A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 7, 2014

Let the Games Begin: But Remember Those Who Were There First

Kizbech Tuguzhoko
Kizbech Tuguzhoko (also Tuguzhoko Kizbech), the fellow at left, may prove to be a specter haunting the Sochi Olympics. A member of the Shapsug tribe of the Circassian or Adyghe people ("Circassian" also applies to speakers of the related Kabardian language), he led the resistance to Russian expansion into Circassia until his death in 1840. A generation later, the conquest was complete, and in 1864 the Russian state began the systematic expulsion of most of the Circassian population. That was in 1864, 150 years before the Olympics will open in Sochi, the Russian town that arose in the old Shapsug territory. Most Circassians settled in the Ottoman Empire; many Shapsugs settled in Amman, Jordan, which has more Circassians today than Sochi does. Perhaps 1.5 million people were relocated from various parts of the Caucasus when Russia conquered their territories. In Turkey, Jordan, and other former Ottoman lands, some members of the Circassian diaspora have protested Sochi as an Olympic venue, as I've noted previously. But Sochi has also led to a revived consciousness of Circassian identity elsewhere, as in this article on Circassians in Turkey.

Now, no one really expects the Russians to promote the Sochi Games as "The Sesquicentennial of Circassian Ethnic Cleansing." But I also will be surprised if today's opening ceremonies even show any hint of those who were pushed out 150 years ago. Some in the Circassian diaspora have even claimed that the Olympic site is built over the site of a mass grave from the Russo-Circassian War, but I do not know if that is the case. What you're unlikely to see at the opening is a lot of Circassians.

P.N. Grunitzky, The Mountaineers Leave the Aul*
The Adyghe can be traced back as a continuous culture more or less to the Neolithic, but after a 100 Years War from the 1760s to the 1860s, those left alive were transferred by the victorious Tsarist Russian regime to the Ottoman Empire, which had at least a tenuous theoretical sovereignty over the region. (Though as Russia has learned in nearby Chechnya and Dagestan, mountaineers in the Caucasus are hard to control effectively.) (* Picture note: An aul was a fortified village.)

There is still an Adyghia Republic within the Russian Federation, but it does not include Sochi. There are still many Circassians in Russia, but not on the Black Sea Coast where Sochi stands. The size of the diaspora is hard to estimate, due to intermarriage and the fact that the Arabic and Turkish words Tcherkess, variously spelled, is sometimes used to refer to Chechens and other Caucasians speaking unrelated languages.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest population is in Turkey, the nearest part of the Ottoman realm to Old Circassia; in the Arab Levant, Jordan has the biggest population by far, but there are significant populations in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and even Egypt. One still meets the occasional red-haired and blue-eyed Turk or Arab who is stereotypically Circassian, but most aren't that distinguishable from their neighbors. But they remember their past.

This CBC article looks at the way indigenous culture was handled t the 2010 Vancouver games and quotes:
Canadian scholar John Colarusso argues that Russia should take a similar approach to the Vancouver Olympics in its opening ceremony – prominently embracing and showcasing indigenous culture.
The 2010 Vancouver Games marked the first time in the Olympics history that indigenous people were recognized as official partners. Four First Nations bands also played prominent roles in the opening ceremony.
Well, yes, but British Columbia's history of treatment of its indigenous people, whom it now calls First Nations, is very different from that of Russia in the Caucasus, or for that matter a certain neighbor of Canada's to the south. (Hint: where did Sitting Bull go after the Custer battle? Canada, of course, which took him in.). It would be wonderful if Sochi emulated Vancouver. And if Vladimir Putin rode at the head of the opening parade on a unicorn. I don't expect we'll see either.

Next fantasy? We can, however, remember that Sochi was built on land which until just 150 years ago (again let me emphasize the 150th anniversary is THIS YEAR, which particularly offends Circassians).

Old Circassia around 1740: (this and all other pictures in this post are from Wikimedia Commons.)

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