Wednesday Feb. 5, 2014 11:23 ET

Sochi's opening ceremony likely to ignore Circassian past

Take lesson from Vancouver on paying tribute to indigenous people, Canadian urges

Circassians protest Sochi
Circassians living in Turkey marched earlier this month outside the Russian Consulate. It's part of a movement in diaspora communities around the world over the past seven years. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

The opening ceremony for any Olympic Games provides host countries with a stage to proclaim their accomplishments and teach the world about their history.

But in Sochi, the official start to the 2014 Winter Games is unlikely to feature a key piece of the city’s storied past.

The Black Sea resort town represents the final spot where the indigenous Circassians were defeated, killed and expelled from their homeland by the Russian empire 150 years ago.

“In their view, it’s sort of like holding an Olympiad at Auschwitz,” said John Colarusso, a Hamilton, Ont.-based linguist who’s extensively studied the Circassians and followed their recent movement.

Seven years ago, a New Jersey-based group began a No Sochi campaign. While deemed futile by some, the campaign organizers say they feel satisfied with their accomplishments – even though they didn’t succeed in moving the Games from the culturally sensitive location.

The group said it did manage to secure condemnations of the venue choice from a couple of politicians.

Tamara Barsik, a co-founder of the No Sochi committee, said they've heard murmurs about the opening ceremony including some cultural representation of the Circassians – perhaps elders attending or local state-sponsored dance troupes performing.

“Our culture is beautiful, it’s unique, it deserves to be displayed,” said Barsik. “But I just don’t appreciate the way the Russian Olympics committee has gone about trying to include us.”

The No Sochi group argues that the indigenous culture of the resort town deserves, at the very least, recognition of its history.

Canadian scholar John Colarusso argues that Russia should take a similar approach to the Vancouver Olympics in its opening ceremony – prominently embracing and showcasing indigenous culture.

The 2010 Vancouver Games marked the first time in the Olympics history that indigenous people were recognized as official partners. Four First Nations bands also played prominent roles in the opening ceremony.

'Missed opportunity'

To Colarusso, it was a “fantastic example of how ethnic tensions can be mitigated if not resolved completely by a simple show of allowing the people to appear and show themselves in their traditional form.”

“Russia has in a way missed a great opportunity here to crank down the tensions,” said Colarusso, a McMaster University humanities professor who has extensively studied the Circassians and the Caucasus.

The Circassians, however, seized the opportunity and momentum provided by the Sochi Games.

Perhaps most importantly, the Olympics provided a rallying point that brought a globally-dispersed group together.

Before Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin presented Sochi in the 2007 bid, Colarusso says the indigenous group risked "sliding into assimilation." 

“Although Sochi is a place of a bitter feeling for Circassians because it is so sacred to us, the sweet part is that it’s helped set us up for the future,” said Barsik.

The No Sochi move also educated people around the world about the little-known indigenous group. 

Circassians lived in the northwestern region of the Caucasus mountains, now part of southern Russia and Georgia, but were killed and expelled in 1864 after a decades-long war.

Nowadays, most Circassians live outside of Russia. About four million reside in Turkey, while hundreds of thousands live in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Germany. Several hundred also live in Canada, primarily in Toronto and southwestern Ontario.

'No Sochi' demonstrations planned

On Feb. 7, as the opening ceremony lights up Sochi, the Circassians plan to host demonstrations in major cities in many of those countries, including in New York City, Moscow, Berlin, Istanbul, Ankara and Toronto.

Though Circassians, especially the younger generation, came together against Sochi, the ever-growing network now rallies together to be a force for change in other areas, particularly Syria.

The Middle East country, where a deadly civil war has raged for nearly three years, is home to thousands of Circassians who are being killed or are fleeing to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, says Barsik.

Barsik said the Circassian community has helped co-ordinate logistics to get refugees to Turkey, where many Circassians live, and negotiated with the Turkish government to help fund certain camps to help them.

In Amman, Jordan, one of the countries accepting Syrian refugees, Merissa Khurma, is among the young watching closely as the No Sochi galvanized the community – and the benefits reaped by those escaping Syria.

"It’s awakened the younger generation and they felt that they had to be at the forefront of doing something,” said Khurma.

That’s not a feeling expected to dissipate after the Olympics either.

The year 2014 is dubbed the “year of grief” by some, since it represents the 150th year after the Cirscassian expulsion from their homeland.

Promotion of the Circassian language and culture will likely continue long after the tourists depart the seaside resort – and so, too, will the fight for repatriation and recognition.

“It 100 per cent does not end with Sochi,” said Barsik. “It’s just the beginning.”

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