We leave the overcrowded coast of Djubga in order to take a tour about Krasnodar. We head towards Novorossiysk and then we will be on our way out of Russia via Port Kavkaz. Unfortunately, technical problems regarding the car, visa and access into the Caucasian republics won’t allow us to stick to our initial plan: to travel through the Caucasian republics via Maykop, Armavir, Nalchik, Vladikavkaz, Grozny and Makhachkala on route M29, the Caucasus Highway.
The loop we make through Krasnodar and back to Novorossiysk gives me somewhat of an idea regarding the prosperity of the region, a prosperity which ensues mainly from agriculture and tourism. On the way into Novorossiysk trucks with local tag numbers transporting cereals to the harbour stand in a 15-kilometre queue. As prosperous as the district of Krasnodar is, as poverty-stricken and touchy is the entire neighbouring region of the Caucasian republics.
Since the deportation of the Circassians at the end of the 19th century, this region hasn’t known one second of peace. After only sixty years, outflanked by the Bolshevik troops from Novorossiysk harbour, white Cossacks alongside the British army retreated in the same chaos and disarray. Soviet terror permeated the entire region. In the next years, hundreds of thousands of people were deported and millions were executed, tortured or imprisoned.
The main charge of the Stalinist power against the deported people was the latter’s alleged involvement with Nazi troops. However, for quite some time, the Soviet government had actually been warring against the peasant or the thriving and independent highlander it wanted to force into collectivization. Some of them went up into the mountains and formed groups of partisans that questioned Soviet authority.
In mid world war, when any opposition force was in the trenches and on the front, Stalin and Beria planned the extermination of the Caucasian peoples in special operations secretly carried out. In November 1943, over 50.000 Soviet soldiers took part in the deportation of 70.000 Karachays towards Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Most of the deportees were old people, women and children. In December 1943, 90.000 Kalmyks and Buddhist nomads were deported to Siberia. In February 1944, over 450.000 of the Chechen and the Ingush people were deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In March, 37.000 Balkars were deported to Kazakhstan and their history and name were erased even from the Soviet encyclopaedia.
Half a year before, the Cherek Valley which was inhabited by Balkars, had been purged of the so-called ‘bandits’ by the Soviet troops. Oliver Bullough’s book records the December 1942 Sauty massacre when an entire village was wiped off the face of the earth. This special operation led to the butchering of 310 people (150 children and the rest old men and women) by the great Soviet soldiers. Meanwhile, the men who could have defended their families were laying down their life on the warfront for the Red Army. The documents that were subsequently brought to light indicate a much higher number: over 800 victims. As the region was a volatile frontline, during the massacre the Soviet troops were driven out by the Romanian soldiers who were fighting alongside the Germans in the Caucasus campaign. The Soviet propaganda blamed Romanian and German soldiers for the massacre of its own civilian population.
The deportations in the region finally came to an end in June 1949 when over 100.000 Greeks were seized in the middle of the night and deported to Asia from the Caucasian coasts around the Black Sea. Needless to say that during the deportation a great number of Greeks died as they had been locked up in train wagons and deprived of food and hygiene. Many families were separated for ever. Those who survived were settled in desert areas where they had to start from scratch, without any right to freely travel and under the strict surveillance of the KGB.
Starting with 1956, a few years after Stalin’s death, the Caucasian peoples began to return to their native countries, despite the extreme red tape and state opposition. The process is carrying on even nowadays.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to independence wars in every Caucasian region affected by deportation and indescribable crimes on both sides. Violence, bombardments and insecurity generated waves of thousands of refugees in the past twenty years. The locals view journalism or human rights activism equals a death sentence. This, together with special passes from the FSB which a journalist working in the area needs, keeps the media away from the region.
A news bulletin viewed in my hotel room in Sochi announced Putin’s recent visit to Nalchik for a summit of the leaders of the republics and local districts. One of the pro-Moscow leaders to take the floor was Ramzan Kadyrov who presented to Putin the recently finalized constructions and his strategy to develop tourism in Chechnya.