The Challenges of the Sochi Olympics and Russia’s Circassian Problem

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 33

Although it has been a month since the Russian city of Sochi was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics, the euphoria generated by this event in Russia has yet to subside. Both the state-run Russian media and the few relatively independent media sources have set aside special continuing coverage for the story. “Sochi-2014” is given priority attention, including daily updates. In some media sources, there have now been more than 3,000 news segments devoted to the Sochi games. In general, when a subject receives this level of attention in the Russian media, it is usually because the state has ordered special coverage of it.

In addition to the news bulletins, the Russian press is also lavishing analysis on the Sochi story. Many issues concerning the Sochi Olympics have elicited lively discussions both in the media and among the public, including questions regarding the following issues: the value of the government’s capital investments to prepare for the games (figures from 18 to 300 billion rubles are cited); the identity of the future supervisor of the Olympic project (it is said that President Putin himself will choose this official—undoubtedly someone who will be unquestionably loyal to the president); and the businesses and state entities that will be allowed to participate in the project (Gazprom, the state energy monopoly RAO EES, the Ministry of Defense, the state railroad corporation, and others, are all mentioned).

Regardless of their disagreements, one issue which all participants in these media debates agree: upon is that Sochi-2014 is the personal project of Vladimir Putin. In light of the upcoming elections to the Duma, to be followed by the presidential election in 2008, this project is necessarily political in character. It has already become apparent that Sochi-2014 has become the main political argument in the unopposed propaganda campaign being waged by Putin’s team, which is intended to preserve their power and expand their sphere of influence. For instance, practically every poster in the country that advertises the coming Sochi Olympics features a depiction of the Olympic ring symbol, juxtaposed with a portrait of a smiling President Putin—as though the two images represented a single organic whole. This is also true of the campaign propaganda being utilized by Putin’s United Russia Party, which likewise exploits the Sochi “brand” in most of its campaign materials.

From the media coverage of Sochi-2014, one might be under the impression that the whole country has joined together in idolizing President Putin. The Russian state-controlled media constantly emphasizes that it is only due to the sheer force of the Putin’s will that the International Olympic Committee selected Sochi. One might also get the impression that there is not a single person in Russia who does not take endless pleasure in the Sochi Olympics. This apparently universal rejoicing is one of the major achievements of Putin’s approach to the press. He enjoys such complete control over the Russian media that he can project whatever mirage he desires upon the public’s consciousness.

Yet, there is genuine opposition to the Sochi Olympic Games within today’s Russia. Opponents point to the serious problems with Sochi. The problems are serious enough that many people—including some in the government—doubt that it will actually be possible to conduct the Olympic Games on the Black Sea coast. Although such statements tend to be extremely vague and guarded, they have nonetheless been made.

For example, the most popular Russian sports newspaper, Sport Express, cites the opinion of Svetlana Zhurova, an Olympic champion and a legislative assembly member of the Leningrad Oblast. Zhurova believes that “Sochi could lose the right to host the 2014 Olympiad at any moment.” In her words, the Sochi Games “could always be canceled,” and this problem will be especially acute in the coming two to three years (Sport Express, July 24).

The problems of Sochi can be grouped into three categories: environmental issues, military- and security-related issues, and issues of national history.

The environmentalists have been the most outspoken group. They continue to call attention to the irreparable damage that the construction of the Olympic sites will inflict on the unique natural environment of the Black Sea coast. The environmental organization “Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus” is distributing press releases on threats to the nearby National Park. However, these claims are not widely published, and therefore they are not receiving much public attention. There has only been one occasion when the regional government of Krasnodar Krai has engaged in actual dialog with the environmentalists. Those negotiations led to an agreement to create and finance a special nature preserve in order to compensate for the damage to the environment.

As representatives of “Environmental Watch” state in their most recent July 29 press release, the regional government abrogated all its agreements as soon as Sochi was selected by the IOC. “We’ve realized that the appearance of good will in solving major environmental problems that the government of Krasnodar Krai projected was nothing more than a cunning trap, which was intended to get us to stop making speeches during the run-up to the IOC’s decision,” says the organization.

However, the environmentalists are referring to only one aspect of the environment: the preservation of a unique natural setting and a unique climate zone. The existing problems around Sochi are evidence that no expert environmental assessments of the site of the future Olympic Games have been conducted.

The basic problem is that the eastern part of the Northwest Caucasus, and particularly the region immediately adjacent to Krasnaya Polyana on the east—the area that is the heart of the 2014 Olympic Games—should have aroused serious concern not only among environmentalists, but also within the IOC.

Here are only a few of the sites that are located within this area:

– Europe’s largest radio telescope, Ratan-600; it is not known what happens to the radioactive waste it generates.

– Southern Russia’s largest metal works, which belongs to the Ural Mining Company. It specializes in extracting and refining minerals, including radioactive ones. Its waste is emptied into an open, uninhabited space on the border between Krasnodar Krai and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. At present, this entire region is a dead zone extending for several kilometers, as the author of this article was able to confirm by personal observation during an independent research trip.

Naturally, the truth about the environmental conditions in this region is a state secret. There is only one indication that the situation is extremely alarming: the percentage of people infected with cancer among the population of the Urupskii, Pregradneskii, and Zelenchukskii districts of Karachaevo-Cherkessia is higher than that in closed radioactive sites. This assertion comes from Dr. Rashid Botashev, the chief doctor of the Cancer Center in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. In his interview with the author of this article, Dr. Botashev said, “I can’t cite figures. I can only say that there has been a directive to lower the statistics artificially. By way of comparison, I can say that our figures are higher than those in Chelyabinsk-14 [a Soviet-era nuclear research site now contaminated with radiation].”

