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The Sochi Olympics and the Circassians: A Media Failure?

Submitted by on February 7, 2014 – 8:50 am 33 Comments |  
Circassian ProtestWhen lecturing on the Caucasus last fall, I asked my Stanford students if any of them had ever heard of the Circassians. Out of a class of roughly 100 students, two raised their hands. I then told that class that the Circassians had once been an extremely well known if often misunderstood ethnic group, and I predicted that by February 2014 they would again be in the news, owing to the fact that the Sochi Olympics would be held in their ancestral homeland. I trusted Circassian activists to get their story out, and I was reasonably sure that the mainstream media would pick it up, due both to the controversial nature of Russian ethnic policies and especially to the fact that Circassian history is both tragic and absolutely fascinating.

Thus far, I have been disappointed, as it seems that most mainstream media organizations are content to downplay if not ignore the Circassian issue. To be sure, several outlets have posted excellent articles on the topic, including Frankie Martin’s “The Olympics’ Forgotten People” on CNN and Kathrin Hille’s “Sochi Stirs Circassian Nationalism” in the Financial Times. (Of particular note in the latter article is the important but rather understated observation that, “Russia is working on a new set of history textbooks after Mr. Putin demanded they be reworked to present a unified set of evaluations and reflect a more patriotic world view. Circassian hopes to have their full story told could collide with this.”) In an interesting article in Time magazine, Ishaan Tharoor appropriately characterizes the Circassians as “a forgotten community.” (See also this article in The New Republic.)

Most news organizations, however, apparently prefer to ignore or downplay the issue. A Washington Post video entitled “The Sochi Olympics, Explained in Two Minutes,” for example, fails to mention the Circassians. An NBC article on a hacking attack on the Russian media does mention the group, but just barely, claiming that, “the official Twitter feed of Anonymous Caucasus said the action was a protest at the 19th Century deportation of thousands of native Circassians from the region.” The implication that mere “thousands” were merely “deported” is both misleading and insulting: in actuality, hundreds of thousands were brutally expelled, with many dying in the process.

NY Times Caucasis religion mapAn important February 5 article in the New York Times, “An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone,” Steven Lee Myers does a reasonable good job of explaining the situation in Chechnya, and we are pleased that his article used a modified GeoCurrents language map in its on-line version. But the article still fails the Circassians, dispensing with their situation as follows: “Many of the ethnic groups in the Caucasus are related to the Circassians, who consider Sochi part of their homeland, conquered by the Russians in the 19th century after what activists today hope to publicize as an act of genocide.” Unfortunately, the characterization is again misleading if not simply inaccurate. The vast majority of the ethnic groups of the Caucasus are not “related” to the Circassians in any sense other than that of living in the same general area, and the Russian conquest of the area came before not “after” the events that most Circassian activists consider genocidal. The religion map that accompanies the article (in the on-line version), moreover, fails to show a Muslim minority in the Russian Republic of Adygea, which forms something of a rump homeland for a mostly Muslim Circassian group. (Adygea is actually only about a quarter Circassian by population, and, according to official statistics, about 13 percent of its population is Muslim.) The New York Times map is based on the comprehensive cartography of M. Izady, but unfortunately Izady’s map does not extent far enough to the northwest to include Adygea.

Caucasius religion mapThe New York Times article in question focuses on Islamist militants in Chechnya and Dagestan, which is understandable at one level, given the security threats that they pose. But Sochi is relatively far from Chechnya and Dagestan, and, as the Times own maps show, the Sochi region has seen few terrorist attacks or insurgent strikes. Historical Circassia, on the other hand, encompasses Sochi and its environs. Equally important is the fact that the Circassian strategy has been, as far as I can tell, completely non-violent, in utter contrast to the situation in Chechnya. Surely that is noteworthy in its own right. If news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: “If you want our attention, kill someone!”

