When I first saw P. N. Gruzinsky’s 1872 painting, “The mountaineers leave the aul,” I was immediately struck by the parallels to a well-known painting of the Trail of Tears depicting members of the Five Civilized Tribes being driven from their homelands to Oklahoma. For more than 150 years, the Circassian people, whose former capital was Sochi, Russia, have been pressing for recognition of the genocidal expulsion from their homelands.
“My mother was running, holding my hand she was terrified someone was after us like rabid dogs …looking backward panting, afraid, I was afraid, too. She couldn’t keep running anymore…she said I had to make it on my own so as not to be killed the way my father was ..You have to survive. Our homeland needs you alive…you have to come back don’t let them capture you.
She said they fought for a hundred years…I didn’t know who these people were and why they wanted us dead.”
This may sound like one of our own tribal stories here in North America, yet it comes from the short film, “A stain in Russian history The Circassian Genocide In 1864.”
In all the coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, you may have not have heard about the genocide of the Circassian people 150 years ago when 1.5 million were either killed or driven from their ancient homelands across the Black Sea to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel.
It is estimated that some 700,000 Circassians died in and around Sochi and the site of the ski slope where many of the Olympic events are taking place was a mass grave to untold numbers of their people. In fact, the name of the Olympic village, Krasnaya Polyana, meaning “Red Glade” in Russian is where thousands of Circassians were massacred.
As Muhammed Cherkesov, a Russian Circassian leader told a Reuters reporter in October 2011, “We’re talking about holding the Olympics over a mass grave of Circassians.”
These words will bring chills to any Native person in the United States familiar with fights to keep development off of our own grave sites. There is no Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, and Russia refuses to even recognize a genocide occurred.
The existence of the Circassian people, whose occupancy of this area of the Caucasus along the Black Sea can be documented back to the Stone Age, has been erased from the official record. The local museum in Sochi carries no information about the Circassian people and their culture, despite the name of the city being of Circassian origin. And the Cossacks who killed and massacred the local people have replaced them and even assumed their traditional dress as their own.
And in a familiar note, Circassian is not their word for themselves. They call themselves Adyghe meaning highlander. Circassian is believed to derive from Turkish word meaning warrior-cutter.
When Putin appeared before the International Olympic Committee in Guatamala City in 2007 he described the historical importance of the area by recalling, “The ancient Greeks lived around Sochi centuries ago,” but failed to mention the Circassians at all. The Adyghe competed in the first Olympic games in Ancient Greece.
All of this—loss of homeland, cultural erasure, cultural appropriation—are familiar to Native Americans. And this latest outrage on the international stage has reinvigorated the Adyghe people’s fight for their homeland. “Sochi has awakened us,” says Samir Khatko, a scholar of Circassian history at the Adygean Republican Institute of Humanities Studies. “The youth [are] becoming more politicized.”
The youth have led the “No Sochi” movement to prevent the Olympic Games from being held at Sochi. You can read their impassioned articles at NoSochi2014.com and their Facebook group No Sochi 2014. They have a YouTube channel No Sochi 2014. Unable to prevent the Games being held at Sochi they have renamed their campaign Know Sochi 2014, to bring greater knowledge of their people’s history.
In 18th and 19th century Europe, the Circassian people were romanticized as ‘ideal humans” for their warrior culture, physical beauty and noble bearing. In 1836, Edmund Spencer in “Travels in Circassia, Krim Tatary, Etc,” described them as possessing “symmetrical forms and classic features, seemed breathing statues of immortal Greece; the other [Russian Cossacks], coarse-looking, short, and thick-limbed, appeared like an inferior race of beings…The mountaineer, free as the eagle on the wing, stepped and moved, as if proudly conscious of his independence, with a dauntless self-confidence not unmixed with scorn, that none but a child of liberty could exhibit in his bearing…”
Compare this to romanticized descriptions of American Indians during the same era. The artist George Catlin writes during the same decade as Spencer, “Even here, the predominant passions of the savage breast, of treachery and cruelty, are often found, yet restrained and frequently subdued by the noblest traits of honor and magnanimity, a race of men who live and enjoy life and its luxuries, and practice its virtues, very far beyond the usual estimations of the world.”
