The 2014 Winter Olympics has been mired in controversy ever since the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Sochi in 2007. The cost of the Games has exceeded $51 billion, five times the initial budget. Although the Russian government has affirmed that the safety of LGBT athletes will be assured at the 2014 Games, there will not be a Pride House offering information and support for LGBT competitors and attendees as there was at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Amid all these current controversies, President Vladimir Putin’s decision to downplay Sochi’s bloody history within the context of the Olympics has received less attention. The city was not always a resort town known for its mild weather. Until the mid-19th century, Sochi was the capital of the autonomous region of Circassia, nominally under the rule of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). When the declining Ottoman Empire ceded the northern Black Sea coast to the Russian Empire as part of the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, the Circassians (now known as the Adyghe) refused to accept their new overlords, and decades of violence ensued.
In the English-speaking world, the Circassians were romanticized as fierce warriors and beautiful maidens. In Russia, however, the presence of the fiercely independent Circassian people in strategically significant regions along the Black Sea coast appeared to be a security risk. Most Circassians had converted to Islam and were unwilling to change their religion once more to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
The Circassian code of hospitality dictated that guests be received without question, a practice that appeared to provide a refuge for Russian fugitives and army deserters. There was little effort by Russian authorities to peacefully engage with the Circassians. Instead, homes and villages were burnt, provoking resistance.
In 1857, Czar Alexander II formally approved a proposal by military tactician Dmitri Milyutin to expel the Circassians from their traditional homeland. Milyutin wrote that the removal of the local population would not only result in available farmland for Russians but “cleanse the land of hostile elements.” Although Alexander was a progressive ruler in certain respects and is now best known for abolishing serfdom in 1861, he had served on the Chechen front in 1850 and shared the views of his generals regarding the security risk posed by the Circassian people. Milyutin was appointed minister of war in 1861. The rapid expulsion of the Circassians and the neighbouring Ingush and lowland Chechen peoples to the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith in 1864.
In certain respects, the Circassians faced circumstances similar to those of the 11,500 Acadian people expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755. Families were separated, homes were destroyed and possessions were abandoned or sold at a loss. The sheer number Circassians uprooted in 1864, the determination of the Russians to clear the region as quickly as possible and the Ottoman Empire’s failure to provide support for the incoming refugees, however, resulted in hundreds of thousands more deaths than the Acadian expulsion.
Approximately 600,000 Circassians died from starvation, exposure and drowning as overcrowded, undersupplied ships carried them across the Black Sea. Those Circassians who resisted were massacred. “Red Hill” in Sochi, where skiing and snowboarding events will take place at the 2014 Olympics, was the site of one of these massacres and the location of Russian celebrations of their “victory” over the Circassians.
In 2011, the Parliament of Georgia passed a resolution declaring that the Circassians had been the victims of a genocide perpetrated by the Imperial Russian army during the 1860s. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been dismissive of Russia’s past treatment of the Circassian people during the preparations for the Olympics. Descendants of the expelled Circassians outside Russia have called upon the international community to boycott the Olympics, forming the No Sochi 2014 Committee.
The Adyge Hase organization formed at 1989 Assembly of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus in Georgia instead view the Olympics as an opportunity to raise awareness of past human rights violations in the region. Just as the Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics showcased the culture of Canada’s First Nations in 2010, the Sochi Olympics could acknowledge the key place of the Circassians in the region’s history.
With the Opening Ceremonies a few weeks away, there is still time for the Olympics to serve as an opportunity for Russia to acknowledge its violent history in the region. The ongoing Chechen insurgency and recent terrorist bombings in Volgograd demonstrate that Russia’s relations with the Caucasus peoples remain troubled. Russian recognition of the death and displacement of the Circassian people in 1864 would transform the controversial Games into the beginning of a process of reconciliation.
Carolyn Harris is a lecturer in history at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, and royal history blogger at royalhistorian.com.© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen