More Papal Palaver

The best form of defence is a good attack. It’s an adage applicable to a range of human activities, from chess to warfare – and even religious leaders, it seems, sometimes employ the tactic. The Catholic Church has a bunch of problems these days, from empty pews in its monumental temples, to those pesky accusations of paedophilia and other kinds of institutional child abuse that just won’t go away. So I guess if I were the Pope of Rome I’d probably take time off occasionally from excommunication and beatification duties to go after a soft target or two with the aim of distracting opponents and critics.

pope and noah

Two  old guys in fancy dress pouring water on Noah’s Ark. Are they for real?

And indeed, there he is, dear old Pope Francis, God bless him, visiting his tiny RC flock in Armenia, and taking time, while there, to reaffirm his recent support for Armenian genocidists. One thing he loves about Armenia, apparently, is that its people were the first to make Christianity their official state religion, way back in 301 CE. I guess in his position, he’d have to be a fan of rulers enforcing religious uniformity – though personally, I’m inclined to the view that that’s where most of the intolerance, persecution and violence starts.

Anyway, Francis is firmly of the opinion that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide on poor inoffensive Armenians a hundred years or so ago, that it was the first genocide of the 20th century, and one of its big three holocaustic events. By voicing these statements in his official capacity as leader of an estimated 1.27 billion Roman Catholics, he undoubtedly knows that he is giving powerful tacit support to those who want to hold the modern Republic of Turkey responsible.

Well, once again, I’m not going to get involved in the debate of who did what to how many of whom and when they did it. I do, however, want to take issue with the Pope’s jaw-dropping cultural arrogance in selectively focusing on the 20th century, and on Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and the Ottoman Empire as the worst offenders. First off, that gentleman is boss and CEO of a trans-national organisation that has been persecuting, torturing, enslaving, war-mongering, genociding and paedophiling for most of its 2,000 year history. OK, they’ve done some good stuff along the way too, but come on! That’s not just a glasshouse you’re living in, Frank. It’s a monumental crystal palace built on a foundation of quicksand!

George Clooney

George Clooney was there – but the Kardashians couldn’t make it this time.

And then what’s the big deal with the 20th century? Why pick an arbitrary cut-off point like 1900 CE for your moralising? As if I didn’t know. As far as the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims are concerned (beating the Catholic’s best estimate by 30 million), it was the year 1416, dating from the Hijra of Muhammad and his followers to the city of Medina. The Year of Our Christian Lord 1900 equated roughly to 4597 in the Chinese calendar, and 5660 for those of the Jewish faith. Just another year, in other words. Remember the doomsayers forecasting worldwide computer failure, financial meltdown, and apocalypse now for the year 2000? And what happened? If there is a God out there somewhere, I’m fairly sure He/She doesn’t give a monkey’s whatsit for calendars, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian or whatever.

Still, from Popey’s point-of-view, ignoring those previous 1,900 years allows him to erase some pretty horrendous demographic obliterations. Modern scholarship suggests that the pre-Columbian population of the Americas could have been up to 100 million. Admittedly not all of the deaths were deliberately caused by the Roman Catholic Church in particular and Western Europeans in general – but undoubtedly their actions directly and indirectly led to near total extinction – and the new-comers weren’t too unhappy to see them go.

He can overlook the Roman Catholic Inquisition and the ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian peninsula that turned a scientifically progressive and culturally diverse multi-religious, multi-ethnic society under comparatively tolerant Islamic rule to an exclusively Christian RC preserve where Muslims and Jews were tortured, massacred or forced to migrate. Most of the survivors ended up in the Ottoman Empire whose Islamic government welcomed them with open arms.

Slave sale

Bucks and wenches – people, actually.

Well, maybe you think that’s going back too far in time. OK, let’s think about the contribution made by slave labour and the slave trade to the British Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the USA as an industrial power in the 19th century. According to Wikipedia the transatlantic slave trade uprooted and transported more than eleven million Africans between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Possibly four million more died after being captured and before they even boarded a slave ship. 1.5 million are estimated to have died on the journey, and many more died young as a result of the brutality of living and working conditions. From the 17th century, Britain became the main slave-trading nation, and industrial towns like Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester benefitted greatly from exporting goods such as guns to Africa, selling the slaves purchased, and importing the produce of slave-labour, such as sugar and cotton. Admittedly most Brits were C of E, and not Catholic, but it obviously suits the Western/European version of history to gloss over these realities – and African Americans are still waiting to be ‘paid for the work they done’.

That 1900 date cut-off also conveniently allows the omission of other war crimes and near-genocidal campaigns carried out by the British Empire during the 19th century: violent and punitive ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Maori in New Zealand, the Aboriginal tribes in Australia, the Zulus in South Africa – and the war of 1899-1901 where the Brits are credited with having invented the concentration camp to facilitate their aggression against Boer farmers. We can forget the ruthless brutality with which British rulers suppressed the Indian rebellion in 1857-59, calling it a ‘mutiny’. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 Indians died, most of them as a result of a ‘no prisoners, no mercy’ policy of revenge carried out by the British Army after the rebellion was defeated.

No event in history takes place in a vacuum. There are always reasons and causes not always acknowledged when the victors write their version of history. Ottoman rulers had learned, during the 19th century, what would happen to Muslims when parts of their empire and its hinterland were ‘liberated’ by ‘Christian’ Powers. Muslims were massacred or expelled when the Kingdom of Greece was established in the 1820s. The process was repeated as Imperial Russia expanded southwards into Crimea and the Caucasus – culminating in an event remembered by descendants of survivors as the Circassian Genocide in 1864.

