Author Archives: Shamel Blue

Mikheil Saakashvili Keynote


On February 14, 2014, The Jamestown Foundation held a conference on Russia and the North Caucasus After the Sochi Olympics in the Root Room at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The conference featured keynote speaker Mikheil Saakashvili, the former President of the Republic of Georgia. Speakers at the conference focused their discussion on the impact of the Sochi Olympics on the future of Russia and on the North Caucasus as well as the radicalization of jihadists in the North

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Circassia: Peacefully Boycotting the Sochi Olympics



Circassians continuing to use peaceful methods in their ongoing struggle “for the unity, preservation and development of the Circassian people”

Below is an article published by the World War 4 Report

A boycott of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics hasbeen 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 GuardianVOA, 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 RightsKrasnodar 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.

– See more at:

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Sochi Olympic largesse barely touches nearby Circassian villages


Take a drive north of Sochi into the hills and it won’t take long to escape the Olympic bubble. Gone is the new highway. The slick railway ends. The road turns to gravel, then mud, where cows roam free with passing cars. The spending spree didn’t spread its wealth as far as the neighbouring Circassian villages of Bolshoy Kishmai and Mali Kishmai. Some still hope it will, while others are resigned and say it will never happen.

“I didn’t receive anything and I won’t receive anything,” one woman, Sonya, explains to us as she shovels dirt for her garden. Sonya is Circassian, a Muslim ethnic minority native to the Caucasus with a long history of persecution under the czars and, later, Stalin.

“An improvement to our standard of living, so things would be better.… would be good. But I’m pretty sure we will never see this happen.”


Nina Chernachenko watches the Olympics on her television. She can’t afford to attend the Sochi Games in person, unlike some luckier people in her community. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Another villager, Nina Chernachenko, invited us into her home to escape the cold and pelting rain. She has indoor plumbing; not everyone here does. While there is a large natural gas pipeline less than a kilometre from her village, she does not have gas heating in her home. Instead, she watches Olympic coverage on television, in the one room with an electric heater.

“It’s too bad people won’t see your [news] report here in Russia,” Chernachenko tells me. “Maybe Putin would give us a better apartment.”

Then she laughs, uncomfortably, and adds: “Hopefully they don’t expel us.”

To create the Olympic Park and its marvellous venues, Russia bulldozed everything in its way. Anyone who didn’t like the plan got pushed aside.

But 150 years ago, another group that angered the state was dealt with even more harshly. The Circassians are indigenous to this region, but were expelled by the Russians after the Caucasus War.

Most were pushed onto ships and deported across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire. Many of those who survived the crossing were killed by disease. The ones who remained in Russia were resettled to far-off lands, or killed en masse.

The population went from 800,000 to just a couple of thousand very quickly.

We visited two villages where Circassians now live, though some of the traditional mountain people prefer to be called “Adyghe” (pronounced “a-dee-gee”). Our first stop was an apiary, full of wooden houses for bees, with an elaborate roundhouse designed for hordes of visiting tourists. Except – there aren’t any.

The village has gone to considerable expense, but seems doomed to learn “if you build it, they won’t necessarily come.”

The woman selling honey and trinkets told us: “People come here [to the Black Sea] to holiday and to swim. But they have no idea how the Circassians live, our traditions, our dances, our culture. Many never knew we were here.”

The Circassians lobbied to be included in the extravagant Sochi opening ceremony. While it featured multiple facets of Russian history, the role of the country’s indigenous people was not part of it.

Circassian farmer Rashid Achimikov says he felt excluded from the Sochi Games. “At every other Olympics, they always show the indigenous people of that country during the opening ceremonies. It’s sad.”

There is an exhibit, complete with well-attended daily stage shows inside the Olympic Park. But no one is rushing to the hills around Sochi to visit their ancestral lands.

The Circassians are reluctant to criticize anything. Many Russians are. Those we met spoke positively about hosting the Olympics. They share in Russia’s pride. One farmer pulling hay out for two of his cows made it to one of the signature events, Russia taking on the U.S. in men’s hockey. (It didn’t end well for the Russians so we didn’t ask too much about it.)

Halid Tlif, an elder we met by a fire inside the village’s makeshift cultural centre along the river, explained, “Our destiny has been very tragic, what happened to our people, and now we have to try so hard to hold on to our culture and our traditions, for what our ancestors fought for.”

As the crow flies, the villages lie only about 40 kilometres north of Sochi, a place where buckets of money spilled freely into Olympic projects. But the inkblot of cash did not reach much farther on the map.

For the Circassians in the hills, life is unchanged by the party below.

