Russia's Sochi Olympics awakens Circassian anger

As the Black Sea resort town scrambles to prepare for the Winter Games in 18 months, a little-known indigenous group, driven away by the Russian Tsar over a hundred years ago, is raising its voice in protest.

Little-known indigenous group bands together in months ahead of Games

Circassian protesters took part in anti-Olympic demonstrations at the 2012 London Games. A small group also participated in protests at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

On the surface, the Russian resort town of Sochi provides an ideal setting for the world to convene for the 2014 Olympics.

Its subtropical coastline on the Black Sea offers beautiful palm-lined seashores for the tourists — February temperatures should be in the 10 C range — while the nearby snow-covered mountains present an ideal staging ground for outdoor winter sports.

"But historically and politically, it's a loaded area," warns John Colarusso, a professor of humanities at McMaster University and a freqent writer on the language and culture of the Caucasus, the mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas.

Indeed, as Russian authorities scramble to prepare Sochi for the Winter Games in 18 months time, a little-known indigenous group from the region is raising its voice in protest.

It turns out that the year 2014 is not just of Olympian importance. It is also a symbolic lightning rod for the Circassian diaspora. 

The year marks the 150th anniversary of the mostly Muslim Circassians defeat and expulsion by the Russian empire from their homeland — the Sochi area — and the diaspora is intent on having its message heard.

"We don't want the Sochi Olympics to happen on our ancestors graves," argues Zack Barsik, a Circassian-American member of the Circassian Cultural Institute. "It's an injustice."

The New Jersey-based institute is spearheading a No Sochi 2014 campaign calling for a boycott of the Sochi Games. Circassians began protesting as soon as Putin presented the Sochi bid in 2007.

"Russians have handed the Circassians a silver tray upon which to air their grievances to the world," said Colarusso, a linguist who studies the North Caucusus and also served as backchannel adviser on the area for the U.S. during the Clinton administration.

The Circassians

Commonly called Circassians, they refer to themselves as Adyghes.

Circassians were indigenous to the northwestern region of the Caucasus mountains, now part of southern Russia and Georgia.

Ninety per cent of the estimated five to eight million population live in exile outside of Russia. Roughly four million Circassians live in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands live in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Germany. Up to 400 reside in Canada, primarily in Toronto.

The Circassians were killed and expelled from their homeland by the Russian empire in 1864 after a decades-long war.

Source: Circassian Cultural Institute, McMaster University professor John Colarusso

"It's a genuine blunder on the part of Putin, I’m afraid. He’s otherwise fairly astute as rulers go."

Countering security fears

Securing the Olympics has been a point of pride for Russia as it tries to revitalize its image on the world stage and Putin, an avid sportsman and judo enthusiast, has taken personal interest in ensuring the event's success. 

Since the Black Sea resort in southwestern Russia was selected as a venue, international attention has primarily focused on security concerns and fears of a terrorist attack due to Sochi's proximity to the unstable North Caucasus, including the restive Russian dependency of Chechnya, which is only about 600 kilometres away.

Russia has tried to counter those concerns. In May, authorities said they foiled a plot by Islamist rebels to attack Sochi, then confidently declared that the anti-terrorist committee had dealt a "notable blow to the terrorist underground, leaving it with no intention to disrupt the Olympic games."

But is that the end of the problem?

"This is a big matter of prestige for Russia, so obviously they're going to do whatever they can to make sure it goes off relatively smoothly," said Eugene Chausovsky, director of analysis for Europe and the former Soviet Union for global intelligence company Stratfor.

But as Valery Dzutsev, a former Caucasus-area journalist, notes, "these Olympics present a one-time opportunity for insurgents to basically remind the world of their existence."

It is also an opportunity of a lifetime for the scattered Circassian diaspora.

Then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev meet in Sochi to assess the construction ahead of the Olympic Games. (Dmitry Astakhov/Reuters)

Diaspora rallies around cause

"It's become a big rallying issue for young Circassians and it's become an emblem for the awakening of the Circassian nationhood," said Oliver Bullough, journalist and author of Let Our Fame Be Great, a book about the Russian conquest of the Caucasus.

An estimated 90 per cent of the Circassian population, ranging from five to eight million worldwide, live outside Russia, most of them from families that were driven out at the point of a gun over a hundred years ago.

Most reside in Turkey, but smaller populations are strewn across many countries, including the U.S., Syria, Jordan and Canada.

Georgia, whose relations with Russia are tense, has officially called the killings in 1864 a "genocide." It is the first state to use the politically charged term, but the Circassian Cultural Institute hopes to persuade other countries to follow suit.

"For the Sochi Olympics, the whole world is invited," said the Circassian Cultural Institute's Barsik. "Circassians — citizens of Sochi, the capital of Circassia — are not allowed to return."

The city is now a popular tourist town, home to 400,000 Russians. Ahead of the Olympics, it has become what Dmitry Chernyshenko, a Sochi native and president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, has described as the "world's biggest construction site," with 55,000 workers toiling 24 hours a day to complete the athletic facilities and infrastructure.

Eleven athletic facilities are being built in two separate clusters: one on the coast and the other nestled about 50 kilometres away in the mountains. About 28,000 hotel rooms are under construction to house the 75,000 expected visitors and the city's 1950s infrastructure is being updated.

The Olympics will yet again alter the face of Sochi.

'It's about legacy'

As Chernyshenko described it in an interview with Sports Illustrated, he sees the popular tourist destination as "a blank canvas to paint what you really dream about." He dismissed concerns about altering the character of the community, stating "it's not about character. It's about legacy."

Meanwhile, experts say Russia has refused to acknowledge Sochi's other legacy.

"When it comes to the crunch, Russia reacts like the old Russia," says McMaster's Colarusso, who points to the Russian authorities recent response to the Pussy Riot's punk protest.

2014 Winter Olympics

The Sochi Games, held Feb. 7-23, will mark a few firsts:

  • The first time the winter games begin a day before the opening ceremony.
  • The Games will be 18 days instead of the standard 17.
  • Twelve more medals will be awarded at the Sochi Games than in the 2010 Vancouver Games, for a total of 98.
  • New events include slopestyle, ski halfpipe, mixed relay in the biathlon and team events in luge and figure skating.

"I’ve held up our handling of the Olympics in Vancouver as a beautiful example of how to accommodate indigenous sensibilities and culture."

But instead of acknowledging its history, Colarusso fears Russia's suppression of its past in this case could lead radical elements within the Circassians to take extreme positions.

The Circassian Cultural Institute's Barsik says the No Sochi 2014 group does not plan to resort to violence. They do, however, fear the minority of Circassians still living within Russia might be targeted in retaliation for protests outside the country.

Not all Circassians agree with calls to boycott the Sochi Games. But author Bullough says even they are "quite grateful for the campaign" because "it means that people are looking for the story and what it's all about.

And he notes, "If everything goes to plan and there isn't anything unforeseen, I think it will be the most gorgeous place for them to have the Olympics."