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Concerns Surrounding the Sochi Olympics

Submitted by on February 3, 2014 – 9:44 pm 20 Comments |  
[Many thanks to Tamara Barsik and Vladimir Troyansky for their help in researching this post!]

sochi olympic park 3As Russia prepares to host the 22nd Winter Olympics in February 2014, a number of concerns threaten to disrupt the joyful atmosphere of the games. Corruption, human rights violations, security, and the “Circassian question”—as well as the better publicized gay rights issue and the Snowden affair—lurk behind the pretty façade of a “Potemkin village” constructed by President Vladimir Putin.*

While it received relatively little attention in the Western media, within Russia corruption is the main Olympics-related concern. The construction of the Olympic infrastructure in and around Sochi cost some $50 billion, making these games the most expensive such event ever, by a wide margin. This price tag is $49 billion more than the cost of Salt Lake City Olympics and nearly five times that of Vancouver Olympics. According to statistics, the final price tag for an Olympics usually runs 2 to 2.5 times higher than the initial estimates, but the Sochi Olympics turned out to be five times more expensive than originally planned. While some of this difference can be ascribed to the potentially higher costs of running a Winter Olympics in a subtropical location, it appears that the main factor was corruption. Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has recently launched a website to publish a wide range of data pointing to massive corruption in Sochi. According to him, “athletes are not the only people who compete in Sochi. Officials and businessmen also took part in the games and turned them into a source of income”. Allegations of corruption and racketeering schemes involving the highest echelons of power in Russia also came from Russian businessman Valery Morozov, who participated in some infrastructure construction projects in Sochi in 2007. According to a BBC report, Morozov was being forced into a scheme whereby millions of dollars of federal funds would be siphoned to government-backed subcontractors. Morozov ultimately quit the project and asked for political asylum in the UK in 2011. Despite such mounting evidence, President Vladimir Putin and Vice Premier Dmitry Kozak have vehemently denied such claims of corruption. Russian investigators do admit to some irregularities, but the full extent of the problem remains to be uncovered. For example, a 2012 report by the Russian Audit Chamber found about 15 billion rubles (about $500 million) in “unreasonable” cost overruns in the preparations for the Sochi Olympics. Auditors found that the work of some staff members at Olympstroi, the state company in charge of Sochi construction between 2008 and 2010, was “conducive to incurring unreasonable cost overruns.” At least three criminal investigations against Olympstroi employees have been opened, but none of them has reached court so far.

Whatever the cost overruns were actually spent on, it was not on expensive schemes to acquire the land needed for construction. According to allegations by Russian human rights organizations, reported by the BBC, some 2,000 former Sochi families lost their homes and land in a corrupt scheme. First, a home would be demolished in accordance with a falsified court decision, alleging building code violations, but without providing warning to the owners and doing so in their absence. Then, the owners were required to pay a disproportionate bill—in the order of $100,000—for the “removal of the debris”. As few people can produce such funds, their land would then be expropriated in lieu of payment. People whose land has thus been taken were neither resettled nor compensated. According to Angela Zilberg, a former homeowner forced out by this scheme, municipal authorities simply tell people in such circumstances “to go live some place else”.

According to the same BBC report, the rights of construction workers are violated as well. In order to build the Olympic infrastructure, some 80,000 workers were brought to Sochi from the “near abroad”, mostly Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Now that their services are no longer needed, many of the foreign workers are not simply deported, but are rather “cleansed” (a term used in official documents!) in raids conducted by the police with the help of voluntary Cossack regiments, some of which are paid from the regional government budget. Even foreign workers whose immigration papers are in order are subject to brutal treatment, and many are forced to hide in overcrowded apartments with little chance to get provisions or to report to work, reports BBC’s Anastasia Uspenskaya.

sochi-map-990Another group that views the entire Olympic project as a violation of their human rights is the Circassians. Virtually unknown in the West today, Circassians were once famous for the beauty of their women and the military prowess of their men. They inhabited the area around Sochi until the 1860s when they were expelled by the Russian Empire, which had fought the Circassians for roughly a century. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced to leave the region; most found refuge in the Ottoman lands, but some 600,000 died in the process, giving the area around Sochi the nickname of the “Graveyard of the Russian Empire” and making the Circassians “one of the first stateless peoples in modern history” (Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide, p. 85).

Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000 though it has not yet reached the pre-expulsion figure. Yet, the majority of Circassians—roughly two to four million people—still reside in Turkey, and smaller Circassian communities are found in Jordan (approx. 150,000 Circassians), in the Galilee region of Israel, and in the USA (particularly in New Jersey). A once numerous Circassian community in Syria has mostly fled, with thousands now residing in refugee camps in Turkey, just as their ancestors did some 150 years ago.


