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 allegedly causing injuries to snowboarders. And there are the globally alarming issues, like environmental destruction, oppressive government policies, and the very real threat of terrorism.
Often left off the list of problems with Sochi, however, 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 Caucasus systematically massacred and then drove the region's ethnic Circassians toward the coast, where they were finally defeated — at Sochi. The Russians then either forced Circassians to board ships bound for Turkey, or expelled them to Siberia. In the process, countless more died of starvation and disease.
Today, there are about 8 million Circassians living mainly 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 awareness 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 millionaire oligarchs and European tourists drawn by the subtropical seaside community nestled close to snow-capped mountains. 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.
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 region have, like other activists in Russia, faced arrest, detention, and beatings by 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. "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 VICE News.
Just last week, New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. delivered a speech on the floor of the US 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 Vladimir 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, a large number 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 if any 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."