The Sochi Winter Olympics – What’s going on behind the curtain?

I’ve never been a big follower of the Winter Olympic Games. Ski-jumping, bob-sledding and the icy arts of curling were not much in vogue in the semi-rural beach suburbs of Auckland’s North Shore where I grew up. I can list the venues of the Summer Olympics in unbroken succession back to Helsinki, 1952 – but I would struggle to tell you one for the Winter Games . . . until this year.
This year, the Year of Our Lord 2014, I can confidently tell you the XXII Winter Olympic Games and the XI Paralympic Games (what is it with those Roman numerals?) will be held in Sochi. And I can further inform you that Sochi is a small city on Russia’s Black Sea coast near the Georgian border, with, somewhat surprisingly for Russia and a Winter Olympics venue, a sub-tropical climate. Two million tourists, mostly from the frozen wastes of more northerly regions, flock to the beaches of Sochi in summer – a fact that may explain some of what follows.
A little slice of Caucasian paradise
click for more

Needless to say, few of the winter sporting events will be held in the city itself. Sochi’s other major geographical appeal is its location on the fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, a lofty range with several peaks rising over 5,000 metres. Here is located the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana, and as an interesting aside, Sochi is also, they tell me, where tennis heart-throb Maria Sharapova picked up a racquet at the age of four and took her first lessons in the sport.

