“Olympism is the marriage of sport and culture.” (Juan Antonio Samarach)
“Holding Olympic Games means evoking history.” (Pierre de Coubertin)
“As long as your ideology identifies the main source of the world’s ills as a definable group, it opens the world up to genocide.” (Stephen Pinker)
Despite a record setting $51 billion that Russia spent in preparation for these 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, this event attracted few international visitors; and even fewer Western leaders joined President Putin in his VIP section. With sparse crowds and half empty stands, volunteers fill vacant seats. As Russia’s largest, fashionable resort city, Sochi is located along the coast of the Black Sea near the border, between the often conflicted states of Abkhazia and Georgia. Among the many questions which arise around this choice of location is: why a sub-tropical, beach resort with palm trees, as a setting for winter sports? Please bear with me now since we are about to enter into some serious historical complexity. As Winston Churchill so aptly observed, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key….Russian national interest.”
Having visited and worked there on many occasions, I can only agree; and do we not also have our own riddles and enigmatic mysteries, withheld in the interest of our own, so called, national homeland security interests?
Some speculate that while there may be some current and obvious explanations for low attendance rates at these Sochi Winter Olympics, such as the considerable expense of just getting there, bureaucratic delays, visa issues, and so on; there are also a number of deeply rooted historical reasons, as well. After the fall of the former USSR, their vast political entity broke up into what have become fifteen separate countries, with Russia remaining as the largest. From Moscow’s, long-standing centralist perspective, this breakup meant that they lost nearly a quarter of their land, population, influence, resources and money. They were, in essence, left with a thoroughly gutted, dispirited military, a collapsed economy, a crippled space program and the criminal corruption of civil society. (Ryan Faith, “Why the Hell Are The Olympics Being Held In Sochi Anyway?”, vice.com, February 7, 2014).
My first trip to Russia took place during this turbulent period. I remember lines that I wrote back in 1992, describing a long, snowy winter walk, taken together with a Russian colleague, (raised in the Caucasus region), along Moscow’s main pedestrian mall, known as The Arbat,… “As you see”, he offered quietly, “it is all falling apart, … not only here in Russia , but now we have economic collapse, war, and many natural disasters all over our planet. We live in time of rapid social change which will also come to your own America”. (A. St Just, Relative Balance in an Unstable World, 2006).
During these turbulent times, the always enigmatic Vladimir Putin began his rise to power, which also included a determination to strengthen and stabilize his country by asserting control over a rebellious Caucasus region. This was no easy task given that this mountainous territory is populated by a volatile mix of over 50 different ethnic groups, with at least a half dozen religions, and an untold number of languages and dialects; who don’t take kindly to outside intervention. Adding to these levels of diversity, there exist an indecipherable network of clans and tribes, with feuds that have been ongoing for thousands of years. Given that centralized Moscow had been fighting this region for eras, long predating the USSR, the dissolution of that political conglomerate provided ample opportunity for the Caucasus territories to return to their long standing, familiar chaos. Nevertheless, President Putin was not in accord with any such return to multiple and divisive tribal loyalties; and declaring Sochi as a showcase-city for his New Russia, is something like a George W. Bush-style, “Mission Accomplished” propaganda banner, announcing that Russia has won the Caucasus.
Students of history may well understand why the massive propaganda-extravaganza at Sochi did not sit at all well with a now international Circassian community, who were driven from what was once their ancestral homeland. While most of us have heard little of these Caucasian people and their history, their story has now risen to the forefront of winter events in Sochi. (Oliver Ayyildiz, “Russia Probably Won’t Promote the Genocide that Took Place in Sochi”, vice.com, February, 2014)
At this point, it might be useful to consider that, from a systemic perspective, what may be called “the history of place” may possibly represent a significant factor in multiple disruptions and other misfortunes now taking place in the Caucasus. British research scientist Rupert Sheldrake, well known for his speculation as to the reality of the morphogenetic fields surrounding living organisms, has suggested that specific geographical places also have “Fields of Memory”. Throughout the UK, those places which have been scenes of extreme violence and other unresolved, serious misfortunes, are marked by official Black Spot traffic signs which warn travelers to beware and exercise extra caution in these locales. If Sheldrake’s theory is true, then Sochi’s bloody past would certainly qualify as a Black Spot location, where accidents and other mishaps are likely to occur. With this information in mind, one might note that multiple injuries were caused to snowboarders on a slope-style course erected on a site known as “Red Hill”; named for a Russian massacre of Circassians on that exact spot in 1864, where three quarters of their local population was eliminated.