But let’s accept Pope Francis’s arbitrary date for a moment, and consider how sincere he really is in looking for suffering peoples to sympathise with. Exception has been taken to his repeating of the claim that the Armenian tragedy was the first genocide of the 20th century. That honour apparently can rightly be claimed by Germany, and their ‘attempted annihilation of the Herero in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) from 1904 to 1907’.


Selective remembering – and forgetting.

Possibly Francis decided not to count official world wars in his brief list, but it seems a pity not to mention World War One, believed by many to have been brought about by an unholy alliance of European Imperialists and capitalist financiers. Seventeen million combatants and non-combatants died and a further twenty million were wounded. He may also have decided to gloss over France’s unsuccessful war to prevent Algerian Independence. Depending on which side you’re listening to, between 350,000 and 1.5 million died between 1954 and 1962, mostly Algerians.

Similar disagreement exists over how many Iraqis died as a result of the United States’ invasion in 2003. Estimates range from 151,000 to over a million – but possibly their importance is lessened by being of the wrong religion. We do seem to know with greater accuracy the number of US military personnel who lost their lives: 4,491. It’s too early to put a figure on the civil war in Syria. Again estimates vary widely, ranging from 140,200 to 470,000. Al-Jazeera claims that 10.9 million, or almost half the population of Syria, have been displaced and 3.8 million have been made refugees.

So it’s not surprising that there is disagreement over how many Armenians died back there in the early 20th century. Of course even the lowest estimate adds up to a terrible tragedy that should never be forgotten. On the other hand, selective remembering and forgetting of historical events almost always has a political purpose, and seekers after truth should be open-minded in their search. Photographs can be used to dishonestly stir emotions – even those taken in the days before Photoshop. Anecdotal evidence also has emotive power, but historians at least cannot rely merely on first-hand accounts of ‘survivors’.

Joseph Hirt

There’s the tattoo right there, see?

A recent item on CBS News highlights the danger. ‘A 91-year-old Pennsylvania man who has for years lectured to school groups and others about what he said were his experiences at Auschwitz now says he was never a prisoner at the German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.’ The admission came after a New York high school history teacher made inquiries when his suspicions were aroused. Joseph Hirt had apparently gone to the extent of having a false prisoner identification number tattooed on his arm.

So, Pope Francis – I am suspicious of your motives.


A Stroll through Nature and History – Yıldız Park and Abdülhamit II

The storks are back. I saw a muster of them a week or so ago. Or it could have been a phalanx. According to Wikipedia, the terms are interchangeable. Whatever, there were hundreds of them circling in the sky over the financial district of Levent as I headed home from work. In fact the birds don’t nest in Istanbul, but they gather here twice a year as they depart for, or return from their annual migration to warmer climes for the winter.

Red tulips

Spring tulips in Yıldız Park

So another spring is with us in Turkey. The swallows flew in a week before the storks, Persephone is on leave from Hades, and at least two ‘cemre’ (djemreh) have fallen. What’s a ‘cemre’, you may ask. Well, despite its being a Turkish word, I have yet to find anyone who can actually give a definition. Nevertheless, three of them are said to fall in the spring time, warming the air, the water and the earth – and then it’s summer.

In recent years the Istanbul Metropolitan Council has sponsored a tulip festival, and this year they’ve planted 8.5 million bulbs in parks around the city. This man-made riot of colour supplements the display of the ubiquitous erguvan (Judas tree) that splashes both banks of the Bosporus with dense bunches of purple blossom. You’ve got a brief two-week window of opportunity, so if you’re in town, you need to get out and feast your eyes. This year our choice settled on Yıldız Park.


Yıldız sincabı – Check out the squirrels

Yıldız is an interesting and picturesque area located on the slopes above the coastal districts of Beşiktaş and Ortaköy on the European side of Istanbul. Despite hysterical claims three years ago that the government was destroying the city’s last green areas, Yıldız Park is just one of its many beautiful natural reserves. These 29 hectares (73 acres) of semi-wilderness and ordered gardens are what remain of a forest formerly used for hunting by Byzantine and Ottoman aristocrats. Probably what saved this remnant for posterity was being chosen as a safe haven by one of the last Ottoman Sultans.

Abdülhamit II was the 34th Padishah, and one of its longest-reigning, ascending the throne in 1876 with the empire facing external threats on all its borders, as well internal rebellions, and managing to survive until deposed in 1909. In spite of, or possibly because of, holding a beleaguered fort for 33 years as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around him, Abdülhamit is regarded in the West as some kind of devil incarnate – and his time on the throne, even in Turkey, as a period to be quietly avoided.


Sultan Abdülhamit II, 2nd from the right

Nevertheless, I have to tell you, I’ve got some sympathy for the man. A little like George VI of England, Abdülhamit ascended the throne somewhat unexpectedly. However, George’s rise to monarchic splendour came as a result of his older brother’s infra dig marriage to an American divorcee. Abdülhamit’s elder sibling was forcibly removed from office after a brief 93 days on the throne. This was the second such event in a matter of months, the royal princes’ uncle, Abdülaziz, having been deposed by his ministers earlier in the year. Uncle Aziz was found dead five days later – whether by his own hand or that of another, history does not tell us. So it was an inauspicious beginning for the 34 year-old Abdülhamit, and the fact that he retained his throne for 33 years is testament at least to his commitment and determination.

Things were not going well for the Ottoman Empire, and had not been for some time. The Great Powers of Europe, in particular, Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire (where are they now?), and Russia, were keen to see it disappear, and to pick up the pieces for themselves. After 1870, two Johnnie-come-latelies, Italy and Germany, appeared on the scene, with similar intentions. All that really stood between the Ottomans and final dissolution was the self-seeking determination of each of those European powers to see that they got the best bits and the others didn’t.

