The 2014 Winter Olympics are to be held in the town of Sochi, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, in the North Caucasus mountain range. The Olympics are supposed to celebrate peace between nations and the common achievement of all humans. The choice of this site for the Olympics could not be any less appropriate, imprudent and even insulting to the concept of common humanity and peace. It is a major location of massacre in Russia’s genocidal deportation of the native population of the region, called Circassia.
To make matters worse, the 150th anniversary of this affair takes place during the Olympics themselves, and many of the parts of the stadium are being built upon very important historical sites to the Circassians. Russia wants to wipe these sites off the map, replacing them, and the perception of the world, with Russia’s Olympic Stadium. The Olympic stadium has literally been built upon mass graves of Circassians.
This genocide, which took place in the matter of just four or five years, annihilated one to 1.5 million Circassians (along with numerous other neighboring peoples,) and deported much of the remainder. In the year 1864 alone, half a million Circassians were deported to the Ottoman Empire in deplorable conditions (Reuters, “145th Anniversary of the Circassian Genocide and the Sochi Issue,” 5.22.09). Some villages had their populations massacred on the spot, while others were deported across the Black Sea. Ships were stuffed well past their capacity with Circassians, who were not given adequate food or water for the journey. These conditions caused major outbreaks of disease and starvation. Thus, by the time they arrived at their destinations, the ships only carried a portion of their human cargo. The Turks called them “floating graveyards.” Russia could have easily used some of the much larger ships of its enormous navy to transport the deportees and its excess grain, of which it was, and is still, the number one producer worldwide, but it chose instead to cram and starve them to death. Some people speculate that the Circassian genocide may have inspired the Armenian genocide, which in turn helped inspire the Holocaust. After all, the story of what happened to the Circassians was well known in Turkey, where many of them were deported (“The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus,” 2008).
Russian motives for the Circassian Genocide were not based solely around a racist hatred for Circassians and other Caucasus peoples, although Russians did not lack these racial sentiments, and many do not lack them today. The motive was instead coldly strategic: Russia had been fighting to gain solid control of the conquered Circassia’s location for many generations, but the native Circassian people would not give up. The Russians found that villages that had surrendered were again resisting just months later. The Circassians were the strongest North Caucasian people, and Russia’s leadership wanted to remove the so-called strategic threat—i.e. the Circassian people as a whole. It was not only Circassians that were impacted however—many Chechens, Ingush, Georgians, Abkhaz and other peoples of the Caucasus were also deported. The Circassians were simply the only people designated to be completely removed from the area.
Like the Armenians, Circassian diaspora communities are now spread around the globe. Throughout the 20th century, Circassians had largely given up on going home, but still tried hard to keep their language alive. There are even some Circassians in the United States, mainly concentrated in New Jersey.
The recognition of the Armenian Genocide paired with the Sochi issue, both during a time of reawakening of Circassian identity in the diaspora and of Circassian activist nationalism among the 100,000 living “back home,” has enraged Circassians like never before. The Circassians have thus far relied on completely non-violent methods to protest Russia’s historical and present policies towards them. The world should acknowledge their nonviolent appeals by listening to their plight.
The Circassians may no longer live in their homeland, but they have watched Armenians’ growing success with regards to genocide recognition and they wonder why it is still acceptable to write Circassians out of history. Now they see Russia is going to hold the Olympics on the site of a major massacre—the town of Sochi—on the 150th anniversary of the genocide. The mountain that will be used for skiing, called “Red Hill” by Circassians, was the site of a last-ditch resistance by Circassian villagers against the deportations by the Tsarist Empire. When they lost, they were all slaughtered. The athletes will be skiing over their graves, and these Olympics are supposed to be a time of celebration (NorthJersey, “North Jersey Circassians ‘in exile’ launch Olympic protest,” 02.08.2010).
Russia may no longer be the Tsarist Empire, but it is still the world’s largest state—a vestige of Tsarist conquests—and more or less the only European colonial power to retain the majority of its colonies. Russians resent the breakup of the Soviet Union, the contraction of their domain, and the perceived diminishment in their international power. There is a desire to recover these things, and to maintain a firm—even strangling—grip on what remains of the empire. Various Russian actions throughout the last two decades show the imperialist mindset. These include the invasions of Georgia and Chechnya twice, followed by the establishment of a notoriously brutal totalitarian puppet regime that analysts consider to be one of the most oppressive in the world; propping up irredentist breakaway regimes in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova with their patterns of ethnic cleansing; the backing of autocrats throughout the former USSR; and political suppression of the North Caucasian republics. Other colonial-imperial powers have willingly let go of political control of most of their former colonies. In Russia, however, the voices calling for an end to imperialism are silenced by the increasingly authoritarian regime in Moscow.
Russia’s placement of the Olympics in Sochi, along with the insensitive way Olympic facilities were built atop Circassian graves, sends a message to the rest of the world: It asserts, in the face of attempts by natives pursuing self-determination, that the Caucasus shall always stay Russia’s imperial domain, no matter the cost. That certainly should not be passively endorsed.
Still, there is something even worse that we must also avoid endorsing. According to scholars, genocide, or the elimination of a people, has four stages. The fourth is the, perhaps subconscious, amnesia—the forgetting that the horror that happened, followed by forgetting the people. Thus, by erasing the memory of a people, they are wiped out from the mental world just as they previously were from the physical world, completing their annihilation. Thus, when watching the Olympics this year, it is important to remember the nation, Circassia, that once lived on the land.
—Clayton Marr ’17 is a student at Vassar College.