Sochi Olympics

Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics?

Wikipedia map of the Subtropics

Wikipedia map of the SubtropicsIn 2010, Foreign Policy magazine asked Russian opposition leader and Sochi native Boris Nemtsov why he opposed the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown. Nemtsov’s reply was broad ranging. He decried the displacement of 5,000 people while warning that corruption and organized crime would devour most of the construction funds showered on the city. He began his critique, however, with Sochi’s climate:

“[Putin] has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.”

Sochi does indeed have a subtropical climate, with average winter temperatures well above freezing, complicating Olympic plans. As Nemtsov elaborates, most of the skating facilities are being built in the Imereti Valley, which is warmer than Sochi itself. Cooling, needless to say, will be expensive. The ski venue might seem to be even more of a problem, as Olympic-quality skiing requires natural snow in copious quantities. The snowy Caucasus Mountains, however, lie just to the northeast of Sochi.  The main skiing facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) from the city center, will probably have adequate snow.

Tabular Comparison of Climate in Sochi Russia and Portland Oregon, Wikipedia DataBut while Sochi qualifies as subtropical by strict climatological criteria,* it can be misleading to characterize it as such, at least in the United States. If I were to use the term “subtropical” in class, my students would imagine Miami or perhaps Los Angeles at a stretch. Certainly those native to California’s Bay Area would never consider their winter-chilled homeland as “subtropical” in any sense. Yet the Bay Area is actually much warmer in winter than Sochi. In Palo Alto, the average February high temperature is 62°F (16°C), far exceeding Sochi’s 49.8°F (9.9°C). In terms of annual temperature range, Sochi is closely analogous to Portland, Oregon, as can be seen in the paired tables reproduced here. In the United States, the notion that Portland has a subtropical climate would seem quaint if not ludicrous.

From the Russian perspective, however, Sochi definitely is subtropical. If anything is mentioned about Sochi in the Russian press, it is generally its sub-tropicality—and for good reason, as it is essentially the only place in the country with a non-freezing winter. Climate evaluations turn out to be variable, relative to one’s personal experience. I once spent a summer in the Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimo”) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the locals found their own summer climate delightfully temperate and that of the adjacent Yukon Valley oppressively hot. In Anaktuvuk Pass, July temperatures rarely exceed 50°F (10°C). Yet one day during my sojourn the winds died down, the sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a delightful 75°F (24°C)—or so I thought. The villagers were not pleased at all with the brutal heat.

The (US) Wikipedia article on Sochi describes its climate not only as subtropical, which is technically true if slightly misleading, but goes on to characterize it as being of the “Mediterranean–type”—which is simply incorrect. Mediterranean climates are characterized by dry summers, and those of Sochi are distinctly wet. True, Sochi gets a bit more rain in the winter than in the summer, but its average July precipitation of 4.9 inches (124 mm) is hardly meager. In most climate classification schemes, a Mediterranean climate cuts off at 30 to 40 millimeters (1.2-1.6 inches) of precipitation in the driest month. (Note that by such criteria, Portland Oregon is definitely Mediterranean, yet few Americans would place such a wet city in that category.)

Beyond ice-rink cooling costs, the Sochi Olympics faces a number of problems. The Circassian protests have already been discussed in previous posts, and issues surrounding organized crime and corruption are noted above. But according to Boris Nemtsov, the mire runs much deeper. In a 2011 television interview, he claimed that the total costs could exceed U.S. $30 billion—ten times the figure of the Vancouver Olympics. Nemtsov also highlights the cultural and environmental damage suffered by the city and its environs, as roads are pushed through nature reserves and old residences are demolished without replacement. Such disruptions, he claims, have already undermined the summer tourism industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. Construction, moreover, is running behind schedule, worrying Russian leaders. In mid-January 2012, “President Dmitry Medvedev … ordered the government to ensure facilities for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were finished on time, in a rare official show of impatience with the sluggish progress.”

Sochi is not the only part of the Caucasus impacted by ambitious winter tourism designs. Russia plans to build major downhill ski resorts elsewhere. According to a January 14, 2013 article:

[T]he draft project of the tourism cluster in the south of Russia envisages the construction in 2011-2020 of five world-class mountain resorts in Lagonaki (Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Elbrus-Bezengi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania), Matlas (Republic of Dagestan). The length of all the ski slopes will total nearly 900 km. 179 elevators will be installed. Hotels of various levels of comfort designed for 89,000 places will be constructed. … Each year the North Caucasian tourist cluster will accept 5-10 million tourists.

