Olympic Spirit, History and Contested Lands

15. 3. 2017

For Ciracassian, Sochi Olympics is not true to the spirit of Olympic Games. In contrast, it stands as a betrayal of the whole idea.

The Black Sea resort town Sochi hosted the 22nd 2014 Winter Olympics from 7 February to 23 February and the Paralympics from 7 March to 16 March immediately afterwards. Since the town of Sochi was selected in July 2007 as the host city, this winter Olympics had come under scrutiny through the lenses of security, terror and radicalism and it has been questioned if Russia’s current human rights record would warrant such a choice for Olympic Games. Sochi, a subtropical coastline on the Black Sea and the nearby resort of snow-covered mountains suitable for outdoor winter sports, on the surface provides nearly an ideal setting for the world to convene for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Nevertheless, the city and the Olympic venues are in close proximity to contested areas and many analysts pointed to the possibility of an attack during the games.

Beyond this security of the games argumentation, there was a hidden or overlooked issue of the Circassian genocide. Sochi Olympics coincided with a symbolic event for the Circassians. The year 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the deportation of Circassians by the Russian Empire from their homelands. Sochi and the Olympic mountain cluster Krasnaya Polyana happed to be located at the heart of historic Circassian homeland from which they were evicted out by force. The Circassian diaspora, for its part, is determined to send out a strong and clear message that “we do not want the Sochi Olympics to take place on the graves of our ancestors.”

This piece aims at analyzing the 2014 Sochi Olympics by taking all these different dimensions into account.

What Do Olympics Mean for Putin

The Sochi Winter Olympics stand as a “prestige project” and a symbol of “Russia’s rise” for Russian authorities. Russia is not a newcomer to the business of organizing Olympic Games; the Soviet Union hosted the equally politically controversial 1980 Summer Olympics in the wake of its invasion of Afghanistan. However, it was during the older Soviet times and the Sochi Olympics were the first Olympics organized and hosted by its successor, the Russian Federation since Union’s breakup in 1991. Sochi offered a suitable venue to revive a moment of pride for Russian youth. It was expected to be a vehicle for demonstrating the superiority of the new Russian identity and reinvigorating Russia’s image as a superpower. Moreover, Putin wanted to use the Olympics to project a positive image of modern Russia abroad. In this frame of mind, Putin did not hesitate to foot a more than $50 billion dollar bill for the Olympics. This budget makes Sochi the most expensive Olympics ever. But his willingness to overspend invited ever increasing international criticism. This amount is over almost four times the initial budget of $12 billion and over almost six times the $8 billion cost of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The increase has been attributed to work quality and geographical conditions.

Another issue that has constantly been raised in connection with the Olympics is Russia’s human rights records. A guide prepared by Human Rights Watch suggests that while the Russian government clearly hopes to elevate the country’s image, human rights abuses and controversies have plagued Olympic preparations including a harsh crackdown on media and civil society. This guide also notes that preparations have been marred by the exploitation, illegal detention, and deportation of migrant construction workers, as well as forced evictions of residents. Especially the law on protests adopted in June 2012 that provides for heavy fines on participants and organizers of unsanctioned gatherings and Putin’s anti-protest decree of August 2013 imposing a special security regime during the Games have precipitated a debate on the conditions of basic human rights in Russia.

In order to address those criticisms Putin promised to the International Olympic Committee to relax the rules governing protests in Sochi and lifted a blanket ban on early January. He also coupled this easing with the release of dozens of high profile prisoners including former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the feminist band, the Pussy Riot. These were seen as a sign of political thaw in Russia, reflection of public relations stunt to avert criticism of the human rights situation in Russia on the eve of the Olympics. Nevertheless, all these steps are admittedly taken as cosmetic measures and do not represent a reversal in the erosion of civil rights and liberties in Russia over the past decade.

Security of the Games

Since Sochi was selected as a venue, international attention has primarily focused on security concerns due to Sochi’s location in the unstable North Caucasus region. The Games were important for Russian leadership to assert it uncompromised rule over the entire country. Russia has been trying to regain its superpower image at least in its near abroad since the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 and it is a sort of litmus test as to whether Russia can secure such a place in the vicinity of a very volatile North Caucasus for a global sports competition. It is openly mentioned that “no Olympics in history have faced such a clear threat of terrorist attack” in many analyses on the security aspect of these Games. In response, Russian authorities established an intense multilayered system in place throughout Sochi. A special security zone in Sochi was established (60 miles along the coast and 25 miles inland). The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the FSB was responsible for securing the games and Sochi overall.