So the Ottomans survived Russia’s expansionist plans in the 1850s because Britain and France decided it was in their interests to help out. They were fast losing interest, however. Russia’s pretext for starting the Crimean War, its ‘altruistic’ desire to champion the Ottoman’s oppressed Christian minorities, was recognised as a clever ploy, and that was the beginning of the end.

Yıldiz mosque & palace

Yıldız Palace and Hamidiye Mosque – fading glories of the 600-year Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire had for centuries been an obstacle to European incursions into Asia, and to Russian desire for access to the Mediterranean Sea. When the Suez Canal was opened under French control in 1869, that region suddenly assumed even greater importance for European trade. John D. Rockefeller founded his Standard Oil Company a year later, and ‘black gold’ slowly began to assume crucial significance. Put two and two together, and you can see why the downfall of the declining Ottoman Empire was pretty much signed and sealed. – and why its 34th Sultan was on a hiding to nothing when he got the big job.

Interestingly, despite his reputation in some circles for despotism and bloody massacres of innocent minorities, there had been expectations that Abdülhamit would continue the modernisation and democratisation processes set in motion by his father Abdülmecit (ruled 1839-61). Circumstances were against him, however.

  • In 1860 Christian-minority Maronites rose up in Lebanon and established a peasant republic. Pretty advanced stuff for Middle Eastern peasants in those days! Britain and France threatened to intervene on their behalf, and the Ottomans were obliged to accept a Christian governor in Lebanon.
  • In 1860 there was a rebellion on the island of Crete in support of enosis – union with the recently established ‘independent’ kingdom of Greece. ‘Christian’ Greeks claimed that Muslims had massacred Greeks, in spite of which, the latter managed to seize control of the island with the assistance of thousands of Greek troops from the mainland.
  • The Russian invasion of the Caucasus saw Crimean and Circassian Muslims massacred and displaced, and hundreds of thousands of them sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after the Russians final victory in 1864.
  • The ‘Balkan Crisis’ began in 1875 as the Habsburgs and Russia attempted to annex Ottoman territory. Public opinion in Europe was aroused by reports that the Ottoman administration was using bashi-bazouk troops to commit atrocities against the innocent local Christians. In fact there were atrocities committed by both sides, of course. The bashi-bazouks admittedly had a long-standing grudge since most of them were recently settled Crimeans and Circassians who had seen first-hand what Christians did to Muslims.
  • In June 1876, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire with the tacit support of Austria-Hungary and Russia. The European Powers held a conference in Istanbul/Constantinople to sort the issue out, but neglected to invite the Ottomans.
  • Meanwhile, in 1877, the Russians opened a new front threatening the Ottomans in the Caucasus. Their forces, led by Armenian commanders, captured several Ottoman towns in the east, and laid siege to others. What happened to the Muslims out there is generally overlooked in Western historical accounts – but it may well have contributed to later events when the Ottomans regained control.
  • Back in the west, Russian forces were at the gates of the Ottoman capital, whatever you like to call it (Constantinople? Istanbul?), and it was only the threat of intervention by the British Royal Navy that brought about a truce. And while everyone was looking the other way, the Brits grabbed the island of Cyprus.

The cost of all this to the Ottoman administration was disastrous: great losses of territory, not to mention prestige; a huge influx of impoverished refugees from the new ‘Christianised’ countries; enormous expenses leading to crippling debt; and a reputation in the West for savagery and barbarity Turks are still struggling to live down.

So poor Sultan Abdülhamit was up against it right from the start. Other supposedly enlightened nations have resorted to a state of emergency and suspension of freedoms with less reason – and yes, our man did suspend the recently introduced constitution. Well, I guess there are times when democracy just doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. And it was obvious that even his own ‘loyal’ governing classes were all-too-ready-and-willing to depose their monarch in times of trouble.

Erguvan and Bosporus

Judas trees flowering in Yıldız Park

But what about Yıldiz Park, and Istanbul in the springtime? What happened to that story? Well, the new sultan clearly felt that his father’s palace, Dolmabahçe, designed by his Armenian architects, and beautifully located on a spectacular Bosporus-shore location, was a little vulnerable. Consequently he took the decision to built a new home for himself a little further from the sea higher up in the forest. Possibly by this time, Armenians were shifting their loyalties, and responsibility for the royal building programme had been handed over to an Italian, Raimondo D’Aronco.

The palace complex comprised a number of buildings including accommodation for visiting dignitaries, a theatre and opera house, and a porcelain factory. Most of these buildings are now open to the public, apart from one retained by the government for receptions and office space. The Chalet Pavilion, where the sultan lived with his family, is now a museum, as is the carpentry workshop. Among Abdülhamit’s many hobbies and interests, he was a skilled carpenter/cabinet-maker and much of the furniture in the palace was made with his own hands. The porcelain factory still produces exclusive pieces for the high-end market – though more European than Ottoman in design, and they don’t appeal to me much.

In spite of his evident interest in Western technology and culture, Abdülhamit began to turn increasingly towards the practice of Islam, and his role as Caliph, leader of the world’s Muslims. This is hardly surprising, given that Christian subjects of the empire, despite having been allowed to build their schools and churches, practice their religion, speak their languages, educate their children, hold important positions in the empire, make pot-loads of money, and generally mind their own business for centuries, were beginning to seek support from foreign imperialists.

