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Beyond London 2012 Olympics: Blood in Sochi 2014

When the Black Sea resort of Sochi (Russia) won the bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Circassians were not celebrating. How could they?

The 22nd Winter Olympiad will take place on the 150th anniversary of the events Circassians describe as genocide. This was committed by imperial Russia against the indigenous people of Caucasus, to whom the land belonged. To rub salt in the wounds, Olympic athletes are scheduled to be skiing and ice-skating in Krasnaya Polyana (Red Glade), where after a fierce battle Circassians were finally defeated in 1864 (the “red” refers to the blood of those who died there). Today it’s a ski resort popular with Russia’s leaders, and other rich and famous. It is also a mass grave on which unsuspecting international sportspeople will compete in front of unsuspecting global audiences.

Circassians are the indigenous people of this Caucasian region, and Sochi was their independent Circassia’s capital until it was violently incorporated into the Russian empire in the 19th century. Arguing that Olympic developments fail to respect the site’s historic memory, Circassian organisations asked for the Games to be moved elsewhere. Russian government officials replied that this outcry was a “premeditated anti-Russian activity” and that those claiming there ever was a Circassian genocide are illiterate or conspirators.

With London Olympics in full swing, a group of Circassian activists dressed in their national costumes brought their message to the British capital. Their campaign is called No Sochi 2014, and they demand that Russia acknowledge the genocide and apologise (it hasn’t). Dana Wojokh from No Sochi 2014 explains:

Given the on-going preparations and the state’s determination it is highly unlikely the Games will be canceled, but they provide Circassians with an opportunity to organise, mobilise, and make their story known, and historical justice be put in place.

Here, professor Matthew Light of Toronto University comments on the issue:

Circassians bring their message to London 2012:

Today, the population of Circassians is around four million, according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, the Hague-based international NGO that supports indigenous peoples and unrecognised /occupied territories. Only some 800,000 live in the Russian Federation – others are based in Turkey, Syria, the EU and the US.

Just like other Olympic cities, Sochi’s baggage of problems is not restricted to the Circassian issue. Environmental destruction of this UNESCO World Heritage site is another grave matter, as are accusations of corruption, displacement, and money wasting. But Sochi 2014 is so important to Russia’s international image and its president Vladimir Putin’s personal one that nothing can be left to chance.

After London and Sochi, Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro with its 2016 Olympics is next in line. Already, the poorest and the most vulnerable are paying the price for this sport extravaganza: forced replacement, demolition of homes, and other human rights abuses are well underway. In 2020, it’s Tokyo, Madrid or Istanbul.

The Olympic spirit appears to be blowing in the wind.

Multimedia: No Sochi 2014 campaign posters from No Sochi 2014 website; prof. Matthew Light video from No Sochi 2014 YouTube channel; Sochi 2014 stamps from Wikimedia Commons (file in public domain). Other images and video by the author.

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About The Author(s)

Giedre Steikunaite

Giedre Steikunaite

Freelance Writer / Journalist

A freelance writer and journalist currently based in London, UK. The issues I explore are human rights // environment // culture, and the people who are making a change towards a possible future for all of us.

Comments (9)

  • Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

    A succinct, bold and valuable assessment. Giedre Steikunaite never dissapoints when it comes to calling a spade a spade. For an Olympic non-enthusiast like me this is a further confirmation that big events have big underbellies of exploitations.

    This is also a great example of opinionated reporting – it challenges the reader to take sides either in favor or against. That I find extremely liberating.

    The issue of non-represented nations requires debate and discussion – I hope Tibet will come up eventually.

  • Giedre Steikunaite

    Giedre Steikunaite

    Dear Pabitra,

    Thank you for your honest comments. I share your non-enthusiasm for the Olympics – not that there’s something wrong with athletes breaking world records and audiences watching breath-taking sporting events (sport as such is a good thing, of course), but because of the price being paid by the most vulnerable, and the corporatisation of the whole event.

    I read somewhere (in a humorous piece, to be exact) that “Most Londoners view the Games in the same way they did World War II: they didn’t ask for it and it’ll make their lives hell for a while, but they’ll be excited when their side wins anything.” And we paid for it.

    As for the Tibetan issue you raise – it is yet another clear example that Olympics is as much about politics as it is about sport. And I won’t even start about the policies of the International Olympic Committee and their protection of big business interests (demanding that London allows sponsors such as Adidas, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, and many other financially struggling internationals not to pay their fair taxes to the city, something that has now been partly reversed thanks to watchful campaigners).

    It might be too late for London to make things right, but maybe not yet for Sochi and Rio. At the protest march, one campaigner told me he had pledged on Dutch media for the Dutch people to stand up and say NO to Amsterdam’s possible bid for Olympics 12 years from now. There’s a lot of mess to be cleaned up before we can all enjoy the sport without any dirty tracks dragging shamefully behind it.

  • Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

    I am all for sports. However the socio-economic differences between countries that send sports persons in Olympics are so blatantly huge that, sometimes, I have doubts about the fairness of the games.
    If Olympic games are projected as activities to unite people across the world, may be drinking Coca-Cola will also qualify – you need to see their ad campaign.
    At a more philosophical level I am quite deluded about the spirit of competition. We are in an epoch that demands spirit of co-operation and collaboration.

    • Giedre Steikunaite

      Giedre Steikunaite

      Fairness indeed may well be compromised in such massive international sports events: one quick glance at various home training facilities reveals enough. Add to that the money that athlete-sending countries can afford to provide them with, general investment in sports (whether in schools or on a professional level) – or lack of it – and inequality is impossible to miss. A micro-cosmos of the world?

      And as for competition vs. co-operation, well. Here in London people were even competing for tickets to Olympic events (although many were disqualified before even trying – not everyone can afford £30 upwards for an hour-long event, no matter how exciting).

      However, as long as competitiveness is rewarded financially, and as long as we believe financial rewards are superior to all others, collaboration doesn’t stand a chance. Competition has become our default state of mind, and it’s stuck in a vicious circle: until inequality becomes history, if ever, we will be competing and competing and competing. Even when evidence that co-operation is way better for us is right here in front of our eyes.

  • Karl

    I have been brothers-in-arms with Circassian soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and I have the highest regards and support for their feelings of being in Diaspora from their ancestral homeland (although they’re fairly well-off and comfortable at their small city in the Galilee. They mostly tend to gravitate towards civil-service jobs with the State, after their Army service.

    Having said that, I wonder if Giedre is imagining that ==she== is living on her “ethnic ancestral homeland”, or is she really Occupying the Celt homeland?

    The problem with trying to choose who is the rightful owner of a peice of land is: there’s really no group that ever held a place EXCEPT BY having won some battles somewhere, sometime. Even if they no longer remember those battles. So in a certain sense, Might doesn’t make Right, but Might is all there is…. because there is no “right”. Which is terribly disappointing to folks who sit in comfortable armchairs and spend their time “caring passionately”.

    • Giedre Steikunaite

      Giedre Steikunaite

      Hello Karl, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      The issue here is not whose land Sochi stands on today, but rather, how historical memory is commemorated (if at all), and whether the sense of justice is respected. To my knowledge, the Circassians are not demanding an independent state on that land – they demand official recognition of the events of 1864, and an apology. There are ways to do things. There is a reason why Willy Brandt knelt down before the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto back in 1970.

      there’s really no group that ever held a place EXCEPT BY having won some battles somewhere, sometime.
      We are not cavemen anymore. Human beings are capable of much more than war – we are capable of civilisation. And we can only be civilised when we acknowledge our actions, and accept full responsibility for them.

  • Bijoyeta Das

    Bijoyeta Das

    Hi Giedre,

    I am intrigued by what you say about historical accountability. Do you think an official apology will be just symbolic? Not even symbolic justice, just a gesture. Is that enough or should the Circassians and other oppressed groups ask for atonement? But is atonement possible now. Also won’t this start a chain of such demands and claims?

    Looking forward to your response.

    Thank you,

    • Giedre Steikunaite

      Giedre Steikunaite

      Hi Bijoyeta,

      Thanks for taking time to comment. Historical memory is undoubtedly a very complex issue, and I do not claim to have all the answers here, but we do need to raise these questions because there cannot be an answer if no question is asked.

      Let me quote from No Sochi 2014 press release (campaigners had sent a letter to the IOC outlining their claims about the genocide; the IOC is still “investigating”): “Nowhere in Olympic literature does it mention that Circassians existed in Sochi or does it ever reference Circassian culture. Holding the Olympics in Sochi is a complete rewrite of history; this revisionism is an example of continual genocide.”

      Two things are important here: recognition, and reconciliation. An official apology would, of course, be symbolic. This in itself would already be a positive gesture potentially leading to the next step – righting the wrongs, as far as it is possible 150 years on. One thing I do not mention in the text but which campaigner Dana Wojokh talks about in the video is the right to return. Many in the Diaspora might not even want to settle in Sochi forever – people have built their lives elsewhere – but it’s the very fact that they might be able to that counts.

      Such issues are interpersonal human relations on a much larger scale: only when there’s recognition of a wrong can some sort of forgiveness happen. There can be no peace until grievances are solved. An example of how conflict is continuously fueled by the reluctance of the oppressor to admit responsibility for their actions is the Armenian Genocide, and there are many others.

      And as for starting a chain of demands – well, I think just because our history is littered with shameful acts that should never have happened does not mean that we should just dismiss them all and pretend they never happened. But again – it’s not only a formal apology that matters, but the change in policy as well. So, say, it is not enough for Australia’s former PM Kevin Rudd to apologise publicly for the atrocities committed against Australia’s indigenous people if they continue to be discriminated in terms of, e.g., access to services (schools, hospitals, roads..).

      Does that answer your question?
      I’d be interested to know what you think about this.



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