The military or security concerns surrounding the Sochi Olympics are less serious than the environmental issues. The situation in the North Caucasus remains tense, and despite the Kremlin’s concerted attempt to convince the world that the “Chechen conflict” has been resolved, the conflict has in fact spread beyond Chechnya, expanding into the other republics. While keeping up a façade of indifference, Moscow is actually extremely concerned with the security of Russia’s southern borders. As the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta has reported in several articles in its “Caucasus” section, the total number of Russian troops deployed to the Caucasus during the last six months is greater than ever before. In addition, whereas in recent decades Russian forces in the Caucasus were mostly composed of police “special forces” (spetsnaz or special units used in counter-terrorism activities and accused of numerous human rights abuses), Interior Ministry troops, and the FSB, in the last two years the Russian Ministry of Defense has substantially increased its presence in the northwest Caucasus—Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Adygeya.

The recruitment of troops to be stationed in this part of the Caucasus takes place in central Russia and the Moscow region. The recruits undergo six months of specialized training, as has been reported by the Russian press, including the state television station “Severnyi Kavkaz.” Ministry of Defense forces in the Northwest Caucasus are notable for the high quality of their equipment and supplies. The Russian armed forces have deployed motorized artillery brigades specially equipped with helicopters and all-terrain vehicles for mountain warfare, and there are also four air force bases. All such forces receive the latest military technology, as well as excellent living conditions.

The extensive resources that are being devoted to the Northwest Caucasus suggest that Moscow is frightened, and is seriously preparing itself behind the scenes for something that will be on a larger scale than the war in Chechnya. In these circumstances, the very idea that the Olympic Games could be conducted in such a region has to be called into question.

The third problem of Sochi is that of national history, or to be precise, the Circassian problem. On first glance, the Circassian issue is less serious than the two previous ones—but not for those who are familiar with the history of the hundred-year Russo-Circassian War and the contemporary problems in the relations between the Circassians and the Russian state.

For people in Russia, “Sochi” is an ordinary place, with a name that has no particular meaning. But for Circassians—the indigenous inhabitants of the Northwest Caucasus—Sochi is not only a word in their native language (which can be translated into English as “extreme heat”), but also a symbol of the Circassians’ national tragedy. According to the memoirs of Russian military historians and Generals Berzhe, Velyaminov, and Potto, the Black Sea coastal region was the arena of the fiercest battles in the history of the Russo-Caucasian War of the nineteenth century. According to their estimates, at least 300,000 Circassians perished in this region, including women and children.

Circassian sources, on the other hand, believe that these mortality figures have been deliberately lowered. Relying on data compiled by foreign scholars of the Caucasus, the scholar Samir Khatko has written an academic article asserting that there were actually more than one million deaths among the Circassians during the last four years of the war in the Northwest Caucasus. According to Khatko’s data, a roughly equal number of people were deported from the Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire. As a result, in the contemporary world, the Circassian diaspora consists of approximately six million people residing in many different countries—a figure that is six times larger than the number of Circassians residing in Russia.

On July 5, the Caucasus Times published a historical essay entitled, “The Games on Bones.” The article contains an analysis of the nineteenth century history of Sochi and does not support the holding of the Olympic Games in the city. Moreover, the phrase “The Games on Bones” is not just a figure of speech, but is a literal description of recent developments. There have been claims that human remains uncovered during the construction of the Olympic sites in Sochi have been defiled.

An anti-Olympic movement exists on all of the numerous Circassian internet sites. For instance, one of the sites,, based in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, contains a posting from a participant under the username “Pilgrim” that describes how the construction work has been conducted in Krasnaya Polyana. “Pilgrim” tells the story of a former construction worker, who was dismissed after he saw a bulldozer unearth an incredible number of human bones from under the top layer of the soil. The former employee claims that the bones were then plowed back under the ground. This kind of suppression of the truth makes sense when one bears in mind just how important this construction project is for the Kremlin.

For the Circassians, their history is not a matter of the remote past. In 2006, the Circassian Congress, an organization which has representative offices in two countries of the world, appealed to a number of Russian and international organizations to acknowledge the genocide committed by Russia against the Circassians in the nineteenth century. While Russia’s official institutions refused to consider the Circassians’ appeal, the European Parliament has accepted it for consideration.

The Circassian diaspora is unwilling to accept such treatment from Russia. “During Vladimir Putin’s visit to Jordan, he was asked a question about Circassia. The Russian President answered that Circassia is an internal problem of Russia,” Iyad Yougar, president of the Circassian Cultural Institute in America noted. “This is absolutely false,” Yougar argues, “because we, the six million Circassians living in the diaspora, have never been Russian citizens. We cannot become Russian citizens even if we wish to do so, because Russia will not let us. So, we are deprived of the right to regain our historic homeland, Circassia. That’s why we insist that the Circassian problem is an international one and is a matter for international law.”

One also has to consider the fact that there is now armed resistance occurring in the territory of historic Circassia. Analysts both within Russia and abroad have viewed the Nalchik uprising of October 2005 as Circassia’s entry into a war of liberation.

When one considers all of the problems that surround it, Sochi’s Olympic future looks extremely alarming. One can only conclude that the IOC could not have made a more unfortunate choice in selecting the location of the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the Sochi Games do indeed take place, they may well suffer the same fate as the last Soviet Olympics held in Moscow in 1980: international isolation.