Interestingly Abdülhamit, in his capacity of Caliph, is said to have supported the United States’ conquest of the Philippines by requesting that Muslims there accept and support US sovereignty – which they duly did, and scant thanks the Ottoman Sultan got in return. It just goes to show, huh?

Tunuslu Şeyh Muhammed Zafir

Abdülhamit’s personal spiritual teacher

Anyway, the Sultan, as one might expect of an educated man, was interested in the mystical aspects of religion, and in fact was a follower of one of the Sufi dervish sects. The Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, on the right as you walk up the hill from Beşiktaş, was dedicated to the Shadhili (Şazeli) Sufi order, and the Sultan’s personal spiritual guide, Sheikh Hamza Zafir, is buried in the grounds[1]. The mosque itself is named for Ertuğrul Gazi, father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Further reflecting Abdülhamit’s focus on his Ottoman roots, another mosque in the grounds of the Central Military HQ further up the hill, bears the name of Orhan, son of Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan.

A third mosque, grandest of the three, and worth a visit, except that it is currently undergoing extensive restoration, is the imperial Yıldız Hamidiye, completed in 1886 in a combination of Neo-Gothic and traditional Ottoman architecture. The long, narrow Serencebey Park that now isolates these historic buildings from the frenetic traffic of Barbaros Boulevard used to be a public square, and was the site of an assassination attempt on the Sultan in 1905 by Armenians seeking revenge for the much publicised ‘Hamidian Massacres’ – which perhaps need to be seen in the context of our earlier historical discussion.


Turkey’s President Erdoğan hosting Germany’s Merkel at Yıldız Palace

I suggest a walk starting from the ferry buildings in Beşiktaş, up the hill through the Serencebey Park where, apart from the mosques, you will pass the statue of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, revolutionary poet, politician and diplomat, who spent some years in voluntary exile in Paris because of his opposition to Abdülhamit. Clearly there is ambivalence in Turkey about their Ottoman heritage. After passing the campus of Yıdız Technical University, take a right at the traffic lights and cross over the motorway leading to the Bosporus Bridge. You’ll catch some intriguing glimpses of the bridge and the strait before arriving at the gate of Yıldız Park. Enjoy the peace, the trees, the flowers and the wildlife. Visit the porcelain factory shop. Stop for a coffee, a snack or a meal at one of the several cafes and restaurants. Pay a visit to the Chalet Museum. Emerge at sea level beside another stylish little mosque of the period, Küçük Mecidiye, opposite the gates of Çırağan Palace, now a five-star Kempinski hotel. Stroll back to Beşiktaş to complete your circuit. It’ll be a day well spent.


[1] As an aside, Sheikh Shadili, founder of the sect, is reputed to have discovered coffee drinking in the Arabian town of Mocha, way back in the 13th century, whence the practice journeyed slowly westwards, eventually reaching America – another thing they don’t seem very grateful for.

The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey – Remembering another genocide

You may or may not be aware of the fact, but this Thursday, 21 May, will be commemorated by the global Circassian community as the anniversary of the day in 1864 when their ancestors were finally extirpated from the homeland by the forces of Czarist Russia. An interesting and timely review appeared in the English language daily Hürriyet today. The book itself looks a little expensive but you can get the general gist here:

‘The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey: A Political History’ by Zeynel Abidin Besleney (Routledge, 224 pages, £84)

Activists seeking recognition of the Circassian genocide

Activists seeking recognition of the Circassian genocide

“In the list of ethnicities he likes to recite in speeches praising Turkey’s multicultural richness, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always gives a shout out to Circassians. Unlike the Christian minorities that are routinely ignored in Erdoğan’s public rallies, referring to Circassians carries no political cost. Circassian identity has a fairly low profile in Turkey and Circassian-origin Turks tend to have a fairly limited “national consciousness.”

“The Circassians first came to Anatolia in significant numbers during the 19th century, when up to a million were forced out of their homeland in the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire. Never having the strength to bring together the ethnicities of the largely Sunni Muslim North Caucasus as a united state, Circassia as a country ceased to exist. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians were killed or died, and their land – emptied of its native inhabitants – was offered to ethnic Russians and Cossack settlers. Some people today refer to the events of 1859-64 as the first modern genocide.

“The vast majority of survivors found refuge across the Black Sea in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The many tribal and ethnic groups arriving from the North Caucasus fitted into the multinational Ottoman patchwork, which accommodated Circassianness without imposing an obligation to assimilate. Estimates vary, but today there are thought to be around 2-3 million citizens of Circassian origin in Turkey, and many from the community have risen to the highest stations in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Many Circassians played a key role on the ground in the massacres of Ottoman Christians in 1915.

“This book by scholar Zeynel Abidil Besleney is the most detailed study available of the political development of the Circassian community in Turkey over the past few decades.

Read more

I was also interested to discover that there is another university in the United States that has a Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Newark College of Arts and Sciences University College has a page worth visiting if you are genuinely interested in the subject of genocide. Here’s a brief extract:

Map showing destinations of Circassians expelled from their homeland up to 1864

Map showing destinations of Circassians expelled from their homeland up to 1864

The destruction of the Circassians – who call themselves “Adyghe” – and other indigenous groups of the Caucasus were part of Tsarist Russia’s conquest of the region during the middle-half of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, the Russians aimed to extend its imperial sovereignty and supplant the mostly tribal-based, Islamic-infused population with Slavic, Russophile settlers. A stringent indigenous resistance was brutally put down by the Russians, especially under Tsar Alexander II, who was Emperor of the Russian Empire from 1855 through the end of the Caucasian War in 1864. By the end, hundreds of thousands of Circassians and other indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated, mostly to the Ottoman Empire but also to the lowland regions of the Caucasus where the Russians would better control them. A significant portion of the Circassian population was killed, as the Russians waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign. Thus removed from their ancestral homeland, the Circassians have been uprooted and scattered ever since.” Read more

Selective Amnesia – Armenian tragedy ignites international hypocrisy

The New York Times claims a readership of 1.3 million. I’m not going to examine here who owns the company and what their motives might be for constantly publishing anti-Turkey material – I’m sure those readers are educated, intelligent people well aware that there may be another side to the stories told on the Times’s paper and digital pages.