            Such plans seem overly optimistic, as security concerns, inadequate infrastructure, and poor hotel management may make it difficult to attract many tourists. Some critics think that Russia would be much better off building additional winter sports facilities in the Khanty-Mansiysk area in the Ural Mountains of western Siberia. Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, boasts of its mountain skiing facilities and the fact that it has successfully hosted several world biathlon championship. It is also an oil-boom town located in the Russia’s richest administrative district. As such, it would seem to be a more reasonable place for winter resort development than the violence-plagued northern Caucasus.

*One prominent climate classification scheme, for example applies the subtropical label any place where the average temperature of the coldest month is between 6°C (42.8°F) and 18°C (64.4°F), while another uses the range between 2°C (35.6°F) and 13°C (55.4°F).

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for translating Boris Nemtsov’s interview.)

 

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Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014

Map of the Circassian Republics in Russia

Map of the Circassian Republics in RussiaThe resurgence of Circassian identity in recent years faces daunting obstacles. Many Circassians believe that the long-term sustainability of their community requires a return to the northwestern Caucasus, but both the Russian state and the other peoples of the region resist such designs. Circassians are thus focusing much of their efforts on global public opinion, building a protest movement in preparation for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

Requests by Circassian exiles to return to the Caucasus began to pour into Russian consulates not long after the expulsion of the community in the mid-1800s. Until the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, re-migration in any numbers was not feasible. In the early 1990s, however, thousands of Circassians from the Middle East managed to move back, although some later abandoned the effort, discouraged by the poverty of the region. Return migration slowed after the war in Chechnya heated up in the mid 1990s, and was again constricted in the early 2000s by the imposition of restrictive Russian laws. Would-be immigrants must abandon their foreign citizenship and learn the Russian language. Quotas are imposed as well. Local opposition by non-Circassians also inhibits the movement. The “Union of the Slavs,” founded in 1991, seeks to forestall any return, warning others that the Circassian returnees plan to overwhelm the region and then marginalize local Russians. The Union has also fought proposals to increase the autonomy of the existing Circassian-oriented Russian republics, only one of which, Kabardino-Balkaria, actually has a Circassian majority.

Map of Kuban CossacksCossacks have long been at the forefront of the anti-Circassian movement. Cossacks—Slavic-speaking people who had adopted the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the steppes—were instrumental in the expansion of the Russian Empire, and the northwestern Caucasus was no exception.  The Kuban Cossack Host, established on the edge of Circassian territory in the late 1700s, figured prominently in the Russo-Turkish (and Russo-Circassian) wars. During this long period, local Cossacks borrowed extensively from their Circassian enemies. Even the uniforms of Kuban (and Terek) Cossacks are a form of the traditional Caucasian garb known as “chokha.” Historical emulation, however, did not entail peaceful coexistence. When the Tsarist government decided to clear out the Circassians in the 1860s, the Cossacks were in the vanguard. Their assaults usually began with the mass theft of horses—according to a local adage, “a Circassian and a horse together cannot be defeated”—and ended with the burning of villages and the expulsion of the people. As a result, Cossack communities acquired some of the best lands in the northwestern Caucasus.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks themselves became the victims of a fierce “decossackization” program. In an ironic twist, a number of Cossacks fled south from the Kuban region to avoid the purges and ended up assimilating with the Abkhazians, who are closely associated with the Circassians. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Kuban Cossack traditions and identity quickly rebounded. Mounting Circassian activism and return migration immediately after 1991 help provoke the re-militarization of local Cossack contingents, angering and often intimidating the other peoples of the region. According to a 2008 article by Fatima Tlisova, Cossacks now have a privileged position that they use against Circassians activists. Yet Cossack relations with the Abkhazians remain strong. A 2008 YouTube video about the Kuban Cossacks boasts that, “1500 Kuban Cossack volunteers are now serving in aid to Abkhaz freedom.”

Circassian activists have sought to enhance group solidarity by diminishing the differences among the various Circassian sub-groups. The Russian state has long divided the Circassians into four categories: the Kabardins, the Adyghe, the Cherkes, and the Shapsugs. (Three of these terms are reflected in the names of the three “Circassian,” or partly Circassian, Russian Republics: Republic of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkar Republic, and Karachay-Cherkess Republic.) Members of the Circassian community increasingly insist on the ethnonym “Adyghe” for the entire group, and they hope for the eventual unification of the Circassian parts of the three republics. A related movement involves the quest to craft a new literary trans-Circassian language, as currently two standardized official languages, Kabardian and Adyghe proper, co-exist within a broader continuum of local dialects.

The drive for unification encounters a potential snag in the Abazas and especially the Abkhazians. These peoples are historically and linguistically linked to the Circassians, but have generally been regarded as separate groups. Over the past several decades, the general tendency has been to try to fold all of the indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus into one broad ethnic or national formation. More recently, however, tensions have mounted between Circassian and Abkhazian nationalists. Abkhazia is now a self-declared independent country of its own that functions as a client state of Russia, and Russia is seen as the main obstacle to Circassian unification.

