The Sochi Olympic Games are taking place in a region of tightly interwoven conflicts, the roots of which lie as much in contemporary military, political and social upheaval and the post-soviet geo-politics as in historical events and their various interpretations among different Russian and Caucasian populations.
Identity lies at the heart of these conflicts. For ‘Caucasians’ ̶ a term used to describe people of over 100 different ethnicities from this region ̶ Sochi is undeniably a part of the Caucasus. But most Caucasians themselves perceive the Sochi Olympics as a ‘Russian’ initiative, even though it is taking place in the homeland of the Circassian people, who were massacred or driven into exile during the Russian Empire’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.
For the ordinary Russian, Sochi is a fashionable beach and mountain ski resort as well as home to the Russian president’s summer residence. The Olympics are a unique event of nation-wide significance on which Russia has spent extraordinary sums and spared no efforts over the past few years to demonstrate that Russia as successor to the USSR has returned to its former glory.
However, the daily stream of news on Russian television about terrorist acts and military operations in the North Caucasus consistently fails to understand the root causes of instability in the region. In the public’s mind, in particular amongst the Slavic Russian population, the stereotypical image of Caucasians as belligerent and threatening is being reinforced and giving rise to increasing xenophobia.
The idea that the North Caucasian republics should secede from the Russian Federation is growing in popularity within Russian society, with nationalist slogans such as ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus!’ reflecting a desire to isolate the region and prevent instability spilling over into the rest of Russia. The gulf between “us and them”, between “Slavic whites and Caucasian blacks” has reached a critical juncture. The evidence for this is the increasing number of racially motivated attacks and crimes taking place in Russia, and strangely even resonated with certain events during the London Olympics in 2012: The first Russian gold medal winners during the London Olympics were of Caucasian origin, which aroused an intensely negative reaction in Russian social media, the medals being branded as ‘Russia’s black gold’.
Alongside the miracles of engineering performed in preparation for the Games, Russia is keen to present the best face of its society. Many Caucasians have come to the conclusion that their own Caucasian faces apparently do not fit into this picture, as local television stations in some of the North Caucasian republics have carried ‘adverts’ recommending local citizens to stay away from the entire Krasnodar region where Sochi is located for the duration of the Olympic Games.
What benefit can the people of the Caucasus glean from being in the global eye of the Olympics, when the message being beamed around the world appears to be that the Olympics are safe because they will be safe from Caucasians? All possible security measures have been taken to thwart the threat of insecurity, and quite justifiably so, but it is wrong to brand the threat of violence as a Caucasian one.
Once a secular Soviet region, today’s Russian North Caucasus are becoming a fertile ground for ever more popular radical Islamic ideas, as an articulation of identity and quest for justice which neither the local authorities nor federal authorities seem able to provide.
But expectations are not always borne out in reality. The heightened Russian expectation of the Olympics as a matter of national pride which will inspire a lasting global admiration for the remarkable sporting complexes and engineering miracles is somewhat utopian, and may very well end in the usual frustration of Russia feeling misunderstood by the outside world. This in turn could strengthen nationalist moods within society and justification for insularity.
The Sochi Olympics share some parallels with the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Both these Olympic Games took or are taking place in a closed region with restricted access, and in both cases the pursuit of a certain political image has pushed the ideas of peace and even sport itself into second place. The Moscow 1980 Olympics could be deemed as when some of the seeds of the demise of the USSR were sown. People from around the globe were allowed to enter a previously closed space, bringing with them different values and worldview, providing local residents a glimpse into an alternative, less inhibited life than behind the Iron Curtain, which was quite distinct from the propagandistic narratives promoted by Soviet ideologues.
Perhaps these Games will have a similar impact. One would hope that post-Olympic Sochi will be better than the pre-Olympic Sochi and that the current spotlight on the city will help create a more open environment in the region, attracting new visitors from around the world as well as providing an opportunity to embrace new influences, alternative views and values. Maybe this will help create space for public reflection, both for those that sympathise with militants and secretly support them, as well as those who hunt them down. And in this way the value of public participation will take root, wherein everyone can openly express their opinion about the past and the present in the name of future reconciliation and find peaceful and legitimate ways to express their political aspirations.
- Read more and listen to our podcast on what the Sochi Olympics mean for peace and conflict in the Caucasus.
- Find out more about our work building peace in the Caucasus.
 One Caucasian blogger comments on a Russian blog post where two photographs are juxtaposed: one of (Arsyan Galstyan) a ‘Caucasian’ medal winner wearing Russian Olympic colours; the other (Aleksandr Vinokurov) a ‘Slavic’ medal winner wearing Olympic colours of Kazakhstan, with the question “Which is the real win for you?”. Of over 3000 voters, only 20% gave their vote to Galstyan, with 80% voting for Vinokurov. See re-post of the blog and commentary (in Russian) here: http://madina-k.livejournal.com/5569.html