Map-of-all-terrorist-attacks-near-Sochi-since-Russia-awarded-Winter-Olympics-Jun-07-ImgurRegardless of such ethical considerations, the saga of the Circassians is a fascinating story. As outlined in earlier GeoCurrents posts, the Circassians were once famous over in many areas for their supposed physical beauty and regal bearing. They also filled an unexpected but highly significant historical role as elite slaves, both male and female, in the Ottoman Empire and Mamluk Egypt. (It would take a dull mind indeed not to find the topic of “elite slaves” intriguing!) The ability of Circassians to rise to relatively high positions in the Ottoman Empire and subsequently in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan is also of some interest. The current plight of the 40,000 to 130,000 Circassians in Syria, moreover, is grossly under-reported in the global media. Religion among the Circassians is another captivating topic. Although most Circassians are Sunni Muslim, conversion came relatively late and, according to some sources, was somewhat superficial in some areas. Of significance in this regard is Adyghe Khabze (or Xabze) the traditional ethnic “code of conduct,” described on one Circassian website as “the epitomy of Circassian culture and tradition.” Most interpretations view Adyghe Khabze as a secular institution that is not at all incompatible with Islam, but the Wikipedia article on the subject portrays it as a religion in its own right, influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. The same article also claims that an Adyghe Khabze movement is growing rapidly, and that some of its leaders have come under deadly attack from Sunni extremists. A 2010 report by the Jamestown Foundation claims that “some observers detected in the latest killings [of an Adyghe Khabze advocate] in Kabardino-Balkaria an attempt by Moscow to play off Circassian nationalists against the Islamists.”

I would be very interested in readers’ ideas about why the Circassian issue has failed to gain the attention of most major news organizations. I suspect that the one reason is that many reporters and editors feel that the story is simply too complicated, and that as a result they fear that it would unduly burden their readers. The storyline of the Caucasus that the media has embraced focuses on extremism and violence in Chechnya and environs, and thus has little room for anything that would complicate that accepted narrative. Such tunnel vision seems to apply to other parts of the world as well. Thus in Sudan, the media periodically reports on Darfur, but hardly ever mentions the on-going horrors of the conflict in the Nuba Hills (South Kordofan)– despite the fact that George Clooney has struggled to bring it to global attention. And Sudan’s Eastern Front rebellion receives even less attention.

If this interpretation has any merit, the situation is most unfortunate. The reading public deserves more comprehensive information, and the failure of the mainstream media to provide it is perhaps one reason why many established news organizations are declining, while the often-disparaged “blogosphere” continue to rise.


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  • Xezlec

    I didn’t know about them either. I hypothesize that the media is concerned with profit, not the public good, and therefore chooses to focus on issues that an average uninformed viewer would immediately consider “important”, such as those that are currently getting people killed. I doubt that the shareholders of media conglomerates care whether that sends a perverse message.

    There are lots of interesting groups with interesting stories and independence movements all over the world, and the media doesn’t have time to bother with most of them, especially when most of them would elicit little more than a shrug from the average Joe with no particular interest in history. Most people I know have never heard words like “Byzantine”, “Mameluke”, or “Caucasus” in their entire lives. You think people unaware of the stories of entire empires are going to care about a subplot within one of those stories?

    • Good points as well, but if the media is concerned above all with profit, they are not doing a very good job of realizing it. The New York Times has certainly not made much money in recent years. I do wonder whether they could gain more readers by covering more issues. As it is, the Times runs a story on Syria just about every day, even if there is not much to report, as Syria is “in the news.” Meanwhile, many fascinating issues go unreported.

      • I don’t like the argument that the mainstream media publishes the same story because that’s what it’s consumers want. This is because I think in many ways the media creates the demand, same as with everything else. People buy lots of things they don’t actually need because they are fashionable or even simply because they are available. Same with the media, people “want” to hear about Syria because “it’s in the news”, not the other way around.

        • Xezlec

          While I agree that the media has some ability to shape what the public views as newsworthy, I think you’re being a little too cynical. People can be influenced a certain amount, but they aren’t ragdolls. I don’t know that any amount of news coverage will make people who aren’t interested in history suddenly fascinated by the subject.

          I think the public’s attention is attracted to things they see as important for instinctive survival reasons. The press can make things look more volatile than they really are, or more significant to future events than they really are, and use that to draw more attention, but just bringing up a topic that doesn’t involve any immediate threats to anyone is unlikely to draw much more than a “slow news day, eh?” from a lot of people I know.

          I don’t think discussions about fashion are relevant here at all. Need is only the most stringent criterion for buying something. Of course, people often buy things they merely want. Fashion, for example, is about buying things for social reasons. But I don’t think I believe that people buy things for no reason at all, and I don’t think buying newspapers is fashionable in any circumstance.

          • History isn’t news, I am afraid. I was talking about covering different stories that are current, volatile or will have an effect on our future. Some stories are predetermined to be “newsworthy” and hence are covered ad nauseam, while others are ignored. Then it’s easy to claim that people don’t want to know about some obscure place because it is obscure, but what made it obscure in the first place is the media’s decision to cover some other story—for reasons that are themselves political more than anything else.

            As for buying newspapers being fashionable, in Victorian England it was positively “de rigueur”! (For men of certain classes, of course).

