Russia welcomes the world to the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The city is an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of the few places on Earth that attracts both sun worshippers to its beaches and winter sports enthusiasts to its mountain slopes. It is a place where you can comfortably go skiing in the morning and follow it up with a swim in the afternoon.
Sochi was a favourite of the Soviet elite and shot to prominence under Stalin, who came from nearby Georgia. Over 60 years after his death, Comrade Stalin’s dacha is still there and Olympians will be able to visit his old haunt and even get their picture taken with a wax work of one of the 20th Century’s cruellest dictators. More recently, President Putin has poured billions of roubles into the town as he uses the Winter Olympics as a showcase for his rule.
Yet this most Russian of towns is not all it seems. Up until the 19th Century, very little was known about it by the Russian Empire. The area formed part of Circassia, one of the many peoples of the Caucasus, and was nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Yet many Circassians were expelled from the region, including the area in what we now know as Sochi. At this time in 1864, exactly 150 years ago, Circassian leaders were making appeals for humanitarian intervention directly to Queen Victoria, their pleas spurred by the Russian Empire’s onslaught into the Caucasus and its treatment of the local population which very much mirrored how the United States had treated its Native American population at the time.
This onslaught has had a lasting effect. You will not find many Circassians at the Winter Olympics; instead, their communities can now be found throughout the former Ottoman Empire, not least across the Middle East. Instead of enjoying the benefits of hosting the Olympics many of the ancestors of those Circassians expelled from their homeland by the Tsar’s armies now find themselves caught up in another brutal conflict in Syria. Even those who did not succumb to persecution from Moscow and who stayed in their homeland have not avoided troubles. Sochi stands at the gates of conflict, just a few miles from the border of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. This territory remains in a state of conflict with the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The Olympics have added a degree of fuel to the region’s tensions, with Georgians claiming that the Russia has extended its ‘Sochi Olympic security zone’ into Abkhazia, in what is officially Georgian sovereign territory.
So as the world tunes in to watch the latest from Sochi’s ice rinks or pistes, take a closer look at the surroundings. Sochi sits shadowed by the Caucuses mountains, in what is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and overlooked parts of Europe. It often surprises people to learn that Europe’s highest mountain is not Mont Blanc in the Alps that sits at 4,810 metres but rather Mount Elbrus at 5,642 metres. To put that into perspective, Ben Nevis is a mere 1,344 metres in height.
This is also Europe’s most ethnically diverse corner. There are said to be about 40 indigenous languages in the Caucasus, more than almost anywhere else on Earth aside from remote parts of New Guinea or the Amazon. Many of those languages are not even closely related to each other and the region has attracted language scholars from across the world. One folk tale in the Caucasus has it that at the Creation, when languages were being distributed across the world, a Great Horseman ripped his sack of languages on one of the many jagged mountain peaks of the Caucuses, thus resulting in the scattered linguistic diversity that we know today.
For centuries, the Caucasus has found itself at the crossroads of Empire. It has been part, at one time or another, of the Persian, Ottoman, Mongol and Russian Empires. This history and its fault-lines are still visible. The region is home to communities of Jews who settled in the Caucuses mountains long before the birth of Christ and Greeks who have been there since ancient times, not to mention the myriad of other ethnic groups spread out across the region. This ethnic tapestry is reflected in the complicated political structures that exist across the region, on both sides of the Caucasus mountain range, including well-known Republics such as Chechnya and breakaway entities such as Nagorno-Karabakh, to those that are less well-known to the west such as Ajara or Kabardino-Balkaria.
Even the Scots have a significance to this fascinating region. There is evidence that in the 19th Century, Scots set up communities in the North Caucasus as they sought to spread Christianity to the region. Going back even further in time, the Declaration of Arbroath claims that the Scots made their way to what we now call Scotland from Greater Scythia and the Caucasus mountains.
Sochi’s Winter Olympics will open a window to the rest of the world on this fascinating region. I hope that will lead to a greater interest into one of the most significant parts of our Continent.
Stephen Gethins is Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Scottish Global Forum and spent several years working and living in the Caucasus