Various scholars have noted that this massacre of Circassians at Sochi may have been the location of Europe’s first ever genocide. While I don’t doubt that this horrendous event took place, I think it might be more accurate to refer to the slaughter at Sochi as modern Europe’s earliest genocide. In my view, genocide has a long historical trajectory with our own and other species and I could imagine that something akin to that horror occurred much earlier in Europe, between Cro-Magnons and our Neanderthal cousins. Nevertheless, by any standard, the massacre and diaspora of Circassian people qualifies as a major genocidal event. Concentrated efforts by Russian Cossacks to eliminate Circassians occurred in two intensive waves: 1821-22 and then again in 1863-64.
Circassians, who also self-identify as the Adyghe, were once the predominant ethnic group in the North Caucasus. Most were Sunni Muslims and spoke a distinctive group of languages. They also had the extreme misfortune of living between two expansionist empires; Czarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey, at an equally unfortunate time. After their territory was ceded to Czar Alexander II, Russian Cossacks attempted to “pacify” the entire region, by forced migration and deporting the Circassians; in an operation during which some 625,000 of these displaced souls died of disease and starvation, while another 600,000-800,000 were deported to Turkey. Their fate did not improve in subsequent years. More of their culture and history is available in Walter Richmond’s, The Circassian Genocide, 2013.
Black Spot or not, Sochi has had many other problems while hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. In addition to a sparse international turnout, hotel and housing facilities for journalists was given low priority. This should not be a surprise given Mr. Putin’s suspicions and often adversarial relationship with the press. Nevertheless, this oversight has apparently launched a massive public-relations backfire and given rise to a wealth of YouTube clips gone viral. Our American journalists, at least, have had an absolute field- day, with mostly comical clips of communal toilets, no potable water, no shower curtains or window coverings; as well as, unfinished rooms without walls, ceilings or complete floors. One popular clip on the internet features a bobsled competitor locked into a toilet stall, having to completely destroy the door in an effort to escape, only to find himself soon stuck in an unresponsive elevator. And so it goes, with our mainstream media, along with what I feel is some seriously disingenuous complaints about shower stall surveillance, and lack of privacy, given our post-Orwellian situation over here and other places that the NSA is known to monitor. And then , an unfortunate culling of Sochi’s stray dogs did not play well here or elsewhere in the global media, and even gave rise to some efforts at dark humor: “The Russian Dog Sledding Event has been cancelled: They shot the dogs.”
And yes, given the history of this region, terrorist threats in Sochi seems genuine and may even have kept a significant number of sports enthusiasts from attending. Still, such reasoning also seems disingenuous for any Americans over there who would use this as an excuse, given the ongoing “terror-noia” that we have learned to live with every day; much of it probably not so genuine. In truth, I do understand the inevitable tribal emotions raised by sports events that evoke war between “us and them”. And I can also genuinely celebrate when our very own home team wins. Nevertheless, I seriously maintain that taking cheap shots at Russia’s monumental, admittedly flawed, efforts in Sochi is both unkind and unwise. Our very own USA, has absolutely no credibility when it comes to condemning other people’s genocides, ethnic conflicts, or treatment of those with non-traditional sexual orientations. We would do well instead, to learn from these amazing Russian survivors, who have risen from the ashes, more than once, in order to survive and transcend events and conditions, of which our recent generations have no awareness whatsoever.