For Turkey, it's 18 March. Who else is interested?

For Turkey, it’s 18 March. Who else is interested?

I had resolved a year or so ago that I would stop writing about the issue of what happened to the Armenians back in 1915. I felt I had pretty much covered all aspects of the business and nothing remained to be said. Alas, the sad fact is that the same specious arguments keep repeating. This year especially, the centennial of whatever it was that happened, there has been a major campaign to flood the news media with impassioned cries for the modern Republic of Turkey to man up and shoulder the blame for the alleged sins of the Ottoman Empire. According to received wisdom, the voice of Armenia can speak no wrong – and Turkey can do no right. Never mind that much of the so-called scholarship behind the Armenian case has been discredited, that Adolf Hitler never uttered the damning words attributed to him, that Barack Obama has become more informed on the complexity of the matter since his pre-election vote-catching utterances – the same strident voices parrot the same repetitious mantra: Muslim bad; Christian good! An editorial in the Times (April 17) spoke of an event ‘widely recognised as the first genocide of the 20th century’ except by Turks who ‘continue to furiously attack anyone who speaks of genocide.’ The writer asserts that Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan has done an about turn on the issue after last year ‘offering condolences to descendants of the Armenian victims and suggesting that a panel of international historians be formed to examine the historical evidence. No such panel was convened.’

Circassians protesting about the Sochi Olympics

Circassians protesting about the Sochi Olympics

Is it Turkey’s job to set up such a panel? As far as I am aware, Mr Erdoğan’s position on this issue has always been clear, and it has not changed. Why do these friends of Armenia insist on drawing a line at the beginning of the 20th century? In February last year, when Russia held its $51 billion showcase Winter Olympic extravaganza in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Circassians the world over tried to draw attention to the vast campaign of ethnic cleansing perpetrated in the Caucasus by Czarist Russia. 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the year when “according to the official tsarist documents, more than 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 were forced to flee abroad to Turkey [Ottoman Anatolia], and only 80,000 were left alive in their native area.” And that’s the official Russian count. And the Circassians were peacefully living in their own land. And Russia was under no outside military threat. And getting rid of the Muslim Circassians was an explicit policy of the Czarist government. In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was fighting a war for survival on at least three fronts. The Russian aim of expanding to the shores of the Mediterranean involved cynical use of Armenians in the east to create havoc behind the Ottoman lines. The French government had a similar policy in the southeast (near present-day Syria) of using Armenian troops against the Ottomans. What government could tolerate such a situation? Not all Armenian combatants were wearing uniform. Few villagers would risk turning them in to Ottoman authorities. A bad thing happened, for sure – but who was to blame?

Who invented the concentration camp?

Who invented the concentration camp?

A few years previously, in its war against the Boers in South Africa, the imperial British government had invented the concentration camp as a means of destroying guerrilla resistance to its questionable land grab. ‘The abhorrent conditions in these camps caused the death of 4,177 women, 22,074 children under sixteen and 1,676 men, mainly those too old to be on commando.’ Possibly that’s one reason why British prime Minister Tony Blair, despite his well-deserved reputation for political expediency, refused to bow to pressure and use the ‘g’ word for the Armenian event. It is also likely that America’s Obama is a little wary of calling other kettles black when his own nation’s pot is somewhat less than squeaky-clean. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, responding to the European Parliament’s vote last week to come out of the closet and shout ‘genocide’ from the rooftops, was moved to ask rhetorically, ‘Where now are the native Americans? The aborigines of Australia?’ He didn’t add, ‘Why are there so many people of Irish extraction living in the United States?’ but he might have. As far as I am aware, he wasn’t ‘furious’ and he didn’t ‘attack’ anyone – but he might have been a little sad at such unjust treatment at the hands of his supposed NATO allies, and possibly felt some righteous indignation. Why are Armenians tolerated when they employ terrorist tactics to assassinate Turkish diplomats and silence voices of opposition as they did in the 1980s – yet Turkish politicians and American historians are accused of bias and ‘denialism’ when they use reasoned arguments and historical documents to dispute Armenian assertions?

Impoverished Irish emigrating to America

Impoverished Irish emigrating to America

Another debate has arisen recently over a clash of dates for commemorating two centennials this year. Armenians arbitrarily selected 24 April as their date of choice for commemorating their ‘great Evil’. Nations of the former British Empire, especially Australia and New Zealand, have long gathered on 25 April to remember their young men who died in the tragic and ultimately futile Gallipoli Campaign. Turkey’s commemorative activities take place on 18 March, the day when their Ottoman ancestors turned back the might of the British and French navies – effectively saving their capital Istanbul from invasion and occupation. More importantly for the modern Republic of Turkey, however, is the significance of the Gallipoli/Çanakkale victory in the rise of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Apparently the President of Armenia, Serzh Sergsyan, kindly invited Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, to attend a memorial event in Yerevan on April 24. Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders have been planning for a year or more to be present on the Gallipoli Peninsula for their big day on the 25th. The Turkish government decided, for reasons of its own, to hold its official international ceremony on the 24th, and thoughtfully issued an invitation to Mr Sergsyan. Well, few Anzacs would have turned up in Turkey on 18 March – and few Turks have any interest in joining the Armenian activities, so call it what you will.

