Skip to main content

The Olympics' forgotten people

By Frankie Martin
January 23, 2014 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
The sun rises over Sochi's Olympic Park on January 10, 2014. The 2014 Winter Olympics will run February 7 - 23 in Sochi, Russia. Six thousand athletes from 85 countries are scheduled to attend the 22nd Winter Olympics. Here's a look at the estimated $50 billion transformation of Sochi for the Games. The sun rises over Sochi's Olympic Park on January 10, 2014. The 2014 Winter Olympics will run February 7 - 23 in Sochi, Russia. Six thousand athletes from 85 countries are scheduled to attend the 22nd Winter Olympics. Here's a look at the estimated $50 billion transformation of Sochi for the Games.
HIDE CAPTION
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
Sochi transformed
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frankie Martin: Sochi's indigenous people largely ignored in run-up to Olympics
  • Putin's talk of Sochi's history leaves out Circassians, purged by Russia in 19th century
  • He notes outcry from Circassian diaspora over Games being sited on graves of forebears
  • Martin: Other Olympic hosts have recognized indigenous people; Russia can still do this

Editor's note: Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International Service in Washington and was senior researcher for the book "The Thistle and the Drone" by Akbar Ahmed (Brookings Institution Press, 2013).

(CNN) -- As the opening of next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, approaches, the controversies surrounding the games seem to accumulate by the day.

These have included criticism of Russia's human rights record, particularly its treatment of homosexuals, its environmental policies and, with the recent suicide bombings in Volgograd, its anti-terrorism actions and strategy in the Caucasus.

Calls to boycott the games and other international pressure have led Russia to release high-profile dissidents including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-oil tycoon, and members of the punk band Pussy Riot.

Frankie Martin
Frankie Martin

Yet for all the heat generated in these controversies, one of the most significant issues of all surrounding the Olympics has been nearly ignored: Recognition of the indigenous people of Sochi, the Circassians.

The Circassians, who are mostly Muslim, resided in Sochi for millennia. In the 19th century, an expanding Russian Empire coveted their territory -- which is south and east of Russia proper -- and used overwhelming force to defeat them. Russia killed around 1.5 million Circassians and expelled a similar number, mostly to the Ottoman Empire, with many dying of famine and disease. Entire tribes were decimated; for example, the Shapsugh tribe was reduced from 300,000 to 3,000 people.

The bloodiest battle of all, which Circassians refer to as their "last stand," occurred in the vicinity of Sochi, the Circassian capital, in 1864. The Circassians describe the catastrophe that befell their people as the first modern genocide.

The few Circassians able to remain in the Caucasus found themselves a minority in their own land, which was quickly settled by Russians. Those who were expelled or escaped were forced to migrate from country to country in search of safety and stability. Diaspora Circassians have faced huge challenges in attempting to preserve their identity and traditions and keep the memory of their homeland alive.

When it was announced that Sochi would host the 2014 Winter Olympics, there was an outcry among Circassians, who were profoundly insulted that the games would be staged on the graves of their ancestors, almost exactly 150 years after the Sochi "last stand." Circassians launched global campaigns of protest amidst reports of human remains being discovered at Olympic construction sites.

The Circassians complained of intimidation by the Russians, who, for example, last month arrested eight prominent Circassian activists in the Caucasus, all of whom were respected public figures.

Sochi's "black widow" threat
'Leap of faith' going to Sochi

The Circassians found it intolerable not only that Sochi was selected to host the Olympics, but also that Russia did not seem to acknowledge that Circassians even lived there. When President Vladimir Putin delivered his bid for the games in a speech to the International Olympic Committee in 2007, he said that the Sochi area used to be inhabited by ancient Greeks and did not mention the Circassians. This is noteworthy because not only did the Circassians live in the region at the time of the Greeks and maintain close ties with them, but they actually participated in the original Olympic games.

Russia's indifference towards its indigenous people sharply contrasts with Canada's policy at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. Then, for the first time in history, the native peoples of the area were made official hosts of the Olympics and were involved in every aspect of the games. A depiction of an inukshuk, an indigenous landmark and symbol, was featured as the official logo of the Olympics.

The governments of Canada and British Columbia contributed millions of dollars to centers that educated visitors about indigenous culture and history. Other recent Olympics, for example in Salt Lake City in 2002, also prominently featured the native peoples of that area.

Despite Russia's failures on the Circassian issue, Putin still has time to act. He has already taken the crucial step of allowing protests at the Olympics, and protesters, Circassian and otherwise, must be allowed to freely express themselves to the world's media. Putin can also push for an acknowledgement of the Circassians at the opening ceremony and speak on the issue. A serious and sincere acknowledgment of the Circassians would help demonstrate to the world that Putin is serious about his vision of a modern and multiethnic "new Russia."

The United States and Australia have officially apologized for the horrors they inflicted on indigenous peoples, and by taking positive action at the Sochi Olympics, Russia can move in a similar direction. Perhaps such a gesture of respect could help the nation find a solution to the festering problem of the Caucasus, where areas to the east of Sochi, such as Dagestan and Chechnya, remain in a state of war and hopelessness.

It is impossible to bring back the mass numbers of Circassians killed at Sochi and the surrounding region in the 19th century. What Russia, and all of us, can do is remember and honor them. By doing so, we affirm the important role that indigenous peoples must play in the 21st century, and also help ensure that the destruction of an entire people never happens again.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frankie Martin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT