A tragedy that took place in the vicinity of the 2014 Winter Olympics sites continues to be ignored. It’s where hundreds of thousands of Circassians who inhabited the area were were the victims of one of history’s most terrible genocides.
Circassia, a fertile plateau in the northeastern region of the Caucasus, was located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The region extends between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Historically, many Circassians considered Sochi their traditional capital city.
Most of Circassia’s population was brutally expelled from their country by Russia in the 19th century. The Russian-Circassian War began in 1763 and ended in 1864 with the departure of the Circassians from their territory in what many historians consider the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians.
The events that took place were aptly described by Walter Richmond in “The Circassian Genocide.”
Richmond wrote, “Circassia was a small independent nation on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea. For no reason other than ethnic hatred, over the course of hundreds of raids, the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland, and deported them to the Ottoman Empire.
At least 600,000 people lost their lives to massacre, starvation and the elements while hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homeland. The Circassians had to have become one of the first stateless peoples in modern history.”
Toward the end of the conflict, Russian Gen. Nikolai Yevdokimov was given orders to drive the remaining Circassians out of the region, mainly into the Ottoman Empire. In this way, Circassian tribal groups were resettled or killed en masse.
Russian officer I. Drozdov thus described the process: “On the road our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs while still alive. …
“Those alive and healthy had no time to concern themselves with the dying; the Turkish skippers, out of greed, overloaded their boats with Circassians they received payment for like cargo to the shores of Asia Minor and, like cargo, threw anyone who showed the slightest sign of illness overboard.
“The waves threw the corpses of these unfortunate souls onto the shores of Anatolia. … Scarcely half of those who set out made it to their goal.”
On June 2, 1864, the long war ended with the defeat of the Circassian forces, and their leaders signing loyalty oaths to the victors.
Since the defeat, descendants of those killed have fought for international recognition of the genocide that was carried out against the Circassian people. In May 2011, the Georgian Parliament passed unanimously (95-0) a declaration that Russia had carried out genocide when it massacred Circassians in the 19th century.
Today the dispersed Circassians are found in several countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Serbia, Egypt and Israel. They are also found in Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States, including in New Jersey and California.
Circassians living in the Diaspora have faced significant challenges in maintaining their identity and traditions, while keeping alive the memory of their homeland.
In what ethnic Circassians consider an insult to the memory of their ancestors, the 2014 Winter Olympic facilities in Sochi were built in areas thought to contain mass graves of Circassians killed by the Russians. When protests ensued, the Russian government responded by arresting eight prominent Circassian activists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is proud that the Olympics took place without any major incident. He could have been more justly proud if he had acknowledged the historic roles that the Circassians played in that troubled region, and respected and honored their memory.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.