As the Winter Olympics put a spotlight on their homeland, Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. The No Sochi 2014 movement in Turkey has launched a project to create information packages for all athletes attending the games. More recently, they have rebranded the “No Sochi” campaign to “#kNOwsochi”: with only a few days left to the opening of the games, the activists realize that stopping the Olympics is out of the question, but informing people of the region’s history and current events is still possible. The No Sochi activists in the USA have created petitions for all the major nations that Circassians reside in— Jordan, Germany, USA, Turkey, and Israel— asking their leaders to boycott the Sochi Olympics for the Circassian issue. (Several world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, President of France Francois Hollande, European Union commissioner Viviane Reding, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have already cancelled their participation in the Olympics, due in large part to the gay rights issue, which so far has caused the most outcry in the international circles, and in part to the Snowden affair.) Every member of the US Congress was sent letters informing them of the Circassian situation. A major social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is also underway. Weekly demonstrations take place at the Times Square in New York, and monthly protests are staged outside Russian consulates worldwide. As a result of this campaign, some Western pundits have come to recognize that conducting a major sporting event at the location of Circassian homeland is ludicrous; thus, Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, has compared the Sochi Olympics to “having Olympics in Auschwitz”.

The response from the Russian government to the Circassian campaign, however, has been anything but understanding. Most Circassian refugees from Syria who have applied for the right to return to their historic homeland in the Caucasus were denied Russian visas. Fewer than a thousand Circassians were allowed to enter Russia; they were required to pay large amounts of money for processing and were given only 3-month-long visas at a time. In some cases, these short-term visas were not extended and the refugees were forced to try to find salvation in Turkey or Jordan, but in many cases they were sent back to Syria. At the same time, many of the Circassian activists in Caucasus have been detained ahead of the Olympics, along with journalists, environmental activists, and minority rights activists.

Languages and genes in North Caucasus

It must be stressed that the Circassian No Sochi movement maintains a strictly peaceful and non‑violent stance. Yet other groups have highjacked the Circassian issue and used it to promote their own, often more violent, agendas. As American journalist Matt Lauer pointed out, “there are a lot of groups that would like to use the Olympics to make a point”. The most credible threats have come from Chechen militants, whose leader Doku Umarov, known as “Russia’s Osama bin Laden”, has vowed to “derail” the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which he called a “satanic dance on the bones of our ancestors”. Yet the Chechens are not indigenous to the Sochi area and are not historically related to the Circassians. The two groups speak different language that belong to distinct language families. The gene pools of Chechens and Circassians are quite different as well (see map on the left).

Caucasus Emirate

Another crucial difference between the Circassians and the Chechens, highlighted by Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic Studies at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is that the Circassians’ “recent conversion to Sufi mystical Islam was only skin deep”. Consequently, the Circassians never joined forces with the more extremist Muslim liberation movements in the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan) such as the Caucasus Emirate, a pan-Caucasian organization aiming to liberate all of the northern Caucasus and rebuild the state of the 19th century jihad leader, Imam Shamil. It is the Caucasus Emirate, not the Circassians, who issued a proclamation in the fall of 2013 that read:

“We know that on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea, today they plan to stage the Olympic Games. We, as the Mujahedeen, must not allow this to happen by any means possible.”


Such threats—and security concerns in general—loom large, particularly in the wake of the twin bombings in southern Russia in late December 2013 and an earlier one in October. These terrorist attacks targeted mass transportation in the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), known as the site of a major battle that changed the course of World War II. The two recent separate suicide bombings there claimed the lives of 34 people; to date, no individual or organization has claimed responsibility. The bombings are “clearly meant to show the Russians that the Chechen-Dagestani terrorists have reignited their terror jihad”, says Brian Glyn Williams. Other analysts likewise fear the attacks could have been a “test shot” by terrorists planning additional assaults on the Winter Olympics. After the bombings, the International Olympic Committee expressed sympathy for the victims and but maintained confidence that Russia’s security arrangements for the Olympic games would be adequate.

