The Circassian Olympics: dark history on the Black Sea

IT IS SOMETHING of a sport amongst journalists to write of problems and controversies in the lead up to any Olympic Games. The shortcomings – and down-to-the-wire preparation dramas – of said games are usually manifestly apparent, so journalists don’t have to dig too deep to unearth them.

This is no less the case as we approach the Winter Olympics set to begin in Sochi, Russia, later this week. Sochi 2014 has been bedevilled by complaints of environmental destruction and exploitation of workers in the scramble to prepare. Writer Arnold van Bruggen, who has been visiting Sochi for years, highlights in The Sochi Project the remarkable disparity between the purported glamour of the event and the plight of the region surrounding the new Olympic venues.

Beyond that, the contentious human rights situation in Putin’s Russia has prompted many to wonder why the International Olympic Committee, an organisation whose charter speaks loftily of ‘the harmonious development of man’, promoting ‘a peaceful society’ and ‘the preservation of human dignity’, should have awarded them to Russia in the first place.

Most remarkable is the crassness of the IOC in choosing to overlook the symbolism of the timing of the games. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Russia’s smothering of the Circassians, the indigenous people of Sochi and the north-eastern Black Sea littoral. Circassians claim that the military onslaught visited on their people by Imperial Russia constitutes a genocide. Journalist Oliver Bullough details the background and mournful details of this ‘squalid campaign of attrition and slaughter’ in his terrific Let Our Fame Be Great. (See a brief review I wrote of the book here). Circassian activists continue to rally for the recognition by Russia of the reality of those events and decry the celebration of the games in that particular location at this particular time, marking May 21 in particular as a memorial day.

Pyotr_Nikolayevich_Gruzinsky_-_The_mountaineers_leave_the_aul-1872Circassian comes to us from the Turkish Çerkez (pron: Cher-kez), but they refer to themselves as Adyghe, a name which in their own language is said to denote them as a people who dwelt between the mountains and the sea, making them coastal Caucasian highlanders(!). It is thanks to the reputed beauty of Circassian women that ethnographer Johann Blumenbach classified Indo-European peoples as ‘Caucasian’ in his now discredited hierarchy of races.

Like many indigenous peoples of the north Caucasus, the Circassians are adherents of Sunni Islam, which was introduced to them by the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans, who were nominal rulers over the Circassian realm from the mid-16th century until the 1820s. Prior to conversion to Islam they had their own ethnic religion, Habze, which was a monotheistic world view shot through with elements of Greek mythology and which has undergone something of a resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The final stanza of Russia’s monstering of the Circassians was the exodus across the Black Sea of large numbers of refugees who fetched up in Ottoman territory. Today there are sizeable Circassian communities in Turkey (anywhere between 2 and 5 million, depending on how you do the counting) as well as in Israel, Jordan and Syria. The descendants of the Circassian refugees are well integrated into Turkish society and are highly regarded for their martial virtues, having a long tradition of serving in the Turkish military.

My first encounter with Circassians was when hearing of them from my students in İzmir in the mid-90s. They spoke of the reputation for beauty of Çerkez women, their propensity to keep scrupulously clean homes and a dish called Çerkez chicken (poached with a ground-walnut sauce). I was intrigued that at a time when ethnicity was such a hot topic (this was the peak of the PKK campaign against the Turkish army) that the Circassians’ cultural distinctiveness was so openly discussed. But then, the Circassians, like many other peoples who arrived in Turkey from the Balkans and the Caucasus at the encroachment of European powers in the late 19th and early 20th century, willingly assumed a Turkish national identity, something many Kurds refused to do. (A great irony here is that the Circassian language is all but lost in Turkey, the country that gave them safe harbour, but in Russia, where they were monstered, it is still spoken.) For all the sympathy in Turkey for the Circassian cause, the Turkish government, for fear of upsetting Russia, a major power supplier, has been unwilling to heed calls to boycott the games.

Sobranie_cherkesskikh_knyazey-gregoire-gagarinRussia is certainly touchy about the Circassian issue being pushed into the spotlight and anxious to forestall any Circassian agitation during the games. Several Circassian activists were rounded up late last year, presumably to scare them into silence, while a Turkish journalist who specialises in Caucasian issues, Fehim Taştekin, has fallen foul of authorities and has been banned from entering Russia for five years. Still, anyone with a particular axe to grind about Caucasus affairs shouldn’t feel singled out: it appears Russia doesn’t want any disturbance in any form during the games.

There is considerable concern from many quarters, Russian and others alike, at the prospect of terrorism at the games. The north Caucasus has been a troubled region for decades (if you read Bullough’s Let Our Fame be Great you may see why certain peoples bear such ill will towards Russia) with several unsavoury terrorist groups at large and operational there. But Circassian advocacy groups have denounced the recent terrorist bombings and Volgograd and have repudiated all terror tactics, remarking that they seek to pursue “the unity, preservation and development of the Circassian people” through legitimate means. The No Sochi 2014 campaign highlights that the expulsion of the Circassians from Sochi in the 1860s was an act of violence and terrorism, and perpetrating the same in response cannot redress past wrongs.

One positive that has arisen out of the furore directed at the Sochi games is the reawakening of Circassian political identity in Turkey and elsewhere. As reported on Al Monitor, where once Circassian associations in Turkey were all about ‘folklore’, the thought that Russia should attain the international spotlight hosting a games upon the very ground where the Caucasian highlanders were massacred has catalysed Circassians to demand recognition of the horrors visited upon their ancestors. With mobilisation has come a sense of unity, of identity; perhaps also a chance to acknowledge some of the agonies of the past and, in so doing, salve them.