          • SirBedevere

            Fashion is, however, simply demand. If it were possible to make demand as easily as you imply, every graduate of design school would be rich. Moreover, the Soviet economic model would have worked, since they could have done what they so wanted to do, channel demand. Wanting and needing, however, are not simply matters of some sort of material utility or, once again, Marxists would have had a much better handle on understanding economics than they do. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in his wonderful book La Distinction, demand for something (newspapers for middle class Victorians, luxury box tickets to sporting events for rich Americans, etc.) is often a matter of identifying oneself with one group and distinguishing oneself from another.

          • I never meant that demand (or fashion) is easy or that one entity (e.g. the state) can control or channel it. The Soviet economic system failed, however, because people didn’t have what they NEEDED, not necessarily what they merely wanted: food, clothing, sometimes even shelter. Also, the way I understand the Marxists in this regard, they think that people only want what they need, which is why it’s completely wrong…

          • SirBedevere

            I think that’s true, but I’m pretty sure the planners also thought the people did not know what they needed, but that their actual needs, or maybe their proper needs would be better, were being fulfilled. By the ’80s, though, I guess even the Politburo was not so deluded. I remember one of the arguments for Glasnost being that the leadership finally realized that they did not even have an accurate sense of what conditions in the country were.

          • Well, it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought that malnutrition to the level of near starvation was actually all that people needed…

  • SirBedevere

    Two percent of your students had hear of the Circassians? Stanford’s students are indeed well-read. While all God’s children are of equal worth, some live close to me, some have relatives who live close to me, and some make things that I either need or want. People in those three categories tend to get more of my attention than those who are not. (OK, truth be told, like most readers of this blog, I am an incurable geek, who seeks out the exotic for the sake of my own entertainment, but I do not think most consumers of mainstream media are.)

    • I agree in general, but I also think that most consumers of mainstream media consume whatever they are fed by the said media, whether it is the story of the violent Chechens or the non-violent Circassians…

      • SirBedevere

        But then, we are only interested in the Chechens because (in the popular view) they are simply a particularly violent subspecies of Russian, a people we are interested in for a variety of other reasons.

        • I hope neither Russians no Chechens see what you wrote above about “subspecies” as either would be mad with you! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Your article was good, and interesting, plus it shed more insight into this fascinating part of the world.

    That said, two hyperlinks you provided near the top – one, to an article in CNN, and the other, to one in the Financial Times – were missing a colon: rather than being “http://”, they were simply “http//”, thereby making them impossible to view.

    So, would you fix those two hyperlinks?

  • Maybe the problem is that the history is too complicated and doesn’t fit neatly into the pre-determined categories. That’s not a problem only with media reporters; we all tend to want to fit any new information into our existing categories. But it can be liberating and exciting to learn that the world doesn’t always cooperate. If this is indeed the problem, the challenge would be to get the media to develop greater curiosity and seek out new knowledge.

    But I don’t know if that’s really a good description of the problem, or how one could do objective psychological research to find out.

    • Excellent points. Some of us, however, do like complexity. I have heard it said that the main difference between social science and history is that social scientists like to say, “let me simplify that for you,” whereas histories are more inclined to say, “let me complicate that for you.”

      In my book, the more complicated and seemingly contradictory something is, the more interesting it becomes.

      • +1!

      • SirBedevere

        This thing really needs a “like” button.

        • There is a sorta “like” button! Under the comment the up and down arrows are “like” and “dislike”… I just “liked” your comment above.

          • SirBedevere

            Thanks, Asya. For some reason, I just thought that was a button to hide the remark.

          • Ah! That explains why you never “liked” my comments before!

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  • Eskarpas

    Thanks for presenting the article.

    The popularization of various “plights” generally follow PR rules. The plights, even the most severe ones, of smaller and less influential groups of people get little attention, however much less serious discrimination that is faced by more influential groups (which have been able to already establish their position as “oppressed” in popular mind) generally attracts much attention.

    The particular Russian law banning propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors is one example. It attracted much media attention even though on a global scale it is meaningless (regardless on your opinion on sexual issues) when compared to genocides, not trying war criminals, mass murders, murders of the opposition, deadly pogroms against the ethnic minorities, etc. – most of these issues happening or having happened in Russia as well.

    Human rights currently, unfortunately, are nearly totally driven by PR. Some groups, like the homosexual people, have been good at that PR recently, for other (smaller) groups it can be extremely hard to pass on their message even when their situation is extremely dire.

