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

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Marco Werman: We just heard that a lot of Sochi's residents speak Armenian, but it's a ways away from Armenia. Sounds like there's a good backstory there. So for today's "The World That Was," we're gonna look at the history of Sochi. And our resident walking encyclopedia, Chris Woolf, is here. So what are Armenians doing in Sochi, Chris?

Chris Woolf: Marco, it all goes back to the fact that Sochi is one of those unfortunate areas on the periphery of great empires. Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Turkish, and of course, Russian. And the area's changed hands a bunch of times, and along with that, the people have been pushed around as well. So most of the indigenous, or Circassian, people were Muslim people who fought the Russians for a long time in the 19th century. Were all pushed out from the 1860s or so, and all kinds of Christian immigrants were pulled in from all over parts of the Russian empire, and so Armenians were part of that flow. And then, of course, there was another influx with the Armenian genocide by the Turks, in the first World War.

Werman: And the Armenians stayed? Or at least their language did, it sounds like.

Woolf: Yeah. Actually, the population that identifies as Armenian has been increasing slightly as the censuses go by, and most of them seem to concentrated in the town of Adler.

Werman: Adler doesn't sound like a very Russian name, although maybe it's an Armenian name. I'm also hearing about another place called Krasnaya Polyana, where the outdoor events are taking place for the Olympics. What is the connection with Sochi?

Woolf: Well, Sochi is a river, a district, and a city. The city's not really hosting any of the Olympic events. Most of the indoor events are in the town of Adler, which is what's called a micro district of the Sochi region, and then the outdoor ones are up in, about 30 miles away, in the mountains, at Krasnaya Polyana. So you can almost say they're not the Sochi Olympics at all, but Sochi is the, kind of, the bigger district. Like the--almost like a country, in kind of a Western, American, kind of sense.

Werman: Hence the Sochi Olympics. So where does the name Sochi come from? What does it mean?

Woolf: Well, it's an old Ubykh word for...

Werman: Ubykh?

Woolf: Ubykh. Yes, Ubykh is one of the languages of the northwest Caucasian language group, which of course you're familiar with.

Werman: How could I forget?

Woolf: And basically it's Circassian. People who nowadays have always identified themselves as Adyghe, but in history, were Circassian. And they've been there for thousands of years, and Ubykh was one of the languages. Sochi was the name of a tribe and river there, and they were the people who had lived there predominantly before the Russians finally secured control of the region, in as recently as 1864. You could almost say the Sochi region is kind of like Florida, historically. It's a holiday destination, built after a vicious kind of campaign of colonization and conquest. You know, in Florida it was the Seminoles. In Caucasus, it was the Muslim tribes that were displaced, and about the same time frame of that 150 to 200 years ago.

Werman: Oh, interesting. That's actually a helpful metaphor. Now, you've been talking about kind of the Christian makeup, and the Russians desire to kind of fill this area with Christians. What is the connection, then, to any threat from Islamic militants to disrupt these games?

Woolf: Well, the Russian campaign, to clear the coast of all the Muslim peoples that they've been fighting for a couple of generations in the 19th century, was particularly brutal. Some pople call it like the first modern ethnic cleansing. Cleansing was one of the words that the Russian officers used and wrote about, in their desire to try and get rid of the people who had caused them so much trouble for so long. And you're talking about a really, kind of, tough mountaineer kind of group. Think Scottish Highlanders, or you know, parts of our own Appalachia. Tight-knit clans of people who really don't like getting along with outsiders, or being told what to do by outsiders. So the Russians, basically, were annoyed that foreign countries like Britain would sell them weapons along the coast, so they basically decided to get rid of everybody who lived along the coast. There were villages were burned, and they were shipped off to Turkey. In fact, they were distributed, the Circassian people, throughout the Ottoman empire. And even now, if you travel through the Middle East, you can come across villages and towns that identify as Circassian. Like there's one just outside of Jerusalem. The city of Amman, Jordan, was founded by these refugees in the 19th century.

Werman: And the memories of these people who were pushed out, these Muslims who were pushed out. A long kind of sense of history for them?

Woolf: Exactly. In fact, the principle threat by the leader of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, the al-Qaeda-linked group that's threatened to disrupt the Olympics. Doku Umarov has specifically said, "We cannot allow this prancing to take place on the bones of our ancestors." There are some pretty brutal reports I was reading from Russian officers, complaining about the heaps of bodies that lined the coast, or in the Sochi district, during the ethnic cleansing. People just starved, or frozen, or died of diseases from being, well, herded together in unsanitary conditions before deportation.

Werman: Another view of Sochi from the World's Chris Woolf, with today's "World That Was." Thank you very much, Chris.

Woolf: You're welcome, Marco.