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Huffington Post | 02Jan2014 | Brian Glyn Williams, [2] 'Kavkaz' article by Bohdan Klid

The Dark Secret Behind the Sochi Olympics: Russia's Efforts to Hide a Tsarist-Era Genocide

[W.Z. The 2014 Winter Olympics provides an excellent opportunity for people to realize that Sochi was the capital of the Circassian nation before the Circassian people were "genocided" by the Russian Tsarist Empire in 1864. The article by Bohdan Klid on Shevchenko's poem 'Kavkaz' provides similar information on the genocide of the Chechen nation. The genocidal policies of the Tsarist Russian Empire in the 19th century continued in the Soviet Russian Empire in the 20th century and is continuing in the 21st century as Putin tries to create his Eurasian Union.]

As a Bostonian who was watching the race on April 15, 2013 that was marred by the senseless act of terrorism carried out by two Chechen-Dagestani-Americans which killed three people, I had a sickening sense of de ja vu as I watched recent media reports of as many as 30 people killed in twin bombings in Volgograd, Russia on December 29th and 30th, 2013. My heart went out to the Russians whose lives were cut short by the terrorists and the larger number of people who were cruelly maimed. Nothing can legitimize this sort of carnage which was obviously meant to embarrass President Vladimir Putin who has staked his reputation on hosting a smooth Olympics in Sochi.

As a professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (the very university where Boston bomber Djohar Tsarnaev went to school), who has taught the only class in America on Chechnya, I have had several students email me and ask me what the Volgograd bombers' message or objective was. This article is meant to both answer their question and provide an ingredient that has all too often been lacking in the discussion on Chechen terrorism in Russia, historical context.

While we Americans of the iPhone/Wikipedia era like quick, simple answers (President Bush once famously summed up all the complexity of Al Qaeda's motives for attacking America on 9/11 by simplistically stating "They hate us for our freedom"), the answer to my students' question is not so simple and involves a journey back in time to the 19th Century Caucasus Mountains which separated Tsarist Russia from the Dar al Islam (Realm of Islam). The origins of the recent bombings and the terror threat that hangs over the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi lies in this region once known as the "Graveyard of the Russian Empire." And ironically enough, it does have to do with freedom as Bush stated in his explanation, only in this case the Caucasian mountaineers' loss of their freedom.

A Blood-Soaked History.

The Chechen highlanders and neighboring Dagestanis correctly claim that the roots of the violence in southern Russia go back to the 19th century Russians who deprived them of their ancient liberty. In the early 1800s, the expansionist Russians marched into the forested mountains of northern Caucasus and brutally conquered the smaller Muslim nations living in this region since time immemorial. The divided Chechen and Dagestani tribes (there are more than 30 ethnic groups in Dagestan) did not stand a chance against the massive armies of Imperial Russia until they were unified by a Dagestani holy man named Imam Shamil. Shamil convinced the mountaineers to put aside their difference and unify under the banner of defensive jihad. He led them in a 30 year war with the Russian invaders. The Russian Empire ultimately won the meat-grinder war, its most costly conflict until World War I, only by chopping down the primordial forests that gave the Chechens cover, burning their villages, slaughtering their people and ethnically cleansing the lowlands.

As the Russians fought to crush Shamil's mountain rebels in the northeastern Caucasus Mountains, they moved against another nation in the northwestern Caucasus known as the Circassians. The odds are you have never heard of this people due to the fact that the Russians exterminated most of them, but for centuries they were famous in the Middle East and Russia. Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful in Eurasia and were considered the prize of any Ottoman Turkish sultan's harem. As for the men, the Circassians were the elite fighters of Mamluk Egypt from the time of the crusades to Napoleon's destruction of the Circassian-Mamluk dynasty. While considered nominal Muslims, the Circassian highlanders were part pagan animists whose recent conversion to Sufi mystical Islam was only skin deep. For this reason they were not able to unify based on the concept of jihad and were brutally conquered.

To teach all the Caucasian tribes a lesson, the Russians decided to wipe out the ancient Circassians. In his riveting book describing this hidden tragedy titled The Circassian Genocide, Professor Walter Richmond Commins writes:

Circassia was a small independent nation on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea. For no reason other than ethnic hatred, over the course of hundreds of raids the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland and deported them to the Ottoman Empire. At least 600,000 people lost their lives to massacre, starvation, and the elements while hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homeland. By 1864, three-fourths of the population was annihilated, and the Circassians had become one of the first stateless peoples in modern history.

It was 150 years ago in the winter of 1864 that the Circassians were driven from their burning mountain villages at the point of Russian bayonets to the Ottoman Empire in what is today Turkey and much of the Middle East. Critically, the fleeing Circassians' final port of departure from their ancient homeland was the Black Sea town of Sochi.