With his country in the global spotlight, Russian president Vladimir Putin has promised to “annihilate” the terrorists. In order to safeguard the sporting venues in Sochi, Russian authorities have introduced some of the most extensive security measures ever seen at an international sports event. The security zone created around Sochi stretches approximately 60 miles along the Black Sea coast and extends up to 25 miles inland. Russian forces in the area include special troops to patrol the forested mountains flanking the resort, drones to keep constant watch over the Olympic facilities, and speed boats to guard the coast. Anyone wanting to attend the games will have to buy a ticket online, which requires providing passport details and contacts, allowing the authorities to screen all visitors. The security plan includes a ban on cars from outside the zone a month before the games begin. Authorities will also be collecting data on the phone communications of anyone in the city. Nothing is left to chance in protecting what some pundits call “Putin’s pet project”.

olympic torch relay map

Although meant to show the world “what Russia can do”, the Olympics also revealed many dark secrets—from corruption to human rights abuses and the deep-rooted xenophobia—that Putin does not want the world to know. And while looking for the next “national idea”—something all of Russia’s citizens can rally behind—one should remember that Russian Federation is a multi-national state, with many conflicting ethnic and regional narratives.



*The expression “Potemkin village”, commonly used in Russian, derives from the attempts by Prince Grigory Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787 by erecting fake settlements with equally fake “happy villagers”. It is now used to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.

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  • Alexander

    Let us, the people of Russia just enjoy these games. We sick and tired of these stories about corruption and national issues, we no longer want to hear them. We know everything about the scale of corruption in Sochi without anyone’s remembering. Leave our poor country and its people alone. There’s also corruption and bribery in the States in Europe, so what? Stop darkening our country, we’re not that bad. Every country has its ugly and beautiful moments. American settlers vanished native Americans long ago almost completely. Africans got the same rights as whites not so long ago in the States. Should we ban something taking place in America? We don’t.
    It’s a pressure on us. Do you want Russian people to live in a better way? So that there was no bribery, corruption, so that gays had the same rights as others (actually they DO have the same rights, the law bans gay propaganda among children and vast majority of population supports it)? Of course you don’t, don’t be ridiculous. You want to humiliate us one more time, to show that we do not deserve what you deserve. Your website is about geopolitics. And you realize even better than us, that it’s another worthless attempt to limit our country in the area of its influence. To manipulate. To set your public opinion against us and to show once more what ugly place Russia really is. For you to know, we don’t care what you say. Yes we do have some problems, no one likes our government that has corrupted to the end. But let it be our headache. And may the Olympics be an arena for sportsmen, not for dirty politicians.

    Alexander, Russia, Vladivostok.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Alexander!

      We too hope that athletes and spectators alike—Russian and non-Russian—can enjoy the games. It doesn’t mean, however, that the best strategy is to let things be, especially if they are not well. Nor is our goal to humiliate Russians or anybody else. It is rather to inform the public about what is going on. That you feel humiliated at what is going on around the Sochi Olympics is a good first step in recognizing the problems. Also, nobody is saying that Russia is an “ugly place” as you put it, or that other countries are blameless. But to say things are also bad in America (“in America they lynch the Blacks”) is so “Pravda circa 1973″… Historically, “Africans got the same rights as whites not so long ago in the States”, but just around the same time the majority of Russians got the same rights as others = when the serfs were freed. My point is that when things are not right in America, people are looking for a solution. Different people may not agree on what the solution should be, but nobody says “who cares, things are even worse in Russia” (although in many cases they would be justified to say so).

      Curiously, you say you don’t care what we say (or think), but from your rather passionate response it seems you actually do. Honesty is the best policy, really.

      Finally, I do agree that it would be nice if the Olympics were only about sports, but it rarely is: Berlin 1936, Munich 1972, Moscow 1980—do I need to say more? Perhaps a good topic for another GeoCurrents post, actually…

      • Alexander

        Hello, Asya. :) Racial segregation in the United States officially existed until 1964, and de-facto exists so far. Krepostnoe Pravo (serfdom) in Russian Empire was banned in 1861. It’s almost 100 years. (just around the same time, huh?).
        What I know exactly is that there are good blocks and bad blocks in every American city divided on the racial basis (just for an example). Perhaps I wouldn’t say that if I wasn’t sure that this all true (like I don’t believe what Pravda says). However a guy from New York city told me that he “wouldn’t go above 130th Street, or on the East Side between 14 – 34 Streets”. You know what I’m talking about. What’s more, The United States of America do not have the whole national regions unlike Russia. Perhaps, Circassian people were forced to live within the borders of Russian Empire, but they were not cleansed as native Americans or the whole civilizations burned to the ground by the Hispanic people in South America. However, Russia let their people of different nationalities live in their own regions and have their own national governments, like Tatarstan, Chechnya, Yakutia, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, etc, etc, etc. What’s really wrong with Russia??? הוא מגנה כל העולם אך אינו מסתכל על עצמו, כל הנגעים אדם רואה חוץ מנגעי עצמו.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          As you know, slavery was abolished in 1864, around the same time that Russian serfdom was abolished. As for racial segregation still existing today, you’ve been misinformed. There are bad neighborhoods and some are predominantly black but hardly all. There’s also affirmative action policies (though whether they actually help the minorities they are supposed to help is another question). If you have any questions about whether African Americans have equal opportunities, check out who is in the White House.