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New York        Dr. Cesar Chelala


As the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is broadcast, a little-known tragedy continues to be ignored: The terrible fate of hundreds of thousands of Circassians who inhabited that area. They were the victims of one of history’s greatest genocides.

Circassia, a fertile plateau in the northeastern region of the Caucasus, was located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The region extends between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Historically, many Circassians considered Sochi their traditional capital city.

Most of the population of Circassia was brutally expelled from their country by the Russians in the 19th century. The Russian-Circassian War ended in 1864 with the departure and expulsion of the Circassians from their territory in what many historians consider the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians.

The events that took place were aptly described by Walter Richmond in “The Circassian Genocide.” Richmond wrote, “Circassia was a small independent nation on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea. For no reason other than ethnic hatred, over the course of raids the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland, and deported them to the Ottoman Empire. At least 600,000 people lost their lives to massacre, starvation, and the elements while hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homeland, and the Circassians had to become one of the first stateless peoples in modern history.”

Towards the end of the conflict, the Russian General Yevdokimov was given orders to drive the remaining Circassians out of the region, mainly into the Ottoman Empire. In this way, Circassian tribal groups were resettled or killed en masse.

The long-lasting war ended with the defeat of the Circassian forces, and their leaders signed loyalty oaths to the victors on June 2, 1864.

Since the defeat, descendants of those killed fought for international recognition that genocide had been carried out against the Circassian people. In May of 2011, the Georgian parliament voted unanimously (95-0) a declaration that Russia had carried out genocide when it engaged in massacres against Circassians in the 19th century.

Today, the dispersed Circassians are found in several countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Serbia, Egypt and Israel. They are also found in Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States, in places such as New Jersey and California.

Circassians living in the diaspora have faced significant challenges in their efforts to maintain their identity and traditions, while keeping alive the memory of their homeland.

In what ethnic Circassians consider an insult to the memory of their ancestors, the 2014 Winter Olympic facilities in Sochi were built in areas that are considered to contain mass graves of Circassians killed by the Russians. Protests ensued and the Russian government responded by arresting eight prominent Circassian activists.

Despite the accusations, Vladimir Putin is proud that the Olympics took place without any major incident. He could have been more justly proud if he had acknowledged the historic roles that the Circassians played in that troubled region, and respected and honored their memory.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent of The Middle East Times International (Australia).

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a security guard on a beach in village Loo points out where main olympic venues are to an out-of-town volunteer.

a security guard on a beach in village Loo points out where main olympic venues are to an out-of-town volunteer.

With the end of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there has not been so much global attention paid to the Black Sea city since the time of the American Civil War. In the eighteen-sixties, it was hard to read the news and not see a mention of the Caucasus Mountains, made famous by Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, and Lord Byron. These writers were among the many who extolled the beauty of the women from the region, particularly the Circassians, an indigenous group in the Caucasus. The plight of Circassian women sold into what was called white slavery—sexual slavery in Ottoman harems—led to intense interest from abolitionists across America and Europe. When Alexandre Dumas began his 1859 book, “Adventures in Caucasia,” with the declaration, “I have no doubt that my readers know of the region as well as I do,” he was probably right.

Part of the rabid attention had to do with the racial lore of Circassia and the Caucasus. The influential German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach made the claim that the Caucasus was where one could locate the origins of the white race, inaugurating the term “Caucasian” for whiteness. Circassians, who were white, primeval, and supposedly close to God’s image for humankind, were cast as the most beautiful racial type. Yet Circassians were so decimated during the Caucasian War (1817-1864)—Russia’s battle to obtain access to the Black Sea—that few people today have even heard of them. Fewer still know how the region, once seen as the homeland of “whiteness,” became a divining rod for American’s own struggle with racial identity.

At the end of the Civil War, newspapers in the U.S. were focussed on the demise of Circassia as if it were a stand-in for the end of America’s Confederate South. “CIRCASSIA IS BLOTTED FROM THE MAP,” said a headline out of Newport, Rhode Island, on June 4, 1864. “The last hope of Circassia has vanished,” The Deseret News reported on July 6, 1864, “so has come the end of a brave and heroic people.” The Circassian warriors seemed to vanish. Decimated, the Circassians were regarded as an “extinct race.” To Americans, this mattered. To contemplate the history of Sochi, of Circassia, was to consider the racially complicated fate of America itself.

The battlefields of the Northwest Caucasus, particularly of Sochi—the last stand of the Caucasians against Russia—offered a clear, if distant, comparison with the outcome of the Civil War. With the leader of the Caucasus, Schamyl, referred to as the region’s Jefferson Davis, Circassia became a thinly veiled analogy for Southern Confederate striving. As reports emerged about the Circassian plight during the Civil War, the vision of mass death, suffering, and national upheaval had a special significance for a nation laying its fallen soldiers to rest. By 1865, approximately six hundred and twenty thousand soldiers had died in the American Civil War. By 1864, more than five hundred thousand Circassians had died in the last phase of the Caucasian War, in the fight against invading Russian forces. Many accounts in American newspapers described Circassian bodies being “thrown out,” cast overboard with a frequency that recalled slaving practices, and “washing on shore” on the Black Sea coast. The combat, the death toll, and the white slavery in the Circassia-connected Black Sea battle were echoes of Civil War nightmares.

The more that readers in the U.S. learned about the Caucasian War, however, the more they saw that the Caucasus was nothing like the pure-white image put forth by racial science. Nearly all of the assertions that Blumenbach had made about Caucasians—from their supposed exemplary whiteness and laudable beauty to their antiquity-rooted heritage—were contested. The storied locus of white racial purity became seen as the heterodox region it actually was: an area bound by what were, at the time, considered to be opposites—Europe and Asia, Christianity and Isla—with a plurality of racial groups nestled between the White Mountains and the southern Black Mountain.

George Kennan, an American traveller to the Caucasus in 1870, tried to explain the confusion to the American Geographical Society soon after he returned: “In thinking of the Caucasians we must remember that the Caucasian mountaineers as a whole are made up of fragments of almost every race and people in Europe and Western Asia,” he said. “How such a heterogeneous collection of the tatters, ends, and odd bits of humanity ever blended into one coherent and consistent whole I don’t know, but there they are, offering problems to ethnologists and comparative philologists which will be hard to solve.”

In September of 1864, in a time of fraught racial tensions in New York City, the consummate trickster P. T. Barnum saw a chance to capitalize on this Janus region of the Caucasus. He débuted a performer at his American Museum on Broadway, in New York City, as an “extraordinary living FEMALE SPECIMEN OF A NEW RACE from a remote corner of Circassia.” The impresario presented a pseudo-ethnographic narrative of her life, alluding to her homeland. The widely popular Circassian Beauty, as she would become known, would sit still on the museum stage with a hairstyle that looked a bit like an Afro. It was done up “in a great mass, like the boll of a ripened dandelion,” one journalist wrote, and was large enough to “just about fit a bushel basket.” More Circassian Beauties followed, and at least one was of African descent. The Circassian Beauties remained popular because they embodied the racial riddle of the Caucasus. This performance, popular from the eighteen-seventies through the turn of the century, shows how the idea of whiteness itself was a curiosity worthy of the stage.

Who could be considered Caucasian is one question, but the Caucasus’s strife had opened an even more fraught concern: What did the people from the Caucasus, now Russia’s south, actually look like? President Woodrow Wilson was concerned enough with the question that he took the time in 1919 to request “a report on the legendary beauty of the Caucasus women” from his Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and the leader of the American Mission in Georgia and Azerbaijan. What was most provocative about Wilson’s request is not that he asked to see the Caucasus women’s image but, rather, when he did. At this historical moment, Wilson was engaged in international peace negotiations, and presided over a political period when concerns over what constituted “whiteness” sheeted and stretched over the U.S. political and cultural landscape like a shroud.

When Wilson asked for his beauty report, there was a continuing sense of bewilderment about the image of the Caucasus. In 1913, for example, reports and photographs had emerged of villages in Circassia being somehow made up entirely of “Negroes.” The Russian newspaperKavkaz had published a story about the discovery of nearly five hundred “Black Russians living in the Caucasus,” to the Sukhumi district of Abkhasia, the heartland Circassia. In 1927, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky even went to Adzyubzha to discern thee origins of these black Caucasians. Five years later, Langston Hughes travelled to the southern Soviet Republics, just east of the Caucasus, and noted in his diaries that he was surprised to find himself around people who would be considered “colored” in America. He thought some were “brown as russet pears” or “dark as chocolate.”

Questions about the look of Caucasians continue today. In Russia, some now describe “peoples with Caucasian features” as “black.” During the Chechen wars in the nineteen-nineties, the darker-skinned men and women of the Caucasus were called “black” in Russia. None of this will be told in the guidebooks to Sochi. It is not uncommon to see a standard Black Sea atlas mark where the Circassians lived from 1800 until 1860 and in a map of the region after 1860 to find that they are simply gone, as if a mythical, invisible group. Yet what has endured in America is the idea of the Caucasus, the hopelessly tangled racial riddle that created the false foundation for the concept of whiteness.

Read David Remnick’s Letter from Sochi, in this week’s issue.

Sarah Lewis is the author of “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery” and a forthcoming book about the Caucasus, the Civil War, and Frederick Douglass.

Photograph: Misha Friedman

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