Turkish diplomats assassinated by Armenian terrorists

Turkish diplomats assassinated by Armenian terrorists

Interestingly, retired diplomats of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are planning an activity of their own for 25 April. They intend to hold a march in Ankara to honor Turkish diplomats assassinated by Armenian radicals.’ According to a spokesman for the organising committee, ‘We still carry in our hearts the agony of the ruthless assassination of over 40 Turkish diplomats, government employees and their family members by Armenian terrorist organizations between 1973 and 1985.’ An article in the New York Times dated 29 January 1982 reported one of these assassinations: ‘Two gunmen assassinated the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles this morning as he sat alone in his automobile at a busy intersection in the Westwood section. An organization called the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide said it was responsible for the slaying of the consul general, Kemal Arıkan. The organization is one of several Armenian terrorist groups that have said they want to avenge a massacre of Armenians by Turkey in 1915. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation found the getaway car at a house in Pasadena, 20 miles away, and detained four people inside the house for questioning. All four were later released [My emphasis]. According to the State Department, Mr. Arıkan was the twenty-first Turkish diplomat to be killed in the past 10 years in this country and abroad. Armenian groups also claimed responsibility for the previous killings. The assassination followed a number of other attacks on Turkish officials in southern California that police investigators have attributed to members of the city’s large Armenian community, which is estimated at 100,000.‘ For full details of the Armenian terrorist attacks, click this Youtube link. It may give you food for thought.

The price of defending your home against invaders

The price of defending your home against invaders

I came across two other pieces of interest, adding fuel to the fire of anti-Turkish sentiment currently raging in Western ‘news’ media. One was in the UK Independent entitled ‘The Gallipoli Centenary is a shameful attempt to hide the Armenian Holocaust.’ The author is Robert Fisk, who has had a lot to say previously on this issue. I have been referred to him in the past as though he is some kind of authority, when in reality he is just a journalist with a neo-Lawrence of Arabia complex. I have no intention of wasting energy refuting his lengthy tirade. It may be enough to comment on the title itself, which sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Does Turkey have any interest in commemorating 25 April? As stated above, 18 March is their date of choice. They might also have opted for 9 January 1916 when the last British troops departed after their failed invasion. Out of respect for their former enemies, the people of Turkey maintain the cemeteries of all the fallen, welcome visitors with true Turkish hospitality and accept that the British and their allies prefer to forget those two embarrassing dates. It is the descendants of the Anzacs who want to gather on 25 April. The other piece appeared on an American neo-con website Newsmax, and contained an interview with a German, Michael Hesemann. The article calls him a historian, but like Fisk, it seems he is just another journalist with an axe to grind. In fact, comparing him to Fisk is probably a tad unfair to the latter as Hesemann apparently wrote several books on UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors to earth before becoming a major apologist for Roman Catholicism. Well, on second thoughts, perhaps the two fields are not so far apart. Mr Hesemann, it seems, argues in a recent book that the Vatican had tried to stop Ottoman expulsions of Armenians back in 1915. Well, maybe they did, but it seems to have blunted their enthusiasm for such protests, given that they maintained a deafening silence over the more recent German extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Yeah, well . . .

Yeah, well . . .

Another New York Times article on 16 April called the Armenian tragedy the greatest atrocity of the Great War’. The writer possibly overlooked the fact that the entire war was a monumental atrocity of stupendous proportions. It has been estimated that total military and civilian casualties in the ‘Great’ war exceeded 37 million – over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded (a good number of them Muslims). Many argued at the time, and many still believe that it was an imperialist war fought largely for the benefit of international capitalism. Conscientious objectors to conscription in my own country, New Zealand, were subjected to horrifyingly inhuman treatment. How much attention does that atrocity get? Those with a genuine interest in gaining an objective view of what happened with Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (not Turkey) in 1915 may care to visit the webpage of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It addresses the following issues:

  • How many Armenians died?
  • How many Muslims died during those years?
  • How reliable are sources quoted in support of the Armenian story?
  • Do the deaths constitute genocide?
  • Why were Ottoman officials tried by the British for war crimes acquitted by the Malta Tribunals.
  • Should we be influenced by Armenian terrorists who have engaged in a vigilante war that continues today?
  • The archives of many nations ought to be carefully and thoughtfully examined before concluding whether genocide occurred.
  • The Jewish Holocaust bears no meaningful relation to the Ottoman Armenian experience.

Just the other day, a historian in New Zealand, speaking about the 19th century wars fought between European settlers and the indigenous Maori people, said ‘Let’s not be selective about the history that we remember.’ It’s good advice.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