          All of that, however, avoids the point of my earlier comment: why deflate the blame or avoid issues by saying that things are also bad somewhere else? Because there is no actual solution?

          If you think that Circassians were not ethnically cleansed, you’ve once again been misinformed. They were not “forced to live within the borders of the Russian Empire” but forced to leave their homeland. And yes, they were burned to the ground (while it is correct to use these descriptions with respect to the New World groups you mention is another question, but entirely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, simply another one “and in America they lynch the Blacks” strategy).

          It is great that you mention Chechens among those who “live in their own regions and have their own national governments”. Chechens were actually brutally “resettled” (“cleansed” is probably a better word) under Stalin, not allowed back until fairly recently and last I’ve checked Russia fought several pretty bloody wars against Chechen independence movement. As I am sure you know. If only you want to know.

          Tatarstan is perhaps the only example of people who coexist rather peacefully (since the taking of Kazan) with the Russians. The Yakut feel that they’ve been russified rather less than peacefully. There are virtually no Jews in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and why resettle Jews to an inhospitable territory they never resided in, in the first place?!). We’ve written a great deal about all these topics on GeoCurrents, and I trust you can find these posts and read them at your leasure.

          One can also mention many other groups who do not “live in their own regions and have their own national governments”, or were forcibly resettled, cleansed or otherwise brutally treated: Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, Karelians and Finns… I can go on.

          But all of this brings us back to the original question: how do these facts remedy the fact that Circassians underwent a genocide?

          What I also find peculiar is this: if you don’t want to know anything about it (like an ostrich hiding the head in the sand), then why do you not want other people, particularly in the West to know about it? You seemed to object in your original comment to the very fact that we write about it (and it upsets and humiliates Russians)… Americans know rather less than they should about Russia and instead of being grateful that somebody tells them about your country, you are concerned. If you don’t want the truth to come out, why not admit it?

          • Alexander

            Asya, thanks for the interesting discussion. Although it’s not use to keep it on, because we have the different points of view. However, I respect your position and I think we might talk in your next articles. My father is from Kabardino-Balkaria, he told me many interesting things on the topic. I wish you all the best.

            Sincerely, Alex.

          • Michael


            I agree wholeheartedly overall with your assessment of Sochi and agree that using the Olympic spotlight to bring Russian issues to the fore is the best way to make progress from a bad situation, I have to disagree with your statement here regarding racial segregation in the modern US.

            Yes, Jim Crow Laws have been repealed, and yes, Affirmative Action exists, and yes, I would agree with the basic argument that there certainly has been progress from 1864 and even from 1964, but to present the issue of segregation or equality of opportunity in the United States as settled is misleading and unfair to Alexander, who has a fair general point.

            I point you to the very interesting site which hosts several interesting interactive maps. I have not explored the entire site, but I’m sure you’ll find things of interest.

            To summarize some of the key points, the structure of the financial system in the United States has affected segregation despite the repeal of Jim Crow. Federally subsidized loans in the post-WWII era were made available to whites seeking to move to newly developing suburbs, and “one major Federal survey found that blacks were not informed of 60-90% of housing units made available to white auditors.” In efforts to “correct” this, mass tenement projects simply compounded the problems facing newly radicalized inner city areas, and overwhelmed infrastructure. An examination of the President’s own hometown of Chicago ( ) shows a strong correlation between color and income. Washington DC is another interesting case study. Housing discrimination is the norm in the US, as the site notes, not the exception.

            Otherwise, I love what you do with the site and keep up the good work. I just wanted to point out what I feel is an error in this assertion.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Michael, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

            I do not disagree that there is (still) a correlation between race and poverty/education/housing etc. — but it’s not a institutionalized policy, at least not anymore. We can discuss whether Affirmative Action is working etc. as a separate issue. But it is a far cry from state policies such as those that have Circassian refugees sent back to the war zone in Syria.

            More generally, however, this is another attempt to deflect the discussion, which I’ve pointed out in my earlier comments. Instead of addressing the issue(s) at hand that have to do with Russia, Alexander (and now you) seem to want to discuss that there are similar issues in the US. This is not right. And note that, as I’ve pointed out before, Americans do not say “hey there’s racial segregation/bad healthcare system/whatever problem—but things are even worse in Russia”. This “let’s catch up with and overtake America” is a unique Russian strategy from the Cold War period, but is working? My view is that it does not.

