic painting photographically depicts a Circassian couple in a traditional costume, a horse, mountains, rivers and valleys. The audience are drinking and eating at 30 long, wooden tables. This is the village of Kalezh on the bank of the Ashe River and we are in one of the many thematic Circassian restaurants which, during the day, offer local wine and rotgut tasting and, in the evening, delight the tourists with shows, local dances and foods. In the Circassian villages between Sochi and Djubga there are tens of such places, cram-full with Russian tourists who go up into the mountains to take a break from sunbathing and the hustle and bustle of seaside resorts.
We reached this place guided by Akhmet, a young man from HASE, the association of Circassians living on the Black Sea coast. The village of Kalezsh isn’t even on the local tourist map. It is called Krasno-Aleksandrovski 2 and is part of a series of three villages bearing the same name and three consecutive numbers, in honour of Tsar Alexander who ordered the deportation of the Circassian people. These are village which were repopulated in time and over 90% of them are currently inhabited by Circassians. Akhmet’s family too are in the business of organizing dinners and thematic shows for tourists. Sasha, his brother-in-law, cut down a peach orchard which produced three tons of fruit a year in order to build a restaurant-theatre that would feed and entertain 300 tourists an evening. In the past years, he has reached an average of one hundred tourists once every two evenings. As if in a village museum, Circassian objects are exhibited in a corner of the restaurant garden. He is very proud of the British musket barrel he found somewhere in the woods; he says Russian tourists are quite interested in the stories about the Circassians – a people they never knew existed and were never told about in school.
Most of the villagers live off the tourists, even if this translates only into selling the fruits of their gardens on the seaside. Tens of uncovered jeeps and trucks, filled with tourists, plough the village streets and the valley of Ashe River. The tourists buy wine and chacha, a local type of moonshine, they take pictures of themselves dressed in the traditional costumes of highlanders and show a vivid interest in the local legends. Tourism firms and independent agents swarm the coast with coloured billboards offering complete packages in the Circassian valleys.
Sasha doesn’t expect to capitalize on the Olympic Games. The state hasn’t invested a dime in the infrastructure which would help the village and its inhabitants progress. Out of fifteen Circassian villages, only one is connected to gas supply pipelines; moreover, when getting off the coast road and going up the mountain, the telephone networks are no longer available.
Back to the party scene, Alexei has gone off stage and so has the Circassian dancer. Their place has been taken by young tourists dancing on folk songs mixed with fast techno beats. What got them on stage was the invitation to dance for a group of Chechen children brought by the bus of a sanatorium to see the show. The girls (in bathing suits) in the audience let themselves go and combine Circassian dance steps with movements typical of a night at the club. A lank, blonde guy has had a bit too much of the local moonshine and is performing some amazing movements and then throws himself several times against the background as if wanting to break down the wall. The last throw shoots him straight to the centre of the stage where he giddily falls to the ground. One of his friends gets him back on his feet and leads him to their table. Behind him is the mixed crowd, joined by the Chechen children (boys only), dressed in T-shirts on which ‘Russia’ in written in capital letters. The children are under the supervision of a husky teacher, dressed in a flowered toile dress, a kerchief on her head, who dances along with them and admonishes them with a little red flag whenever they run amok. That lank guy has finally awoken from his drunken stupor and is trying to get back on stage. He wants to mingle with the Chechens, but the teacher grabs him by the collar like a kitten and pushes him away. In a short while, the music stops and the tourists are told they can take pictures with the Circassian dancers – for only 100 roubles. The Chechen children have warmed up and don’t feel like ending the party, but the teacher authoritatively aligns them in a column and gets them on the bus which quickly sets off. She starts to dance on the bus aisle to a vivid music, waving the same little red flag, in the applause and cheer of the children. Along with the departure of the Chechen bus, a cloud of dust rises above the village. At the same time, tens of jeeps, trucks and buses are taking the tourists back to the sea-coast. The show has come to an end.