Conflict & Justice

Sochi has a long and difficult past, including a little-known genocide

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"Mountain people" from the 1860s. These warriors held off the Russian empire for 47 years. Many were ethnically cleansed after the Russian conquest in 1864.

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Wiki Commons

Sochi has a colorful history. But a shadow hangs over it: a history of ethnic cleansing.

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Through most of history, the Sochi region has been a bit mysterious and not a little menacing. It was at the northern edge of the ancient kingdom of Colchis, where the legendary Greek adventurer Jason and his trusty Argonauts allegedly went in search of the Golden Fleece.

The people of Colchis were the ancestors of the modern day Georgians. But in the northern borderlands and beyond lived a very different people: the Circassians. The Circassians were one of the "mountain peoples" of the Caucasus — tough, hardy, independent-minded people living in tightly-knit clans.

They seemed to enjoy feuding with each other, but came together to combat outside influence and control. The Georgians were the biggest local power and wrestled with the Circassians and the other mountain peoples, such as the Abkhaz (the last conflict between the Georgians and the Abkhaz was in 2008).

The Circassians call themselves Adyghe. They are still around. But you won't find many in Sochi.

The Circassians weathered many of the most violent episodes in history. That's one of the consequences of living in an area on the periphery of great competing empires: the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Turks and, in due course, the Russians.

The ancient Greeks came to trade and planted small colonies around the coast of the Black Sea about 3,000 years ago, hence the stories about Jason and the Argonauts.

Maybe some went back to Greece to take part in the original Olympics. In time, the Romans took over most of the Greek areas in the Black Sea, but the Romans met their match in the Persians to the east.

The Caucasus was one of their battlegrounds, with Georgia and Armenia playing the role of buffer states, over time falling under the influence of one empire or the other, or struggling to re-assert their independence. The Greek/Byzantine settlers clung to the seacoast and appear to have co-existed uneasily with the Circassian and other mountain tribes inland.

The Roman empire became the Byzantine empire, and the contest with Persia was replaced by a far more powerful threat from the Turks. At Manzikert in 1071, the combined Byzantine, Georgian and Armenian force was annihilated by the Turks, marking the start of Turkish control of Asia Minor. The Turks took over the role of regional superpower from the Byzantines, and also inherited the regional feud with the Persian empire. The Caucasus continued as a battlefield.

Georgia soon managed to break away from the Turks. But the Circassians and other mountain peoples opened an informal alliance with the Turks that was to last more than 800 years. Turkish seapower allowed them to send aid to their friends across the Black Sea. They also brought Islam, which began to supplant the ancient shamanistic religions of the mountain people.

Despite the hostility of the Turks and Circassians, Georgia flourished for a long time. But Georgia's golden age came to a violent end with the arrival of the Mongols in the early 1200s. The Georgian/Byzantine towns along the Sochi coast were abandoned. All that remain today are the ruins of forts and churches. The Mongol presence proved to be fleeting, and the Circassians appear to have filled the void, at least in the Sochi area. The "mountain people" dominated the area into the 19th century. 

The Circassians spoke several languages and lived in many independent groups. The people of the Sochi region spoke the Ubykh form of Circassian. Ubykh has the distinction of having more consonants than any other language, except the Khoisan languages of southern Africa.

Eighty-one consonants in all. And only two vowels. The Soatshe were the Ubykh tribe that lived on the river of the same name, now called Sochi. Ubykh is believed to have become extinct with the death of the last documented native speaker in 1992.

A rough balance of power between the Turks and Persians persisted until a new empire appeared on the scene: the Russians.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Russians pushed the Turks and their allies, like the Crimean Tatars, out of what's now southern Ukraine and southern Russia. Finally, in 1829, Russia defeated Turkey and forced it to hand over sovereignty of that strip of the Black Sea coast that includes Sochi.

But the Circassians and the other mountain people were never under Turkish control, and they refused to accept the change. They fought the Russians bitterly for decades. The Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, spent many years as a young soldier fighting in this "Caucasian War."

The resistance was led by the great Chechen guerrilla leader, Shamyl. It was during this period that Islam came to predominate among the mountain people, as a rallying point to differentiate them from the invading Christian Russians. The old shamanistic religion was, to all intents and purposes, eradicated.

The Circassians held out the longest, helped by arms and gunpowder they received by sea. Partly because of this, the Russians decided the Muslim tribes on the adjoining coast should simply go.

Once the conquest was complete in 1864, the Russians began destroying the Circassian and Abkhaz villages, herding the people to the sea, where they were concentrated in insanitary camps awaiting deportation to the Ottoman empire. 

Russian history says they "emigrated." Russian military reports speak of "cleansing."  At least half a million people were displaced. Thousands died from cold, hunger and disease, with corpses lying in heaps along the coast around Sochi. A Russian general boasted of having gotten rid of 90 percent of the Muslim population.

This ethnic cleansing is the reason that Doku Umarov, the leader of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, has given as his pretext to threaten the Olympics.

In a video released last summer, Umarov said, "Today, they violate our Islamic lands, our Islamic laws, by holding Games on the territory of Tatarstan. Knowing our Islamic laws and not respecting any of them, they hold these satanic games ... Many, many Muslims have died and are buried on our territory on the shores of the Black Sea, where they plan to stage the Olympic Games. We, as the Mujahideen, must not allow this to happen by any means allowed us by Almighty God. I call on each of you, every Mujahideen, wherever he is ... to do your utmost to prevent these satanic dances on our ancestors' bones."

The Russians brought Christians from all over their empire to re-populate the coastal region — Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, Germans and Estonians, as well as Russians. Armenians still predominate in the micro-district of Adler which is home to the Olympic Village. Greeks live in Krasnaya Polyana, the venue for the outdoor events. That mountain village was also the place where four Russian armies linked up in 1864 and declared victory in the Caucasian War. In time, Sochi became a popular spa and resort town.

Before outsiders condemn the Russians, Americans should remember that we have our own vacation region built on an area that was ethnically-cleansed after a prolonged and brutal guerrilla war. It's called Florida. The Seminole Indians were conquered and deported at around the same time in the 19th century as the Russians were taking over Sochi. Food for thought.