          • SirBedevere

            Sadly, while it is possible to legislate against racial discrimination, it remains quite widespread, at least in all parts of the world with which I am familiar. I can remember trying to hail a cab in Tbilisi in 1987 and only being able to get a cab to stop when my black friend hid in a doorway. We had similar experiences that summer in Berlin and Madrid, and most Americans are familiar with this issue in our major cities. I’m afraid I am unable to trust anyone who tells me there is no racial prejudice in his homeland.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Quite so!

      • Alexander

        We, the people of Russia are also looking for a solution for OUR problems to make things better for ourselves. And things are really improving year by year, I can feel it and I can see it. Of course there are lots of problems, but I hope we’ll be better, because we are immune to the disasters of every manner. Presidents come and go, it’s a matter of time. What we really don’t like is when different kind of “thinkers” and politicians (like McCain) from abroad trying to determine what we have to do. I’d really prefer to see KGB officer Putin rather than mr. Navalny whose patrons have once been in power in 1990-s.
        When someone in the West says something like “Hey, you guys in Russia do the wrong thing by oppressing the gay rights and we demand that you changed your view, otherwise we’ll ignore Sochi Olympics” it really looks crazy for the vast majority of Russians. What do you care about gays in Russia, they are free people who have the same rights as others? Or should they have even more rights than straight people, because they are so called “minorities”? Once more, we recognize the problems of Sochi (I mean most of Russian people). We know about the corruption, we know about rotten politics and we don’t like them. But American and European media point at our problems and emphasize it every day, and they activated before the Olympics. What’s their deal? What are they trying to do? Why didn’t they try to refer to the problem of the Circassian people a few years ago (for instance), and are bothering about it right now? Why should they care about gays in Russia, and they don’t care that in some allied countries like Saudi Arabia there’s a death penalty for gays? That’s my point.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          “things are really improving year by year, I can feel it and I can see it” — “Жить стало лучше, жить стало веселее”, hmmm where have I heard this one before?! The election results were doctored; laws against gays, NGOs, and your own Russian orphans were adopted; corruption is on a major scale — sure things are wonderful and getting better. Because Russia is “immune to the disasters of every manner”? Sure. Till the next disaster strikes.

          As for why there is so much attention in the media to Russia’s problems now, what did you expect? When you host a major international event like the Olympics, of course a lot of attention will be attracted to the place. That’s the point in the last paragraph of my post. Putin and Co wanted to show what Russia can do (in a positive light), and so many negative things come out, that’s the irony of it.

          As for the Circassians, they’ve been running their movement for several years at least, and it is naturally getting more attention now, although not nearly enough, as will be discussed in tomorrow’s GeoCurrents post.

          As for your last sentence, do you even hear yourself? Do you want to be like Saudi Arabia? Or Zimbabwe? Or some other God-forsaken hole? Is that the standard of comparison you seek?

      • lou14

        “My point is that when things are not right in America, people are
        looking for a solution. Different people may not agree on what the
        solution should be, but nobody says “who cares, things are even worse in
        Russia” (although in many cases they would be justified to say so).”

        Actually Asya, people do say such things in America all the time. It’s fairly common, because people are disenfranchised, know there is corruption that points to the very top of political leadership, and because the political process is so controlled by moneyed interests, little can be done about it. And despite this, people will say things such as, “It’s still a great country; it could be worse.”

        Trying to make the U.S. appear to be something it is not to make things appear worse elsewhere I believe is what Putin mocked as “American exceptionalism”.

        • SirBedevere

          Disenfranchised in what way? I exercise my franchise at least every other year.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          There is a difference between “things could be worse” and “things are even worse in Russia”—do I need to explain?

          And I do not see anything wrong with American exceptionalism: it is better to be exceptional in a good way than bad like everybody else.

  • Guest

    Sure, there is corruption everywhere, but it is the sheer monstrous scale of in Russia that is the issue.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig


      • Jessica

        The is of corruption in the construction of the Olympic village (all the preparation) at and around Sochi brings to mind a variation on that old chestnut from Casablanca:

        I’m shocked, shocked, to find that [corruption] is going on here

        Just what did the IOC expect and how much were they paid under the table to award the Olympics to Sochi? It is the only reason anyone I know can think of for having this location.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Great question, Jessica! I for one would like to know more on what the IOC bases its decision on olympic hosts…

  • Reticulator

    I had not known any of this about Circassian people. (I read the Martin Lewis article you linked to, too.) Thank you.

    Interesting that these winter olympics are supposed to show what the Russians can do. I guess they do. These and some of the previous olympics make me hope they are never again held in the U.S., because now there will be plenty of precedent for some of the same things to be done here in the name of security.

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