Sochi: the capital of a lost people

Ștefan Cândea
The passage from the laid-back atmosphere in Abkhazia to the thriving and animate Russian district of Krasnodar is quite sudden. Even from the frontier point one can see the district is jam-packed: shops glued one to another, crammed cars in endless traffic jams and ongoing massive works on the infrastructure. As usual, the ubiquitous police forces keep a close watch over everything and anything. Hardly did we reach Adler when we saw on the left a huge billboard announcing extensive works to set up one of the many facilities where the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games (OG) will take place.

The narrow road winding up between the mountains and the sea cannot take in the army of tourists that keeps flooding in. Officially, in the Sochi region alone, about four and a half million tourists visit the Black Sea coast. The coast stretches along 300 kilometers north to Anapa and is strewn with tourist resorts which leads to traffic jams whatever the day, hour and weather may be. Vladimir Putin has promised the International Olympic Committee Russia would set aside 12 billion dollars for the infrastructure in order to ensure a proper development of the Olympic Games. However, Russian opposition politicians, among whom also a former prime-minister, claim the money is wasted on games which will turn out to be a disaster because of corruption, organized crime and lack of snow.

Nevertheless, the infrastructure is just one of the many problems the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games raise. The Russian authorities are facing a situation similar to that of China in 2008 when the state was accused of the brutal breach of the Tibetans’ rights. And yet, the Chinese didn’t dare organize the Olympics in Tibet. The year and place of the inauguration of the Olympic Games, Krasnaya Polyana, mark 150 years since the first genocide in modern European history and the expulsion from their own country of a people who have been living in exile for generations. The people: the Circassians who were pushed to the Black Sea by the armies of Tsarist Russia in 1864, at the end of over a 100-year war to conquer Caucasus. The row of Russian forts between Sukhumi and Anapa, now turned into tourist resorts, prepared the defeat of the Circassian people: they cut off their connection to the sea and their trade and supply means.

Over one million Circassians were driven out by the Ottoman Empire in an operation strikingly similar to the massive Soviet deportations. Approximately 300.000 people drowned, died of hunger or illness on the beaches where they had taken refuge. Most of the survivors settled in Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Israel. Circassian families went so far as Bulgaria, Romania and Kosovo. Around five million Circassian live in the world and over 500.00 live in Krasnodar, Stavropol, Northern Ossetia and in three artificially-created republics: Adygea, Kabardino-Balkar and Karachay-Cherkess. Although they belong to the same people, they were separated, mixed with other nations and given a different name depending on the territory they lived on: Circassians, Kabardins, Shapsugs and Adyghe.

When I left Romania I didn’t know the first thing about the Circassians. It was in Ankara that I read about their protests against the Sochi Olympic Games and I eventually discovered Oliver Bullough’s (British journalist) very recent book which I used as my main source of documentation. Among the sources the book recommended there was a site of the Circassian community to which I turned to for contacts in Sochi. In less than half a day my message reached Ankara, Nalchik and made it back to Sochi. In the evening I met with the representatives of a local organization of Circassians and the following day we were fixed up in a nearby village.

Murat and Salikh are two thirty-year-old young men who were born in the Circassian villages around Sochi. They are part of HASE, an association set up by the Shapsug tribe. Murat works in marketing and Salikh in energy export. Both of them learned a false history in school: the history that mentions Circassians only in passing as people who existed once, but ‘left the table’ at a certain point. Salikh showed me old maps of Circassia, symbols, flags and pictures from commemorations, all of them saved on his mobile phone. He said the power of his people resides in everybody knowing by heart the history of their own family up to the seventh generation. He was very interested in the book I bought in Ankara, a book whose author (a foreigner) recounts in great detail Salikh’s very own history. I offered him the book.

The Russian state’s reaction to this type of issues is much too fierce, especially in the area of the Caucasian republics. Therefore, the HASE organization doesn’t insist on the official recognition of the term ‘genocide’, but only that of the historical events that led to the deportation and death of the Circassian people. Moreover, they demand the symbols of the Circassian tribes that were exterminated in Sochi be included amongst the other Olympic Games emblems. Other groups from different regions have a much radical view on things, requesting the cancellation of the Olympic Games or the establishment of the Circassian Republic.