In September 2012 Angelina Jolie visited Turkey in her capacity as United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees. At that time the civil war in Syria had been going on for eighteen months, and there were approximately 80,000 men, women and children who had fled across the border to escape the violence. Ms Jolie and the UN High Commissioner António Guterres expressed high praise for the twelve well-organised camps set up by the Turkish Government to house the displaced Syrians. At the same time, they also urged other UN member states to recognise the need to provide tangible assistance to neighbouring countries like Turkey that were directly affected by the influx of destitute refugees.
Syrian refugee family in Istanbul 2014
That was then – this is now. There are currently 224,000 Syrians in those camps near Turkey’s southeastern border. The UN estimates that to be less than one third of the 700,000 they believe are in the country. The Turkish Government puts the number higher, at around 900,000. Whichever is correct, it is evident that those government camps, however, well-organised, are no longer able to cope with the vast numbers fleeing the war – and hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless Syrians have now made their way to the larger cities in search of work and accommodation.
Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been in Jordan meeting with Mr Guterres and other regional foreign ministers. According to an article in Hürriyet Daily News, ‘the U.N. refugee chief criticized the international community for “not contributing enough” to solve the issue’.
“Let me be very clear, there has been very little support. There must be massive support from the international community at the level of government budgets and development projects related to education, health, water and infrastructure,” he said. He stressed that the problem of refugees was not only the responsibility of regional countries, but of “all countries in the world.”
“To share the responsibility that has fallen upon the neighboring countries, every country should open its doors to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.’
For his part, Mr Davutoğlu suggested that what was really needed was international aid to protect Syrian citizens in their own country. While Turkey maintains an open border policy and does not turn refugees away, the huge numbers are placing great stress on the economy, and there is a danger that resentment against them will grow and lead to undesirable outcomes.
This influx of refugees, however, is by no means just a recent phenomenon. The first major wave of immigration was large numbers of Sephardic Jews fleeing from religious persecution in Spain at the end of the 15th century. The so-called ‘reconquest’ of the Iberian Peninsula involved the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews whose families had lived there for centuries. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jewish settlers into his empire, reputedly saying “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched us”. By the 19th century, the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) was home to the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Many of them relocated to Istanbul after the Greek occupation, and later to the new state of Israel. There are still, however, many synagogues to be found in Istanbul, their congregations worshipping in the archaic Spanish dialect known as Ladino.
It is generally agreed that the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman around the middle of the 16th century, although it continued to extend its territorial reach until the armies of Mehmet IV were notoriously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.
From that time, the seemingly invincible Ottomans began losing battles and ground to, in particular, the rising and expanding powers of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia. Habsburg expansion occurred primarily in the Balkan region, much of which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. For the Russians, a major goal was annexing territories that would give them access to warm water ports on the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. These territories, Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, while not directly under Ottoman control, were inhabited predominantly by Muslims and definitely within their sphere of influence.
As Habsburg and Russian forces seized control of these regions, vast numbers of Muslims were killed or uprooted. It has been estimated that between five and seven million refugees flooded into the shrinking Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1913. More than half of these were Crimean Tatars and Circassians displaced by the Russian southward advance. Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, in an article entitled Refugees, Exiles, and other Forced Migrants in the Late Ottoman Empire, suggests that an understanding of historical context is essential in the study of refugees. She argues that  ‘by and large the circumstances, experiences, and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored’. Her article focuses on ‘the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from the contested borderland between the Ottoman Empire and Tzarist Russia’. In particular, Professor Chatty examines the plight of the Circassians, hundreds of thousands of whom sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in 1864.
In March 1821, encouraged by Lord Byron and other romantically poetical, classically indoctrinated English aristocrats, ‘Christians’ on the ‘Greek’ peninsula began a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Certainly there were decidedly unromantic atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, but the end result was that Muslims, whose families had lived there for centuries, and others perceived as Ottoman sympathisers (eg Albanians and Jews) were pretty much exterminated on that side of the Aegean Sea. Those who managed to escape sought refuge on the opposite coast.
This is the context in which we need to the view the later sufferings of Armenians and Orthodox Christians in the early years of the 20thcentury. Ottoman Muslims (who had long coexisted with Christian minorities within their own borders) had learned that defeat by ‘Christian’ powers would quickly result in extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the conquered lands. They had also learned that a tactic of those powers was to incite Christian minorities to rebel, then claim the right to ‘defend their co-religionists’ from reprisals.
A sad result of Britain’s encouragement of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 was the event known to Greeks as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, when, after their defeat in 1922, more than a million Orthodox Christians were forced to relocate to Greece, their places taken by almost half a million Muslims sent the other way. Other refugee flows to Turkey occurred as a result of state-sponsored terrorism in Bulgaria and Romania from the 1940s to the 1980s when Muslims were forced to change their Turkish-Arabic names. It is estimatedthat 230,000 Muslim refugees and immigrants sought refuge in Turkey from the Balkans between 1934 and 1945, and 35,000 from Yugoslavia from 1954 to 1956. In 1989 a further 320,000 Bulgarian Muslims fled to Turkey and perhaps 20,000 from Bosnia.
In the end, of course, these events are all in the past, and to be fair, some Bulgarian Muslims were able to return to their former homes after the collapse of the Communist regime. In general, however, the developing economy of Turkey (and before it, the struggling Ottoman Empire) has been obliged to deal with huge inflows of impoverished refugees displaced by events occurring beyond their boundaries and control. In large part, they have done this without complaint and with little assistance from wealthier nations. Now, it seems, they are doing it once more.
Again, to be scrupulously fair, the British Government agreed in February to take five hundred of ‘the most traumatised Syrian refugees’. The decision came, however, only after stiff and protracted resistance to UN pleas for support. Even New Zealand has offered to accept 100, which, on a per head of population basis, is about three times more generous. Still, when you set it against the numbers flooding into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (without getting into a comparison of per capita GDP) both look like token gestures.

I too feel sorry for those two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, but I can’t help feeling that anger in Western nations seems disproportionate when compared with their lukewarm response to the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. And I can’t help wondering whether, had those Nigerian girls been Muslim instead of Christian, the cries for action would have been quite so strident and widespread.

Into the Valley of Death – Another Crimean War?