What kind of threats that FSB prioritize and what kind of preventive measures is it implementing against them? Double suicide bombings in Volgograd in late December 2013 brought up questions regarding the security situation around Sochi. The explosions, one in central railway station and the other on a trolleybus shook the city and Kremlin on 29 and 30 December, killing more than 30 and wounding more than 60. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, though the usual suspects are North Caucasians and the authorities rounded up more than 700 people. More than 1,500 violent events have been recorded in the Caucasus since 2010, with a majority of them targeting law enforcement and occurring within 500 miles of Sochi in areas mainly in the North Caucasus.

Ignored Native People: Circassians

As it is mentioned before, Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana (Kbaada Valley for Circassians) are located at the heart of Circassian homelands. The year 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Circassian defeat and expulsion by the Russian Empire. As a result of the Russian-North Caucasian struggles which intensified after the second half of the eighteenth century, North Caucasian locals in ever increasing numbers were forced by Russians to leave their homelands and emigrate. Being the leading Muslim country and the regional power, the Ottoman Empire was undisputedly seen as the only solution.

The North Caucasians who live in Turkey today are descendants of the people who were forced to leave their homelands in the North Caucasian lands as Russians completed the annexation of the whole region after the capture of Sheikh Shamil in the second half of the 19th Century. After that, they settled in the Ottoman lands, therefore in Anatolia. The seriousness of the issue becomes more visible when it is taken into consideration that the population forced to migrate was around 1.5 million, accounting nearly for 90 percent of the total population of this region. These groups were settled across the Ottoman territories, from Rumelia and the Marmara region, Western to Northern Anatolia and some Arabian provinces. Currently most of them reside in Turkey, but smaller populations are spread across many countries including the US, Europe, Canada, Jordan, Syria, and Israel.

Being a host to Winter Olympic Games pales in comparison to the region’s historical significance for the Circassians. Circassians were forcibly removed from their homes in Circassia, rounded up in dire concentration camps in Sochi and on the Black Sea coast where disease and death were rampant. For Circassians this expulsion was the first Genocide in history and the current Russian narrative and its ongoing policy are to deny that these events ever occurred. The Sochi Olympics in 2014 took place on the site of the Circassian Genocide, and even more insultingly, on its 150th anniversary. It is not mentioned anywhere in Olympics literature that Circassians once lived in Sochi, nor does the literature ever refer to Circassian culture. This denial is an example of continual genocide; the Sochi Olympics is a complete rewrite of history. It is against the spirit of Olympics.

Thus, Olympics are a big rallying issue for Circassians and a sort of motivation for the awakening of the Circassian nationhood, a kind of Circassian Renaissance. The Diaspora believes that the Russian Federation is incapable of developing any empathy or understanding the feelings of Circassians. Diaspora’s first initiative was a No Sochi 2014 campaign for a boycott of the Games organized by Circassian Cultural Institute, New-Jersey based diaspora organization began as soon as Putin presented the Sochi bid in 2007. With time, these protests and campaigns have spread around the world among diaspora organizations in Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Europe and mobilized especially young generations against Russia under No Sochi slogan.

This new anti-Sochi Circassian movement much disturbed Russian authorities. Russian Duma organized a meeting with a handpicked group of moderate Circassian activists and conceded that “mass killings” of Circassians had taken place. Olympic Committee was also indicating that “elements of Circassian culture are already part of Sochi’s 2014 cultural festival.” For Ciracassian, Sochi Olympics is not true to the spirit of Olympic Games. In contrast, it stands as a betrayal of the whole idea.

Mitat Çelikpala

Associate Professor of International Relations at TOBB Economy and Technology University in Ankara, Turkey. He has done extensive work regarding the Caucasus, Caucasian Diaspora, people and security in the Caucasus and the Black Sea regions, and Turkish-Russian relations. Before joining the academia, he served at the Turkish National Security Council.

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