The Sochi Olympics, 1864 and Today

Ever since the site of the next Winter Olympics was settled, fury has filled the Internet, and with good reason.

Russia has determinedly passed law after law targeting its homosexual community for discrimination, oppression, and flat-out violence.  As of this writing, homosexual acts  put people in prison in Russia and any kind of political statement or advocacy that could be construed as suggesting that gay people are in any way an acceptable part of Russian society, including simply existing as an out homosexual or being outed, is illegal.  So important is renewing its longstanding alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and maintaining its authoritarian traditions that Russia has effectively made discussing its discrimination against homosexuals illegal.  Add in a police force so famously corrupt that thousands of Russian drivers keep dashboard cameras to document their accidents and the abuse they receive, and the stage is set for crimes against gay people to “mysteriously” go unpunished, and for incitements to violence to come from high offices and pulpits.  One famous set of critics of the Russian Orthodox Church has already faced heavy reprisal; more will follow.

Russia has not been friendly to gay people since at least the time of the Russian Revolution, whether it declared homosexuality a capitalist degeneracy to be extirpated or a crime against God.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this bigotry has asserted itself with vigor that similar monsters in the United States could only fantasize about, and which is met only with the vigor that similar policies receive in sub-Saharan Africa and Islamist theocracies.

All of this was happening as the International Olympic Committee deliberated in 2007 to determine which world city would be the site of the 2014 Winter Games, and it has continued in the time since the Committee decided to put the 2014 games in Russia and the 2018 games in South Korea.

These are far from the first Olympic Games to face controversy.  Games were held in almost-half-of-homeless-youth-are-gay Utah, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and most famously Nazi Germany.  Every one of these places exists in stark violation of the Olympic Movement’s stated philosophy.  None of those sites is compatible with the Olympic Movement’s exhortations toward “social responsibility,” “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” “the harmonious development of humankind,” or “the preservation of human dignity.”  Hilariously, the following command gets its own numbered point in the Fundamental Principles of Olympism (page 10):

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”
And then:

Don’t forget: 1936.  Berlin.  Nazi Fucking Germany.

So when it comes to not offering the honor of hosting the world’s preeminent athletic event in places determined to do evil to humankind…the International Olympic Committee has a pathetic track record.  I have no expectation that the IOC will move the Olympics from the Russian Federation, which is just as well—even stereotypically level-headed nations like Canada and Sweden hide disturbingly recent atrocities behind their polite, industrious facades.  The “world” event that is the Olympic Games would have a VERY short list of potential sites if it limited itself to places with even moderately clean human rights records, and they know this.  Being chosen as the site of an Olympic event is, in practice, little more than recognition that a country has the resources to build a gigantic facility in which the Games will transpire and the infrastructure necessary to support said facility.

Even this jaded writer, however, is aghast at the OTHER crime the International Olympic Committee managed to “overlook” in choosing the site of the 2014 Winter Games.

The IOC didn’t pick just any city in Russia.  The IOC decided on Sochi.

Sochi is the largest resort city in Russia and a much-loved bit of subtropical Black Sea coastline in a country otherwise famous for snowing invading armies to death.  It’s also the former capital of Circassia, a country that existed until it was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1864.

And what of the Circassians?

They received genocide.

The Circassians, during and after the Russo-Caucasian War that undid them, were systematically erased.  The Russian Army drove them by the hundreds of thousands to ports on the Black Sea for deportation to the Ottoman Empire.  Others were herded onto trains to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other areas the Russians wanted to “populate.”  This official policy of extermination of a Circassian race in Russia killed thousands upon thousands of people via shipwrecks on the way to Ottoman lands, starvation, epidemics brought on by crowded transport conditions, and outright murder.  For those who would not leave, the Russians “encouraged” them by razing their villages and destroying their crops.  By one estimate, at least 600,000 people were killed in the decade Russia spent giving the peoples of the Caucasus the choice between exile, death, and abandoning every aspect of their culture and changing their religion.

The Circassians, Adyghe in their language, ruled a nation that stretched from Crimea to Chechnya and took over 300 years for the Russians to conquer.  Now their capital is the warm-weather playground of the Russian elite, and the Adyghe themselves are a minuscule fraction of the population of their own semi-autonomous Russian republic.  The Circassians are held to be the “test case” of the ethnic cleansing practices implemented by virtually every genocidal regime since, wherein the “best practices” for obliterating an entire identity were honed and perfected.
Circassians fleeing the Russian onslaught became substantial fractions of Turkey, Jordan, and the other former Ottoman polities where they settled.  Jordan’s capital, Amman, did not exist before it was founded by exiled Adyghe who remain prominent there.  In Turkey, they say, “If you scratch a Turk, you find a Circassian persecuted by Russians underneath.”

Like the Armenians systematically exterminated in the decades that followed, the Circassians do not yet have universal recognition that their experience was genocide.  They remain one of the least-known such extirpations, despite their history continuing to be the grievance behind much of the violence in the Caucasus.

And then the International Olympic Committee declared that the next Winter Olympics would take place on their former capital on the 150thanniversary of their humiliation.

Usually, when the Olympic Committee decides to honor inhuman cruelty and patterns of action over which the entire human race should hang its head in shame, it’s not quite so brazen as to do it on a decadal anniversary on the very site of those crimes.

There is no realistic possibility that the IOC will change the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Too much is invested in that choice already, and the Committee has bent over backwards to accommodate Russia’s bigoted and draconian rules.  If the IOC withstood accommodating the monsters whose belt buckles read “God With Us” in German, it can withstand accommodating the successor to the empire whose motto was the same in Russian.

But we can make enough of a scene that the people being harmed know that we care, and that we’re aware that the “Olympic Movement” isn’t even trying to live up to its stated goals.  We can use this time that Russia is spending at the center of the world’s attention to remind that world that genocide is old hat for the country that invented pogroms, and we are not amused that they haven’t grown out of it.  We can encourage any and every participant—country, athlete, entertainer, organizer, whatever—to make a statement decrying Russia’s abuses during the Olympics, and dare Russia and the IOC to make good on their threats.

We can remind Russia that the world is rapidly moving past the bigotries it is enthusiastically embracing with its homophobic policies and its internal border shifts designed to finish erasing its various conquered minorities.  We can remind Russia that whatever standing they’ve managed to regain since their 1991 collapse will collapse once more if they continue to be a reactionary, authoritarian, borderline-theocratic funhouse mirror to all of the worst things the United States has ever done.

We can let Russia’s Adyghe and Ossetians and Kalmyks and Sami and Maris and Tatars and homosexuals and Jews and atheists and dissidents and people who think the Russian Orthodox Church should not make decisions for them know that at least some of us stand with them, and not with the flailing, plutocratic empire that is determinedly trying to make all of those nouns into historical curiosities.

We can make sure that, between the rainbow flags that will fill the airwaves in protest, someone films a Circassian flag and tells the rest of us what it stands for, and what Sochi means to the people who rally behind that flag and remember the Caucasus Mountains as the homes they never got to know.

I don’t know that we can do anything else.  But we have to do at least that.


  1. I had absolutely no knowledge of Circassi or Cicassians.
    Thank you for writing this piece and for posting it. I especially appreciate your juxtaposing the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, alongside that of Circassians by the Russian Empire.
    Of course, as a North American, before condemning Russia, I need first acknowledge and talk about what Western European Christians colonizers and/or miltarists did and continue to do to the First Nations of our continent.
    Historically, genocide has known no boundaries.
    That said, the history of Circassia demands telling at this time. Again, thank you.


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