20 Years of Leading Analysis

In Sochi Don’t Mention the Word “Caucasus”

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Only the most die-hard Russophobe could fail to have enjoyed last Friday's Opening Ceremony for the Winter Olympics. Its panoramic sweep through Russian history extended the notion of Russianness by including cultural figures such as the Jewish painter Marc Chagall and the émigré novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

Of course the visual history lesson glossed over the dark pages of Russian history—there was no Gulag or Stalingrad. But no Olympic host nation would have done that much differently.

What was missing was a mention of the part of Russia that Sochi is located in and whose mountains the skiers are racing on—the Caucasus. Watching those onion domes and Tolstoyan balls, an outside spectator could have been forgiven for not knowing that Sochi was only incorporated into the Russian empire in the mid-19th century by colonial conquest—that this is "Russia's South," with a very different history to its heartlands.

The ceremony surely was the moment to make a gesture to the indigenous Circassian inhabitants of the region, who were bloodily defeated here in 1864 and whose descendants survive only in remnants around Sochi. But that moment came and went.

The planners of these games, beginning with President Vladimir Putin, are not Russian arch-nationalists. Compared to the substantial segment of Russian opinion, which is racist toward Muslims and calls for the Russian to "stop feeding the Caucasus," Putin is quite moderate and stresses that Russian citizenship is a civic and not an ethnic category.

Putin's attitude to the non-Russian Muslim minorities of the North Caucasus could be described as late Soviet. By that I mean he appears to regard them as peoples who "voluntarily joined" Russia, who benefit from its modernizing civilization and whose historical grievances are not to be taken seriously. Hence the failure to give the Sochi Olympics any Caucasian flavor, even of a folkloric kind. Absent that, it looks as though the North Caucasians have been factored into the planning of the games only in so far as they present a security headache.

The Closing Ceremony will strike this note even more discordantly. It is scheduled for February 23. To most Russians, that is the quintessentially male holiday, "Defender of the Fatherland" day. For Chechens and Ingush it will also be the 70th anniversary of Stalin's mass deportations in 1944, a day which sent tens of thousands of their kin to their deaths. So a date, which could easily have been avoided, will end up emphasizing the divide between Russia and the North Caucasus, rather than national togetherness.


Comments (8)

  • Tatiana
    I think De Waal overlooked the most important part of the Sochi Olympics which does include Caucasus but which looks in the future rather than past. I am talking about huge investment in the region to improve the infrastructure and create jobs not only for the Games period but after they are over as well. As for Circassians I do not recall any grievances about unjust treatment of Indians by white men in Uta during the Salt Lake City Olympics or I am wrong?
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    • ColdWarIsOver replies...
      Good point Tatiana. The majority of people I know from the southern republics are strong supporters of Putin because he rejects nationalism, unlike the most popular opposition leader Navalny. That is not to say that Putin hasn't manipulated the nationalists for political gain, but overall he does not support the denigration of non-ethnic Russians.

      It is hypocritical to denounce the annexation of Circassia in the mid 19th century as imperialism, while the colonization of America ended in the death and displacement of millions of natives. Even more poignant that the US overthrew the government of Hawaii, to be later annexed, even later than the annexation of Circassia.

      This article isn't as bad as some of the other ones, but overall the Western media has presented a Russophobic front that does more than alienate just the guys in charge. Many of the even the most liberal Russians are offended by the representation of their country in the Western media.

      Many of the Russians gays even are tired of being used as a geopolitical weapon against their birth country. One of the most prominent gay activists in St. Petersburg spoke out against the hypocrisy of the Western media.

      Finally, the Western media needs to ask themselves this question, why is it acceptable to use the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to deride every aspect of Russian society while the Beijing Olympics were instead a celebration of their economic growth?
  • Sinem
    In Carnegie Don't Mention the Words 'Ubykh and Abkhaz'. Circassian (Adigha), Ubykh and Abkhaz who were bloodily defeated in Sochi - Caucasus.
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  • American
    Tatiana in above comment is right. We Americans should stop being such egocentric and Cold War minded a-holes. The Cold War is over and the Berlin Wall is no more. Is that clear?
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  • feliz
    Tatiana, do you work in Russian embassy? You are telling russian governements talking points :)
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  • Irina
    Well done, Mr. De Waal! I applaud you for truthful facts about unjust treatment of North Caucasians (excluding Cossaks) then and now! It is not a secret that Cossaks are being favored only due to their slav descent. There are many more unfair things .... a web of deceit.... chauvinistic statements.... anyway, thank you for the truthful eye!!!
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  • Georgian
    Thomas De Waal missed one more important anniversary date: 95 years ago, on 7 February (the opening night of the Sochi Winter Olympics) Georgia lost Sochi to Russia.
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  • Yianni

    Mr. Thomas de Waal, I can see you are educated enough and from your position you are getting paid to spread hate and bigotry.

    Did America during the Olympic games talk about the butchering of the American Indians? About the slavery of the blacks? About the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? When Germany had the Olympics did they mention about Hitler? If Turks ever have the Olympic games, are they going to mention the butchering of the Armenians, the Greeks, Assyrians and the Kurds.

    I assume you take advantage of your position to spread hate and stir trouble.

    Shame on you!!!!
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