A recent article suggests that tensions have arisen between Circassians and Abkhazians over Krasnya Polyana, the main skiing facility of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some Abkhazian politicians have evidently claimed that Krasnya Polyana is rightfully Abkhazian, while Circassians view it as a monument to their own tragic history, the site of the last major battle in the Russian-Circassian war. In one sense, neither view is fully correct: before the expulsions of the 1860s, the larger Sochi area had been the home of the Ubykhs, the one northwestern Caucasian people to disappear entirely in the diaspora.

Circassian nationalists differ in their ultimate goals. Some demand nothing less than an independent Circassia blanketing the northwestern Caucasus, but others would be content with political and cultural autonomy within the Russian Federation, coupled with a right for members of the diaspora to return. Even these more limited aspirations, however, face long odds. The three nominally Circassian republics all have limited autonomy, two are officially shared with non-Circassian groups, and all include many Russians and other non-indigenous peoples. Such diversity makes for complex local politics, which often devolve into three-way struggles among Russians, Circassians, and Turkic groups such as the Balkars. Russian activists have tried to dismantle the nominally Circassian Republic of Adygea, situated near the middle of Krasnodar Krai. Circassian officials in Adygea subsequently attempted, without success, to annul the immigration quota for Circassian returnees, hoping to bolster their own numbers in the fragile republic.

Although their national ambitions face deep challenges, the Circassian community possesses many resources of its own. The diaspora includes many influential and wealthy persons. The proposed merging of Adygea and Krasnodar Krai, for example, was forestalled in part by the lobbying of Jordanian Circassians. The Circassian internet presence, moreover, is extensive and impressive, conveyed by many websites and YouTube productions. Yet as the lessons of “Virtual Tibet” show, it is extraordinarily difficult to translate internet activism into real political clout when faced with the concerted opposition of a powerful state.

Despite the sophistication of the Circassian outreach program, their cause has hardly penetrated into the consciousness of the global community. I doubt that one person in a thousand in the United States has any knowledge of the Circassian people. But I do anticipate an upsurge in both information and interest as the 2014 Winter Olympics approaches. Circassians view Sochi and especially the ski resort at Krasnya Polyana as the focal points of their tragic history, and they are already denouncing the upcoming “Genocide Olympics.” Sizable demonstrations against the event have occurred in Istanbul and other cities, and more are on the way. Olympic competitions have long served as theaters of political demonstration, and the Sochi event promises to be particularly theatrical.

Protests against the Sochi Olympics will likely draw on historical themes and motifs associated with the Circassian people. Although the Circassians are little-known in the West, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s the group was so famous that it inspired brand names, as we shall see in Monday’s post, the final offering on the Circassians.

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The Politics of Genocide Claims and the Circassian Diaspora

Map of the Caucasian Language Families

Map of the Caucasian Language FamiliesAllegations of genocide are often politically charged. On January 23, 2012, the French parliament voted to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In Turkey, by contrast, it is illegal to assert that the same acts were genocidal. The Turkish government remains adamant, threatening to impose unspecified sanctions on France for passing the new law. Turkish critics meanwhile accuse France of having engaged in a genocidal campaign of its own against Algerians in the 1950s. France is one of twenty-one sovereign states to officially recognize the Armenian genocide, but is the only one to specifically outlaw its denial. Most countries offering recognition are in Europe and Latin America; many, France included, have substantial Armenian populations. Although the United States has not acted, forty-three U.S. states have passed Armenian genocide acknowledgement bills.

The mass killing of Armenians is not the only example of a politically contested charge of genocide in the Caucasus. In May 2011, the Georgian legislature voted unanimously to classify the Russian assaults on the Circassian (or Adyghe-speaking) community in the 1860s as acts of genocide. The only legislator to speak against the bill warned that it would offend Georgia’s Armenian community, considering the fact that Georgia has not acknowledged the Armenian case. Thus far, Georgia is the only country to officially consider the expulsion and slaughter of the Circassians as a case of genocide. Critics charge Georgia with self-interested behavior, noting that its intractable struggle with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia provides incentive to denounce the past actions of the Russian government in the Caucasus. Hard-core Turkish partisans have also highlighted the Circassian massacres, in their case to downplay the Armenian example; according to one blogger, the Circassian genocide was “infinitely worse than what happened to the Armenians,” yet it has been almost entirely forgotten by the international community.

