Expelled ethnic group protests over Sochi's dark history
Moscow has never apologised for deporting 500,000 Circassians from Caucasus in the 19th century
Rengin Yurdakul: ‘I don’t even speak the language of my ancestors but I feel a deep pain – I feel that I’m Circassian; it’s who I am.’ Photograph: Stephen Starr
Members of a Circassian ethnic group shout slogans during a protest in front of the Russian consulate in Istanbul. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Sochi massacres and deportation of about 500,000 Circassians, and Turkey’s Circassian activists hope to use the Winter Olympics in Sochi draw attention to Russia’s past wrongdoings . Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA
The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics last Friday week presented the world with a history of Russia equally romantic and fanciful. But a different history of Sochi, today at the centre of international attention, is being presented by descendants of those driven from the Black Sea city 150 years ago.
In a rooftop apartment in Istanbul, 64-year-old Rengin Yurdakul tells of being haunted by her ancestors’ forced deportation from present-day Sochi during the Russian-Caucasian war. “My parents and grandparents were born in Turkey. I don’t even speak the language of my ancestors but I feel a deep pain – I feel that I’m Circassian; it’s who I am,” she says.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Sochi massacres and deportation of about 500,000 Circassians. Turkey’s Circassian activists hope to draw attention to Russia’s past wrongdoings with a series of commemorations to mark the anniversary in June. Protests were held in Istanbul, appealing to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to attend the Games’ opening ceremony.
“But we don’t expect such good behaviour from him,” said Alper Hraça (36), whose ancestors came from Kbaada (now Krasnaya Polyana) and where Olympic events are being held.
Turkey is home to between 1.5 and three million people whose ancestors were driven from the Caucasus by the Russian Empire during and after a 50-year war from the early to mid-1800s. For over 350 years until the Russian conquest, Sochi served as the capital of a region inhabited by groups of ethnic Circassian tribes of both Muslim and Christian faith.
After being defeated by Alexander III’s forces in June 1864, many remaining Circassian tribes refused to be subsumed by the Russian conquerors. As a result, much of the local population was deported to Istanbul and other Ottoman cities along the Black Sea’s southern coast.
Many Turks of Circassian descent came from the northern Caucasus region around Sochi. The majority were interned in camps before being shipped across the Black Sea. Thousands of Circassians, particularly those forced from the highlands and who weren’t used to warmer climates, reportedly died of typhus and dehydration upon reaching the Ottoman Empire’s Black Sea coast.
Experts say imperialism – a common goal for British, Dutch and American conquerors – not religion was the root cause of the deportations. “There were Muslims who accepted the Russian presence and actively assisted in the conquest of the Caucasus. There were others who stood against the Russian advance,” says Charles King, author of The Ghost of Freedom: the History of the Caucasus .
In 1994, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin admitted Russia had been involved in wrongdoing during the Caucasus campaign, but no official apology came from Moscow.
According to Hraça, the deportations were referred to as an “exile” by his own community in Turkey until several years ago. It wasn’t until 2009, during a demonstration in front of the Russian consulate in Istanbul, that events of the 1860s were referred to as genocide by local Circassian activists.
Nonetheless, the change in tack was not without consequence. Two years ago, Turkish-Circassian activist Kuban Kural received death threats for his outspoken activities.
Circassian groups unfurled their Sochi campaign when the Russian city was announced as candidate host for the Winter Olympics seven years ago. A petition collected over 5,000 signatures online and was sent to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), asking it not to choose Sochi, which in turn sent it to the Russian Olympic committee. Hraça, who is a member of the Istanbul-based Caucasus Forum, said the IOC never got back in contact.
“We were very sure that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin would try to cover history and what happened . . . They don’t have to build their credibility on our graves,” he said.
Turkey’s Circassians are hoping the publicity fuelled by the Sochi Olympics will carry over to June’s anniversary and to further recognition down the road. “Right now we have a chance to make a base from this campaign because when people look at Sochi, when they search on Google, [through our efforts] most of them will know it is a Circassian city, there was genocide, and that it is an important base for us,” said Hraça.
Rengin Yurdakul has sat quietly for almost an hour. “I want to say something,” she finally says. “In 1992, I went back home to the Caucasus for the first time. Flying over a valley, I imagined seeing people fleeing from the forests below me. I have this pain with me; I still carry their sorrow.”