Why Circassians are none too happy about the Olympics this year:
The Circassians are an umbrella designation for many ethnic groups from the eastern coast of the Black Sea. In the first half of the nineteenth century, they waged a war against Russia’s expansion into the North Caucasus, which they lost. The Russian Empire annexed their territories, and then either ‘encouraged’ them to emigrate or simply expelled them outright. Nearly 90% of Circassians went into exile. Tsar Alexander II, known as the Liberator (of Russian peasants), proclaimed victory over the Circassian ‘rebels’ in 1864.
The date of 1864 makes 2014 the 150th anniversary of the Circassian expulsion. From the Sochi coast, ships loaded with Circassian refugees set sail for the Ottoman Empire. Circassians died in thousands on the journey, of hunger and disease. The triumphant parade of Russian troops, marking the end of the war, took place on May 21, 1864 in Krasnaya Polyana, site of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Keating looks at the actions of the Circassian diaspora:
Today there are about 3 million to 5 million Circassians living abroad and about 700,000 in the Caucasus. The post-Soviet Russian government has been slow to recognize the extent of what happened to the group and has strongly resisted attempts to label it as genocide—the anti-Russian government of nearby Georgia did so in 2011— portraying Circassian nationalism as merely an outgrowth of the region’s Islamic radicalism. The global community commemorates Circassian Genocide Memorial Day every May 21.
However, the decision to hold the games in the symbolically important city of Sochi has focused new attention on the issue, with Circassian activists in New Jersey launching an international campaign against the “genocide Olympics.” The group has been protesting since Vancouver, and one of its pamphlets informs athletes that they’ll be “skiing on mass graves.” It’s possible that local activists may attempt to stage some sort of opposition at the games themselves, though the authorities have been coming down hard on protests of all kinds.
But the international protests haven’t gotten much attention:
[T]he only high-profile ally the Circassians have won is Doku Umarov, leader of the Islamist insurgence that has grown out of Chechnya’s shattered independence bid, and whose allies recently blew themselves up in the city of Volgograd. “They plan to stage the Olympic Games on the bones of the many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea. We, the Mujahedeen, must not allow this to happen,” Umarov was quoted on his website as saying last summer.
The Circassians could do without such support, since they reject violence and activists’ long-term goal is to regain their homeland. It’s an ambitious aim, a kind of Caucasus Zionism, but the activists think it is feasible. “It might not be easy for the immigrants who are going to the Caucasus, that first generation, but their children are going to be fine. It’ll just be like when my parents came to the U.S.,” said Tamara Barsik, a Circassian-American who lives in New Jersey.
In the meantime, they’ll have to watch the Sochi Olympics on television, like everyone else.
(Photo: Circassians commemorate the banishment of the Circassians from Russia in Taksim, Istanbul. From Wikimedia Commons)