Circassians call for boycott of Sochi Olympics

A boycott of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics has been called by leaders of the Circassians, who are demanding that the 19th-century Czarist military campaign against their people in the region be officially recognized as a genocide. A delegation of Circassians from the diaspora—including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Germany and the US—has travelled to the North Caucasus to visit the historic sites of their ancestors' homeland before the Games and raise awareness of their campaign.

Terrorist threats against the Olympics have of course complicated the matter. Heads of nine Circassian organizations—seven based in Russia and one each in Turkey and the US—have issued a joint statement condemning the December terrorist bombings in Volgograd. The statement affirms the signatories' shared commitment to use only peaceful methods in their ongoing struggle "for the unity, preservation and development of the Circassian people."

Sochi was once the capital of Circassia, an Ottoman dependency from the 17th century until it was taken by Czar Nicholas I in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828. But the Circassians, or Adyghe in their own tongue, put up resistance to Russian rule for decades to come—finally resulting in a campaign of massacres and mass deportations in the 1850s and '60s under Alexander II. Mostly cleansed of Circassians, the territory was incorporated into the Kuban Oblast—under the domination of the Kuban Cossacks, who had carried out much of the persecution and atrocities. This was divided by the Bolsheviks into other administrative entities in the 1920s (principally the Kubansko-Chernomorskaya Oblast and Mountain People's Autonomous Republic), but in a 1937 re-organization the Kuban oblast was basically re-established, now under the name of the Krasnodar Region. Sochi, today a resort city, remains within Krasnodar Krai under the Russian Federation. In recent years, the Kuban Cossacks have reconstituted as a paramilitary force that helps police Krasnodar Krai.

Lands set aside for the remaining Circassians after the Revolution are small and fragmented. The Kabardino Autonomous Region, established by the Bolsheviks in 1921 as homeland for the remnant Circassians as well as Kabardins and Balkars (all predominantly Muslim peoples), became Kabardino-Balkaria in 1957, when the Balkars, who had been deported by Stalin to Central Asia during World War II, were allowed to return. Kabardino-Balkaria survives today as a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, some hundred miles to the southeast of what had once been the Circassian heartland and is now Krasnodar Krai. Circassians also declared an Adyge Autonomous Province after the Soviet collapse in 1991, which likewise survives, although surrounded on all sides by Krasnodar Krai. A Karachai-Cherkess Autonomous Province was also declared by Karachais and Circassians at this time, which lies between Krasnodar Krai and Kabardino-Balkaria, but the Circassians (Cherkess) constitute only some 10% of its population. (See map.)

The big majority of the 3 million Circassians today live in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and other former areas of the Ottoman empire. Diaspora leaders have opposed calls by Russian nationalists for dissolving the Adyge Autonomous Province and absorbing it into Krasnodar Krai. (World Bulletin, Feb. 1; Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, Jan. 28; GeoCurrents, Jan. 27; The Guardian, VOA, Jan. 24; National Geographic, January 2014; Circassian World, Sept. 2009; BBC News Kabardino-Balkaria profile; University of Pennsylvania Circassian History; Russia's Periphery Kabardino-Balkaria page; Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights; Krasnodar Region General Data)

Circassians have ironically met with persecution in the diaspora as well, at the hands of both Turks and Arabs. In our recent report on Cricassians under threat in Syria, we incorrectly reported that they are a predominantly Christian people. They have been predominantly Sunni Muslim since first coming under Ottoman rule 400 years ago, but are apparently still considered suspect by contemporary Salafists and jihadists.

The current Circassian campaign has drawn parallels with First Nations protests at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.