Controversies surrounding the “genocide” label are often definitional, hinging on whether actions must be consciously aimed to exterminate an entire people to be so classified. Yet regardless of the formal label used, the massacres and evictions of Armenians in the early twentieth century and of Circassians in the mid nineteenth century were horrific. Based on the original definition of the term, the “genocide” label does seem appropriate. Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1943 in reference to the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but he began working on the idea much earlier, in response to the catastrophic expulsions of the Armenians and the massacres of Assyrians in northern Iraq in the 1930s. (Like the Circassian genocide, that of the Assyrians has garnered little international recognition, apart from Sweden in 2010.)

Wikipedia Circassian diaspora map The Russian-Circassian conflict dates back to the mid-1700s, part of a much broader struggle pitting the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire. After roughly 100 years of war, the Russian government decided in the early 1860s to drive the Circassians into Ottoman territory. Russian forces and Cossack irregulars systematically burned villages and slaughtered civilians. According to an article posted in the Circassian World website, these actions were “the first intentional large-scale genocide of the modern times. … It was also the largest single genocide of the 19th century.” By most accounts, some ninety percent of the Circassian population was either killed or driven out, effectively depopulating most of the northwestern Caucasus. A few Circassians, especially members of the eastern Kabardin group, were able to remain, and in time their numbers grew. Nonetheless the expulsion was devastating. Of an estimated 3.7 million Circassians worldwide today, only 700,000 live in the homeland. The remainder reside primarily in Turkey and other lands of the former Ottoman Empire, particularly Syria and Jordan.

The depopulation of the northwestern Caucasus in the 1860s is reflected in the modern linguistic map. The distribution of the northwestern Caucasian linguistic family today is markedly discontiguous. Whereas the northeastern Caucasian and the Kartvelian languages (Georgian and its relatives) cover relatively solid blocks of territory, the northwestern Caucasian languages appear in small pockets surrounded by areas in which people speak Russian and other languages. Even in the Russian republics of Karachai-Cherkessia and Adyghea, ostensibly based on Circassian ethnicity, Circassians constitute only about a quarter of the total population. Yet before the events of the 1860s, the Circassians and their relatives had occupied a large block of contiguous territory in the mountains and the adjacent lowlands of the northwestern Caucasus.

Map of Circassian Areas in Turkey The Ottomans generally welcomed the Circassian refugees, valuing their military expertise against the Russian enemy, and hence offered them haven in scattered locales. Yet in their unwilling diaspora, the Circassians have had some difficulty maintaining their language and ethnic identity. This has been particularly true in Turkey, where a politically enforced nationalism has meant categorization as Turks, regardless of self-identity. In the past, many Circassians in Turkey have been willing or even eager to assimilate; a result, the use of northwestern Caucasian languages in the diaspora has declined sharply.  Many younger Circassians in Turkey, however, are now reclaiming their identity. In April 2011, “Circassians in Turkey staged a rally … in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district to demand broadcasting and education rights in their native language…” One participant claimed that “The denials, exiles, betrayals, insults, policies of assimilation and social exclusion that have taken place during the 87 years that have passed since the foundation of the Turkish Republic nearly amount to a gallery of sins.”

According to some sources, Circassian identity has been more easily maintained in Jordan, Syria, and Israel, whether due to the less homogenizing political cultures of these countries or simply to the greater cultural distances separating the Circassians from their majority populations. In 2010 Jordan opened a Circassian academy, featuring classes in Adyghe. Such classes may be a challenge to pull off, however, as even in Jordan relatively few Circassians have preserved their language. In both Jordan and Syria, Circassians have tended to form privileged communities, marked by some political and even military clout, encouraging assimilation in the long run.

The position of the Circassian community in Syria, however, may be in danger. Like the Christians and Alawites, the Circassians have tended to support the al-Assad regime, which—brutal through it may be—has generally kept the lid on sectarian and ethnic strife. Several Circassian leaders in Syria are now seeking permission from Russia for re-migration to the northwestern Caucasus. Such a request reflects both the insecurity of present-day Syria and the lure of the homeland; as Circassian ethnic consciousness grows, many Circassian are concluding that long-term cultural survival is possible only within Circassia itself. Russia, however, has placed firm limits on return migration, angering Circassian activists. As we shall see in a later post, Circassian activism is increasing in Russia, generating concern in the country’s political establishment. Any returnees, moreover, might find disappointment; some of the Jordanian Circassians who recently moved to the Caucasus later returned to Jordan, having discovered that the reality of their homeland and their dreams about it did not coincide.

GeoCurrents will continue to explore the Circassians for the next week or so. The Circassians are of major—although woefully under-appreciated—world historical significance, and they were once well-known in Europe and North America. They may become noted again; Circassian protesters are already gearing up for the Sochi Winter Olympics, situated in what they consider to be the epicenter of their genocide. In winter 2014, the global press may have a few words to say about the forgotten Circassians.

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