And like Native Americans, the independent Circassians faced displacement from their homelands, caught between the Russian Empire in the North and the Ottoman Empire to the South. The Treaty of Adrianople in 1829 between the two powers gave the Circassian’s land over to Russia without their knowledge or consent.
The Adyghe’s refusal to accept the terms of the treaty led to Russia waging total war on them. In 1838, Great Britain recognized their independence. However, the Tsar still thought of them as “nothing more than rebellious Russian subjects, ceded to Russia by their legal sovereign the Sultan,” but who were in fact, as one Russian general noted, “one and a half million valiant, militaristic mountain dwellers who had never recognized any authority over them.”
During the Crimean War in 1856, the fighting intensified when the British promised them support, but when it did not come, tragedy struck. The last stand for the Adyghe people was at Kbaada, the site of the Olympic Village. On May 21, 1864, some 20,000 warriors surrounded by 100,000 Russian soldiers and Cossacks chose martyrdom over surrender. The rivers ran red with their blood all the way to the Black Sea and the Tsar declared a national holiday.
A Russian officer described the aftermath of the loss, “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 four dogs while still alive.”
Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the Adyghe were officially a stateless people and it is estimated more than 625,000 died of starvation, disease and massacres. The rest, about 600,000-850,000 people, were driven to the shore of the Black Sea and forced to board overloaded Turkish ships to leave their homeland forever.
The French adventurer Arthur de Fonvielle saw “whole groups of emigrants froze or were carried away by blizzards, and we often noticed, going past, the traces of their blood. Wolves and bears dug through the snow and pulled human bodies from underneath it.” He had come to help the Circassian resistance but was only able to write down his observations and provide a written documentation of the atrocity.
A Russian scholar, Adolph Petrovich Berzhe wrote, “I shall never forget the overwhelming impression made on me by the mountaineers in Novorossiisk Bay, where 17,000 of them were gathered on the shore. The late, inclement and cold time of year, the almost complete absence of means of subsistence and the epidemic of typhus and smallpox raging among them made their situation desperate. And indeed, whose heart would not be touched on seeing, for example, the already stiff corpse of a young Circassian woman lying in rags on the damp ground under the open sky with two infants, one struggling in his death-throws while the other sought to assuage his hunger at his dead mother’s breast? And I saw not a few such scenes.”
Nearly all of the written accounts come from Russians and foreigners. The Adyghe were an oral culture and few were literate. This has made it difficult to document and obtain international recognition of this genocide. One document written in uneven Turkish and addressed to Queen Victoria written by an anonymous Adyghe was found in a diplomatic folder in London’s National Archives dated April 12, 1864:
“It is now more than 80 years since the Russian government is unlawfully striving to subdue and annex to its dominions Circassia. It slaughters like sheep the children, helpless women, and old men that fall into its hands. It rolls about their heads with the bayonet like melons, and there is no act of oppression or cruelty which is beyond the pale of civilization and humanity, and which defies description, that it has not committed.”
The letter written was simply signed “the Circassian nation.”
Today Russian President Putin has spent an estimated $50 billion on the games—more than all other previous Winter Olympic games combined. That is calculated to have cost nearly $19 million per athlete. The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 spent about $3 million per athlete. There are accusations of embezzlement and poor construction. Sites like Sochi-2014: The Reverse Side of the Medal document with an interactive map the costs of each Olympic site.
There is also speculation on how many graves were dug up at the Olympic site. As a Navajo, I know that my grandfather would never allow me to attend an event held on a mass grave. And if I did so unknowingly, I would have to have a ceremony when I got home.
Zack Barsik, a Circassian born in the United States, says, “We don’t want to be a footnote in history of a people that got completely decimated by the Russians and they got away with it,” he says. “And not only that, they went and celebrated the Sochi Olympics on their graves.”
Jacqueline Keeler is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. She is producing 7-Oil-1: Inside the Bakken, a documentary about the oil boom on the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota. She lives in Portland, Oregon.