Who can forget the excitement of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia?
Russian athletes set new records in using performance-enhancing drugs. The break out stars were a pair of retired American ice skaters who cooed about each triple lutz while flaunting saucy, coordinated panache. Patrolling Cossacks applauded the Russian rock band, Pussy Riot, with horse whips and pepper spray as they mounted an impromptu, medal-winning performance. And, most memorably, a former NBC host had a bad case of pink eye.
Largely overlooked, though, were the protests of a small group of ethnic nationalists over the games being staged on lands that had belonged to them since antiquity, in addition to skiing and snowboarding events being held on nearby Krasnaya Polyana, or “Red Field,” so called because of the blood spilled by their ancestors at their defeat in a long and painful war with Russia, all on the 150th anniversary of what they and others increasingly call genocide.
No, the plaintiffs were neither Armenians nor Chechens nor passé ice skaters, but rather Circassians, or Adyga, who, among many others, were driven from their homeland during Imperial Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century. But their dormant story begins long before its revival by the Sochi Olympics.
The Adyga appeared on the eastern shore of the Black Sea about four millennia ago, as attested by their residue of dolmens. Over time their vernacular evolved into the northwest Caucasian language known as Cherkess (now distinguished between two mutually intelligible languages, Adyga and Kabardian, and a few dialects).
To Herodotus they were among the regional majority “subsisting entirely on the wild produce of the forest.” Ptolemy identified them as Zakkhians, while other Greeks referred to them as Maeotea. The Arab historian and geographer, Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Hussain al-Mas’udi, who met them in the tenth century, described them as the cleanest and handsomest peoples of the Caucasus. To Russians they were Cherkesy, which probably gave rise to the exonym, Circassian. Among themselves, however, they are Adyga, which, according to an early dictionary of the Circassian language, means “mountaineer” or “highlander,” especially one who lives by the sea.
The boundaries of their traditional homelands in the northwestern Caucasus evade precise definition, but they largely encompassed the area within the Kuban River in the north to the Abkhazian city of Sokhumi in the south, and east of the Black Sea coast to about the mid-range of the North Caucasus slope.
Over the centuries the Adyga were colonized by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans, but they more or less retained their independence, establishing commercial relations with each. Adyga life revolved around their auls, or clan-centered villages, which observed strict codes of hospitality and communality, possibly an outgrowth of the harsh terrain and climate. Life was also semi-migratory involving large herds of sheep. In the thirteenth century they were overrun by the Mongols. They endured slave raids but participated in slavery, as well.
Along the way they lent their name to the cherkeska, the long tunic with rows of cartridge slots across the chest, always topped off with a papakha, the tall fur hat, both of which defined the style of the Caucasus. Though most converted to Islam centuries ago, many took a more syncretic approach to belief, practicing Adygage, or “to be Adyga,” based upon the principles of fidelity to ancestors, homeland, and religious tolerance.
And, by the end of the nineteenth century, they came under the yoke of Russia.
Hostilities with Russia commenced around 1763, when Catherine the Great, seeking to extend her empire into the Caucasus, began building a string of forts to secure the northeastern shores of the Black Sea, in effect hemming in the Adyga homeland. Matters only hardened in 1829 when Russia and the Ottoman Empire negotiated a treaty that rewarded Russia with new territory on the northeastern coast of the Black Sea. The Circassians, claiming that those lands never really belonged to the Turks, stepped up their resistance to Russian rule, which continued even after the fall of Chechnya and Dagestan in 1859. In between there transpired thirty years of imperial aggression and aggrandizement, the flashing of kindjals, revolts, open warfare, guerilla warfare, assaults on forts and mountain aeries, the rise and fall of romantic heroes, betrayals, and other related phenomena best recounted in a good history book.
Of all the peoples inhabiting the Caucasus in the nineteenth century, the Adyga were the first and the last to resist Russian expansion. But Russia, freed by the end of the Crimean War, was able to carry out a series of large-scale military campaigns built upon a policy of cleansing the Caucasus of its hostile elements and removing the Circassian people.
From 1860 to 1864 Russian troops systematically swept through the hills and valleys of the northwest Caucasus, burning villages, destroying crops and livestock, and forcing the Adyga towards the Kuban Valley or onto the coast to be relocated to select parts of the Ottoman Empire, which had agreed to resettle its Muslim brothers. Russian authorities found themselves overwhelmed by a refugee crisis, as they had never planned to accommodate the approximately one-and-a-half-million Circassians forced out of the Caucasian lowlands.
It was about twenty-five miles northeast of the coastal city of Sochi that the Adyga and their allies made their last stand, in an isolated canyon aul formerly known as Qbaada, or fortified ravine, where they finally surrendered on May 21, 1864. A Russian victory parade and banquet preceded their forced removal to the coast. Many perished by the wayside to be eaten by dogs. In a show of sportsmanship, one Russian general harvested Circassian heads at ten rubles apiece.
The remainder were packed tightly on Ottoman and Russian transport ships, styled “floating coffins,” for their deportation to western Anatolia and the Balkans, where they remained a foreign presence for generations. Almost immediately the “Circassian issue,” a topic of import in Europe and America, was dropped by western newspapers, and the Adyga themselves disappeared from the world’s cultural memory. By 1880, ninety percent of the Adyga population, or about 2,000,000, had been expelled from the Caucasus, in the process becoming another stateless nation.
Rubbing salt in the wounds, the Russians re-settled Qbaada in 1869, renaming it Krasnaya Polyana in commemoration of all the Russians, not the Circassians, killed during the battle, and much later transformed it into a royal hunting lodge. After the fall of the Soviet Union Krasnaya Polyana became one of the more popular ski resorts in Russia, reportedly the favorite of Vladimir Putin.
A former Russian fort and embarkation site for deported Adyga quickly grew into a coastal settlement for Russians, and in 1896 was renamed Sochi. Party elites enjoyed it as an up-scale beach resort and spa during the Soviet era. Recent maps published by Russia’s military topographic department promote the region’s vacation and trekking potential, but altogether ignore its history.
Today the precise number of Adyga worldwide is uncertain, but figures range between seven and fourteen million. A minority live on the northwest slope of the Caucasus. Others demonstrate their loyal nature by having served for over a century as the Circassian Guards of the Hashemite Kings of Jordan. In 2011 Georgia officially declared Russia’s actions against the Adyga a genocide, but their right to repatriate the Caucasus was denied by the Russian Federation in 2013. Groups of Adyga occasionally can be seen marching and waving their green flags with gold stars and arrows in front of Russian embassies to protest their misfortunes.
That the 2014 Winter Olympics overlapped with the sesquicentennial of the genocide may be more than coincidence, for the preservation of Circassian identity and culture over the last century-and-a-half has been an Olympian feat all its own.