    Of course there are some moderate successes such as the Tibetans. In any pro-Tibetan rally you will see many Western faces (including celebrities). However e.g. in a pro-Tamil (Sri Lanka) rally you would see only the minority in question (I have witnessed both rallies in Paris and London).
    Back to the Beijing Olympics the Tibet situation attracted much attention yet arguably worse situation in Sinjiang nearly never interests the Western media (unless, of course, a terrorist would blow a bomb there – deaths always catch attention, even though even deaths in Europe, Israel, USA will always attract more coverage than say in Africa).

    On the other hand for groups that have been successful in establishing the “public image of oppression” the media frequently “finds” discrimination even where there is likely none (e.g. in cases of genuine criticism that would be acceptable against other groups).

    And that public image (whether of “oppressor-group” or “oppressed-group”), once established, drags on for decades whereas the situation may change or even reverse.

    I personally find this situation sad as it ultimately means that freedoms and even lifes of different groups (ethnic, racial or otherwise) have different values in Western mindset (including media, governmental), even if this is subconcious/implicit.

    P.S. Perhaps there is any scientific study which would do monitoring of US media in seeking to establish how many people needs to die in a disaster/terrorism/war in different parts of the world (Africa, Latin America, Arab countries, Western Europe, Eastern Europe…) for the event to get the *same* average coverage in the US media? Definitely would be an interesting issue to do a research on.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, eskarpas! You are making some excellent points here. And indeed a study lie you describe would be interesting to consider…

  • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

    Great article. I follow a Catalan website (nationalia, available in both Catalan and English) that focuses on autonomist, secessionist and language movements. When they did a story on Circassian protests regarding Sochi, I thought this kind of information would spill into more mainstream media outlets and would start to be discussed on internet forums. But nothing, total silence.

    I think one of the reasons might be that “peaceful separatists” and “peaceful Muslims” don’t fit into the dominant Western narrative. Hamas, Chechen Islamists, Al-Qaeda and so on get more coverage because they fit into the categories people have already envisioned. Maybe that sounds paranoid, but I think there are lots of people that prefer to see some “global threat” of international Islam rather than many different Muslim peoples with different interests and histories.

    The distinction between pacifist Circassians and the violence of the Chechen movement I think is an interesting one and reminds me of the national minorities of Spain. Anglophone media talks about the Basques and ETA more than it does about Catalans, and when they do talk about Catalans they don’t seem to realise they’re a separate ethnic group and just talk about a “wealthy region of Spain”…

    • Thank you for your comments, Saim, very interesting parallel with Catalonia, though it’s not exactly parallel story, but an instructive comparison nonetheless!

    • Xezlec

      Sure, there are peaceful groups. But is a peaceful disagreement or yet another protest really news? A lot of groups like that have made it into the news when they have done something newsworthy. For example, the Scottish independence referendum is in the news. The Catalonian one probably will be also. Ghandi made the news, and the news followed Nelson Mandela very closely. And the image of the media as stridently anti-Muslim is funny to me because I keep hearing exactly the opposite accusation!

      • The pro-Muslim/anti-Muslim slant of the mainstream media is indeed “in the eyes of the beholder”—one hears both accusations made depending on the position of the one who is making the accusation. I don’t know of any serious studies to access that—do you? Or any of our other readers?

        As for the “newsworthiness”, I agree that this may be one contributing factor to what gets covered. Still, I agree with Martin that the message being sent—“If you want our attention, kill someone!”—is wrong!

      • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

        Xezlec, I hope you realise your first and second points are totally contradictory… if you’re hearing the opposite accusation, it’s probably the circles you frequent (I’d recommend talking to people about Islam other than just Western xenophobes).

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  • jemblue

    What is the goal of the Circassian protesters? Do they want land or financial compensation, or just a symbolic gesture of recognition, like the resolution passed by Georgia in 2011?

    • Good question, jemblue! As far as I understand, they want the recognition first and foremost, and perhaps the right of return for the Circassians at least from Syria at the moment, where it’s a matter of life and death.

  • billposer

    I would have thought that some students might have heard of the Circassians because they are mentioned in the film “Lawrence of Arabia”.

  • Circassian

    Most of the people in the World choose to be blinde against the the reality of Circassian(Adyghe, Oubykh, Abkhaz(Abaza), Chechen, Ossetian) genocide and exile. What would if they were traited as the same? Can you imagene you yourselves instead of Circassians? What would you do if you were assimilated in your new homes?! ??? I advise you, as a Circassian, do not believe what the big and biased media powers say. And do not let this KEY CULTURE AND THESE LANGUAGES extinct!

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