What a strange education I had, or so I think now on looking back. When I was a lad in New Zealand there were still people referring to England (or Britain) as ‘Home’. My first primary school headmaster used to visit classes occasionally to brandish a leather strap he referred to as his ‘medicine’, and get us kids piping ‘Rule Britannia’ in our reedy little antipodean voices. Having pupils memorise chunks of poetry was a popular pedagogical technique. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ added to our sense of belonging to an empire on which the sun was still struggling to set, defended by men, any one of whom was worth ten or twenty of any other race on earth, and capable, when the chips were down, of staggering out into an Antarctic blizzard uttering a self-sacrificing epigram in ringing tones.
British lion defends Ottoman ‘turkey’ against
imperialist Russian bear
Well, there was one line in that immortal poem suggesting that ‘someone had blundered’, but most of it was clearly written to perpetuate the myth of men committed to facing, if necessary, overwhelming odds, and fighting or dying in defence of Empire. I have checked again and found one reference to the opposition – ‘Cossack and Russian’ – but no explanation of what those noble Light Brigade horsemen actually hoped to gain by charging into ‘the mouth of Hell’, other than death and/or glory.
In fact, the famous charge was little more than a futile sideshow in the Battle of Balaklava, the first major engagement in the Crimean War (1853-56). One might even think the whole war itself was a pretty questionable venture. I have no special reason to love Russians, but I have some sympathy for their plight, locked up in the largest, coldest most inhospitable and inaccessible land mass in the world. As the state of Russia (centred on Moscow) expanded from 1500 CE, one of its main driving forces was the need for access to warm water ports for shipping, trade and military purposes – and sandy beaches for summer holidays. Check your atlas. What would you have done if you were a Peter or a Catherine with Great ambitions?
For the Russians, it was pretty obvious that they had to have access to the Black Sea and if possible, a direct route to the Aegean or the Mediterranean. This involved fighting and conquering, or otherwise neutralising whoever was in the way – mostly Muslim Crimean Tatars, Ottomans and Circassians. An important tool in the Russians’ box of strategies was the Orthodox Christian religion which they used to enlist the support of allies, justify expansion and clear out unfriendly resistance.
Expansion as far as the Black Sea was pretty much accomplished during the 18th century, culminating in a victorious war against the Ottomans (1768-74). The Russian government formally annexed Crimea (not just the peninsula in those days) in 1783.
Again, however, a glance at the map will show that even possessing ports on the northern Black Sea coast doesn’t circumvent all your problems from a Russian point-of-view. Your ships still have to negotiate the Istanbul Bosporus and the Dardanelle Straits past the hostile eyes and guns of your resentful Ottoman neighbours. Wouldn’t it be nice to possess Constantinople/Istanbul itself, or drive a corridor through eastern Anatolia, emerging down in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean around the port of Alexandretta/Iskenderun? Of course both of these will involve further wars with those pesky Ottomans – though by now, the middle of the 19th century, they are not the fearsome military power they once were.
Still, you need a pretext for picking a fight, and what better than religion? How can good Christians allow those heathen Turks to control the holy places where Christ suffered and died? And there are Christian communities all through the region, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox for example, clearly in need of protection from the oppression and persecution of their Muslim overlords, never mind that they had all been co-existing in relative peace and harmony for centuries. Well, that protection idea caught on in Europe later, but at this stage, France and especially Britain were not about to let the Russians control the eastern Mediterranean and endanger their interests in that region and further afield in India. Hence the Crimean War. Let’s get over there, was the plan, and help our dear Muslim Ottoman friends defeat those dastardly Cossacks and Russians and keep them bottled up in their frozen wastes.
Well, international treaties and alliances make fragile bonds, and it wasn’t too many years before Britain and France were joining forces to finally erase the Ottoman Empire from the geo-political scene. Previously, however, in the 1850s and 60s, their sympathies lay more with Muslim populations suffering genocide and expulsion as a result of Russian expansion.
EGO | European History Online has this to say:Taking advantage of the favourable anti-Turkish sentiment, the Tzarist army conducted a military offensive against the Ottoman Empire in 1877/1878 which ended with the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkans and the re-establishment of Russia in the Black Sea. In the Russo-Turkish War, Russian and Bulgarian soldiers and francs-tireurs killed 200,000–300,000 Muslims and about one million people were displaced.  After the war, more than half a million Muslim refugees from the Russian Caucasus and the areas south of the Danube, which were under Russian protection, were settled in the Ottoman Empire.’ (Paragraph 3, 2014.03.10)
But who remembers that now? Apart from the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians themselves, that is. As far as I am aware, the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi went off with little disruption despite hopes held by the ex-patriate Circassian community of using the occasion as a stage to draw the world’s attention to the above-mentioned  ‘resettlement’. ‘The world’, sadly, for the most part, doesn’t want to know. It’s got enough problems of its own, and anyway it’s hard to know which plaintive cries of genocide to take seriously these days. Add to that the fact that most First World countries have ethnic cleansing skeletons in their own historical closets, and you can see why they are reluctant to risk their glass houses by throwing stones at each other.
Of course there has to be a certain amount of posturing. Our local Istanbul newspaper published pictures of the US destroyer Truxton steaming through the Bosphorus on its way to wave the Stars and Stripes in the Black Sea. President Obama, according to reports, has been having stern words over the phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin; and Republican Presidential hopeful, Senator Rand Paul says that ‘if he were President, he would take a harder stance against the Russian President for his actions.’

The sad fact of the matter is that it is extremely unlikely Russia will let Ukraine and Crimea go their own independent way. About as likely as the United States handing Hawaii back to the native Polynesians, or Texas back to Mexico. Probably the best Crimean nationalists can hope for is more conciliatory gestures from Mother Russia along the lines of renaming Stalingrad as Volgograd, recognising that the earlier name had bad associations for locals who remember the mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

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.