Sad to say, this small piece of heaven on Earth seems to be attracting a good deal of unwelcome attention which is why, for the first time, the Winter Olympic Games have attracted mine. On 29 and 30 December, two bomb attacks killed at least 31 people in the city of Volgograd some 600 km northeast of Sochi. An earlier attack in October took seven lives, raising some fears for the safety of spectators and athletes at the Games. There seems to be some confusion about the reason for the violence in the collective mind of news media in the West. Say ‘Muslim’ and, as with the psychiatrist’s technique of word association, the inevitable responses are ‘terrorists’, ‘Arabs’, ‘Al Qaeda’, and ‘Axis of Evil’
An article in Time on 6 January was entitledGhosts of Munich Haunt Sochi Olympics in Wake of Russia Bombings’. The writer had interviewed the Vice President of Israel’s Olympic committee in an attempt to draw a parallel with the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, when a group of Palestinians invaded the Israeli athletes’ quarters killing eleven athletes before five of their own number were killed. Only towards the end of the piece did the writer (prompted by the Israeli VP) concede that the Russian events have nothing to do with Israel, Palestine or any other Arabs. So what, you may ask, was the purpose of that Timeheadline?
Reuters, as we might expect, provided slightly more informative article. They identified the suicide bomber as a woman (or a man) from Dagestan, ‘a hub of Islamist militancy on the Caspian’. They referred to Chechen insurgents who ‘want to carve an Islamic state out of the swathe of mainly Muslim provinces south of Volgograd’and to ‘North Caucasus militants [who] have also staged attacks in Moscow and other cities, the most recent in the capital being an airport suicide bombing three years ago that killed 37 people.’  Reference was made to the fact that Volgograd was previously known as Stalingrad, with positive memories for Russians but hated by Chechens for its association with the wartime dictator who deported masses of them to inhuman conditions in Siberia. In the end however, the article seemed to accept President Putin’s attempt to relate the bombings to Afghanistan, Syria and 9/11. A White House spokesperson and British PM David Cameron expressed sympathy and solidarity with Russia, the latter offering unconditional support.
Well, we need not be surprised that the average citizens of the United States or Kingdom have no idea about the whereabouts of Sochi, or its turbulent history. The pressure-cooker weapons of mass destruction that created havoc at last year’s Boston Marathon were allegedly detonated by two brothers of Chechen extraction – and apparently generated a good deal of hate mail on social media directed at the innocent citizens of the Czech Republic. On the other hand, there is no excuse for ignorance among leaders of the ‘Free World’. For a stone-cold certainty, the Russian Government knows exactly what the problem is, even if they would prefer the rest of us to join in the festivities and/or mind our own business. They will be quite happy, I expect, if feminists in the Ukraine continue baring their breasts to the winter chills, and Western concerns focus mainly on the treatment of gays and lesbians in Mother Russia.
‘Before 1864’, Wikipedia tells me, ‘Sochi was a Muslim town’. Now it seems, of a total population of 420,589, a mere 20,000 (less than five percent) profess that faith, and the city has no mosque where they can worship. How did this situation come about? What happened in and around that town in 1864 is crucial to an understanding of the controversy surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In fact, that year saw the culmination of a process that had been going on for 300 years. The Muslim Ottoman Empire had reached the zenith of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) in the mid-16th century. As its glory days and influence receded, one of the chief beneficiaries was the expanding Empire of Russia. These two neighbours fought fourteen wars during those three centuries, resulting increasingly in Russian victories and loss of Ottoman territory. Collateral casualties, as the Russians pushed their borders towards the warm waters of the Black Sea, were the Muslim inhabitants of the Crimea and Caucasus regions who were either killed or expelled from their homes.
There’s more to this business
than meets the eye
The end stages of this southern expansion began in 1834 when Russia moved to complete its conquest of the Caucasus region. Impeding the push were various groups in Chechnya, and Dagestan, the Circassians and several other Caucasian tribes. The conflict went on for thirty years with some release of pressure when Russia was briefly diverted by the Crimean War. It eventually ended, predictably, with Russian victory in that fateful year whose 150th anniversary the losers and their descendants will commemorate as the world’s winter sports athletes gather to compete in the city which witnessed the final expulsion of Circassian Muslims from their ancestral home.
Clearly we must admire the courage and determination of the Circassians and their neighbours in holding off the Russian advance for those thirty years. Interestingly, they did receive some outside support. It seems that the British Government, while fighting the Muslim Ottomans in the Aegean to establish the independence of a Christian Greek Kingdom, were hedging their bets in the Caucasus by supplying the Muslim locals with arms and ammunition in their struggle against Christian Russia. There was actually an incident in 1836 where a British schooner, the Vixen, laden with military supplies, was detained by the Russian navy, creating an international incident that almost led to war between the two great powers.
At that stage, however, the Brits were not ready to engage in war with Russia, at least not for the sake of the Muslim inhabitants of a region few of their citizens had heard of.  The Wikipedia entry on Sochi includes a table showing population growth over a period of 123 years until 2010 when it exceed 400,000. In 1887 the total population of the city was 98!
Exactly how many civilians lost their lives is the subject of debate. The Circassian Cultural Institute claims that more than a million Circassian men, women and children were killed, and a similar number were expelled from their homeland. Bryan Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, suggests a figure of 600,000 deaths and ‘hundreds of thousands more’ forcibly expelled in what he calls ‘modern Europe’s first genocide’. Most of those were crowded on to ships at the port of Sochi and dispatched across the Black Sea to the Anatolian coast where Ottoman authorities attempted to cope with the vast influx of impoverished refugees.
It does not require a great stretch of imagination to make a comparison with the present-day situation in Syria, where rebels are undoubtedly receiving arms and other support from outside, and Turkey is having to deal with more than a million fugitives from the conflict. At least the Syrian refugees are able to walk across the border, and modern medical supplies are available to treat serious health problems. Back in 1864 some of the ships sank with great loss of life, and diseases were rife amongst the survivors on arrival in the unsanitary conditions of refugee camps. According to Professor Williams, 75 percent of the Circassian population was ‘annihilated’.
It is against this background that the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on 7 February. No doubt Russian security forces and the International Olympic Committee will do their best to ensure that the games go ahead – while supporters of the Circassian cause have pledged to do theirs to prevent them. David Satter, Russian analyst on CNN, accused the IOC of irresponsibility in ‘indulging [President] Putin’s desire for a propaganda spectacular’. He claimed that Putin made a direct approach to the Committee and pledged $12 billon in preparations, ‘twice what was proposed by the other two candidates’. In fact, according to Businessweek, expenditure on the Sochi games has now exceeded $51 billion, making them the most expensive in Olympic history, far exceeding the $40 billion spent by China on the 2008 summer games.

Whether or not the cost will bring commensurate benefits to Russia, only time will tell. One thing, however, is certain – the Sochi Winter Olympics are providing a golden opportunity for Circassians to bring their historical grievances to the attention of the world.

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