The Sochi Olympics have some problems. There are the merely irritating ones: unfinished hotel rooms, undrinkable tap water, wonky bathrooms, an alarming shortage of pillows. There are competitive concerns, like a slopestyle course that's allegedly causing injuries to snowboarders. And there are the globally alarming issues, like the destruction of the environment, oppressive government policies, and the very real threat of a terrorist attack.
But often left off the list of problems with Sochi is the oldest one: the role the city played 150 years ago in what many call Europe’s first-ever genocide. In the middle of the 19th century, conquering Russian armies in the North Caucusus systematically massacred and then drove the region's ethnic Circassians toward the coast, where they were finally defeated—at Sochi. The Russians then forced Circassians to either board ships bound for Turkey or be exiled to Siberia. In the process, countless people died of starvation and disease.
Today, there are about 8 million Circassians in the world, most of whom live in the Middle East. And they're not very happy about the Sochi Olympics.
“We want people to know who Circassians are, what happened to us, and to tell people that we will not be erased from history," said Tamara Barsik, founder and director of No Sochi, a Circassian umbrella group that has staged protests and attempted to raise public awareness of the massacre since the Olympics were awarded to Sochi in 2007.
Today, the city shows little to no evidence of its bloody past. The towering snowcapped mountains and azure waters of the Black Sea play host to billionaire oligarchs and European tourists drawn by the subtropical seaside community. Krasnaya Polyana is the resort area that will be the site of alpine events during the Olympics. One hundred and fifty years ago, however, it was a battleground on which thousands of Circassians were killed, then buried in mass graves.
Circassian protesters in Istanbul.
In 2011, the Georgian parliament recognized the slaughter of Circassians as a genocide, but Moscow never has. “Circassia is a nation that has slipped out of history,” said Oliver Burrough, author of Let Our Fame Be Great, a book about the Russian conquest of the Caucasus.
As activists in Turkey, the United States, and the Middle East have used the Sochi Olympics as a rallying point to bring global attention to their plight, Circassians still living in the Caucasus have, like other activists in Russia, faced arrests, detention, and beatings at the hands of the police. But over the course of the past seven years, their efforts have undoubtedly helped remind the world what happened—and they have Vladimir Putin, in part, to thank for that.
"By hosting the Olympics in Sochi, the Kremlin has effectively provided Circassians with a huge opportunity to raise their flag," Tiago Ferreira Lopes, a Caucasus researcher and lecturer at Turkey’s Kirikkale University, told me.
Just last week, Bill Pascrell Jr., a congressman from New Jersey, delivered a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in which he said, "It is disrespectful to the Circassian community for the Russian government to use Sochi as a stage to promote themselves to the world.”
Within Russia, international attention on Circassians is often derided as a Western conspiracy and an attempt to sabotage the Olympics or embarrass Putin. A television host for a pro-government station in Siberia was quoted as saying, "First, they said that the Olympic venues are being built on Circassian cemeteries, even though they did not know who the Circassians were. Now, they have invented this situation with sexual minorities.”
As the Olympics begin, history is cruelly repeating itself 900 miles south of Sochi. Caught in the midst of the conflict in Syria, many of the country's 150,000 Circassians now find themselves in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, living in abysmal conditions. The Russian government has accepted only 1,000 Circassians as refugees and has offered them little in the way of help. (Circassian activists in Russia are largely responsible for aiding the refugees.) At the same time, Moscow has helped evacuate Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Uzbeks from Syria. Currently, no Russian visas are being granted to Circassian Syrians.
“While the war ravages Syria and Circassian refugees suffer," Barsik said, "the biggest and most expensive party the world has ever seen is taking place in Russia."