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150 Years After Defeat, Sochi Olympics Divide Native Circassians

  • Henry Ridgwell

As thousands of visitors enjoy the Winter Olympic venues in Sochi, there is a growing argument about the history of the land they were built on. Russia forcefully expelled the indigenous people of the region, a Muslim ethnic group known as the Circassians, 150 years ago.

Stray dogs laze next to fly-bitten cows in the muddy roads, disturbed only by the occasional tractor or beaten-up car. There is a slow hiss and lingering smell from the old overground gas pipes that snake through the village.

Bolshoi Kichmai seems a long way from the futuristic ice domes of the Olympic Park, but it is only one hour from Sochi along twisting mountain roads.

Ninety percent of the residents are ethnic Shapsug Circassians, the indigenous Muslim people of the northern Caucasus.

'Gallant soldier'

In the village folk museum, director Aisa Achmizov stokes the fire beneath a cauldron of soup. He speaks proudly of his race.

“The word Circassian can be translated differently, but here it has one meaning - gallant soldier,” he said.

Just a few villages like this survive near Sochi. The Circassian population was nearly wiped out in the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in 1860s.

Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee from the beaches of Sochi on boats, and up to a third of these people drowned or starved to death. Georgia has officially recognized the expulsion as genocide.

Mixed reaction

Moscow has offered little recognition or apology, angering many of the millions of Circassians living overseas.

In May this year the Circassians will mark 150 years since their defeat at the hands of Russian forces. But Circassian Governing Council local chairman Khalid Talif said few Circassians here appear interested in stirring up history.

"It is an historical fact that Circassians were defeated by Russian forces and became part of Russia," said Talif. "But now, you will not find one person here who wants to break away and be independent of Russia.”

Last week Chechen Islamist leader Doku Umarov invoked the history of the Circassians in calling for terror attacks against the Sochi Olympics -- saying the Olympic facilities were built on the bones of dead Muslims.

Aisa Achmizov of the folk museum said those sentiments have no place among the Circassians.

"There is nowhere in the world where blood has not been spilt at some point in history," he said. “The Olympics is a question for the politicians, not for us.”

Inside the Olympic Park, organizers have erected a ‘Circassian House’ to showcase their culture. Asked by VOA at a news conference about Circassian concerns, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov gave a robust defense.

Last August, Circassians from all over the world came to a convention in Sochi, and not one person had anything bad to say, said Pakhomov, adding that “many visitors thought that the Circassians here are living better than they do. So everything you know is incorrect.”

The debate over the historic fate of the Circassians in Sochi is happening far beyond the remote valleys of Bolshoi Kichmai, driven mainly by the diaspora overseas.
Circassians here appear more interested in self-preservation and teaching their culture to future generations.