Few people know that the host city of the Winter Olympics is the site of a genocide.
It was in Sochi that the Circassians, an ethnic group native to the area, were slaughtered in the mid-nineteenth century by the Tsars.
“About twenty-five miles from Sochi, tucked away at an elevation of 1,800 feet, is a small canyon known as Qbaada,” Occidental College Professor Walter Richmond writes in “The Circassian Genocide,” a book-length treatment of the subject. “It is here that the Circassians and their Abkhaz allies made their last stand against the Russians in May 1864. After the Circassians’ surrender, they were driven to Sochi, where they died by the thousands waiting for ships to take them to the Ottoman Empire.”
The mass killing has been almost completely forgotten now (much in contrast to the mid-nineteenth century, when it was a subject of intense discussion all over Europe, according to Professor Richmond), but that shouldn't blind us to the enormity of the fact.
“Unacknowledged by Vladimir Putin’s government, the ethnic cleansing of the mostly-Muslim Circassians is considered Europe’s first modern genocide by many historians, and provides a gloomy backdrop to the Olympic glamour in this subtropical city—not least for surviving Circassians who are furious over being excluded from the celebration in Sochi,” Oliver Bullough writes for The New Republic.
The Circassians are responsible for the name of the host city itself, a bitter irony given what happened after Sochi was established.
“Sochi is even a Circassian word meaning roughly ‘between mountain and sea,’” tweets Progressive columnist Dave Zirin. “Yet their culture has been almost entirely erased from Sochi.”
Members of the Circassian community are trying to take advantage of the global media spotlight on Sochi to get an official apology—but with little luck.
“Circassian activists protested in Vancouver and London, outside the United Nations in New York, and outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul,” writes Bullough. “This drew some media attention, but little sympathy from Russian officials. Police arrested activists in mid-December on charges of ‘extremist activity.’”
The legacy of the genocide is felt in current-day Sochi in a number of ways. For instance, there isn’t a single mosque for the 20,000 Muslims living in the city.
“The mosque issue has long been a sore spot in Sochi, where Muslim leaders have been pushing for a new place to worship since 1996,” Mother Jones reports.
Local officials have sometimes displayed an astonishing insensitivity to the demand.
“City leaders, such as deputy mayor Anatoli Rykov, have argued that there's already a mosque nearby—fifty miles outside the city in the mountain village of Tkhagapsh, population 180,” Mother Jones adds. “Tkhagapsh is two-and-a-half hours by car from downtown Sochi, and the city's brand new light rail line, hubbed at the country's newest, largest train station, doesn't go there.”
The Russian government may like to pretend that Sochi’s awful history doesn’t exist, but the rest of us should keep the past in mind as the Olympics unfold.