The descendants of modern Europe's first genocide (this distinction has erroneously been attributed to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire) can still be found scattered across Turkey and the Middle East. I found a village of Circassians living in the Galilee region of Israel and among the Turks where they are noticeable by their blond features, blue eyes and tall stature.

During my visit to Sochi in 1992, however, I found only Russians. There was no trace of the Circassians who had lived in this town for eons. Their name had been effectively erased from the history books and the Russians have kept the horrors they inflicted on this people hidden for a century and a half.

The same fate eventually befell the Chechens. In February of 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen people in cattle train cars called "crematoria on wheels" to the depths of Siberia and deserts of Central Asia. There, one third of this people died in another case of hidden genocide. [See internal pdf file.] The survivors fought their way back to their beloved homeland in 1957 after death of the feared Stalin and remained distrusted "citizens" of the USSR until it collapsed in 1991.

Not surprisingly, considering their brutal history under the Russians/Soviets, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Chechens, like the Estonians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbekistanis etc. opted for freedom (the key operative word here) and voted for independence from post-Soviet Russia. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin responded by declaring total war on the Chechen secessionists who were led by Sovietized, secular leaders like Dzhokhar Dudayev (killed in 1995 while negotiating peace with the Russians) and Aslan Mashkadov, a moderate who similarly tried negotiating with the Russians before his death in 2005.

In the end, the Chechens won the war of 1994-96 and regained their long lost freedom. In 1999, however, the new Russian leader, ex-KGB head Vladimir Putin, directed a much larger army to reinvade Chechnya and crush the independent state. Tens of thousands of Chechens died in the bloodshed and their capital Grozny was leveled and many towns burnt to the ground. One could actually see Chechnya burning from google.earth at the time.

This time the Russians were successful in crushing the subsequent guerilla rebellion and by 2009 had declared the war in Chechnya over. The Chechens responded to these events with terrorism, such as the Nord Ost theater hostage incident in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan school seizure in 2004. In both cases the Russian security forces attacked the Chechen hostage takers who were demanding an end to the war and occupation of their homeland, and killed the hostages. In the Nord Ost theater incident the Russians pumped lethal gas into the theater killing over 130 hostages (including one American tourist) as well as the hostage takers, and in the Beslan school incident the Russians fired tank shells and incendiary devices onto the school setting it on fire killing hundreds of children.

The Chechen terrorists' leader, Shamil Basayev, was, however, killed by the Russians in 2006. But the rebellion metastasized soon thereafter and spread to neighboring Dagestan. There the terrorists created a new pan-Caucasian organization known as the Caucasian Emirate that aims to liberate all of the northern Caucasus and rebuild the state of the 19th century jihad leader, Imam Shamil. The Caucasian Emirate had declared a moratorium on terror attacks against Russian civilians last year in response to anti-Putin protests in Moscow. But in the fall of 2013, the Caucasian Emirate issued a proclamation that few outsiders noticed at the time. It read:

We know that on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea, today they plan to stage the Olympic Games. We, as the Mujahedeen, must not allow this to happen by any means possible.

The twin bombings in Volgograd in late December 2013 and an earlier one in October are clearly meant to show the Russians that the Chechen-Dagestani terrorists have reignited their terror jihad. They are also meant to remind the world of the tragedy that befell the Circassians of the Caucasus's Black Sea shore exactly 150 years ago this winter. This is the dark secret that Russia's authoritarian leader, Putin, does not want the world to know. Putin has thus far been very successful in conflating Russia's neo-colonial war against Chechen separatists with America's war on nihilist Al Qaeda Arab terrorists. Any attempt to remind the world of Imperial Russia/Post-Soviet Russia's war crimes in the Caucasus is a threat to Putin's pet project, the whitewashed Sochi Olympics. This of course not to excuse the brutal terroristic acts of the Caucasian Emirate or the Chechen rebels, but it certainly provides the one thing that Putin does not want the world to see as he constructs his "Potemkin village" in Sochi, and that is an honest account of the events that have made this the most terrorist fraught Olympic games since the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Eastwest Skytalets:

At times like this we should take a moment to read/remember Taras Shevchenko's powerful poem "Kavkaz" which he wrote in support of the Caucasian peoples in their struggle against Russian subjugation in the 19th century:  http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/taras-shevchenko39s-39kavkaz39-and-the-chechnya-co-565.html

Kyiv Post | 16Mar2000 | Bohdan Klid

Taras Shevchenko's 'Kavkaz' and the Chechnya conflict

Each March, Ukrainians worldwide honor their great poet, Taras Shevchenko (March 10, 1814 - March, 9, 1861), at commemorative concerts and gatherings. Those who have attended these affairs with any regularity have undoubtedly heard the following lines recited: Boritesia - Poborete, Vam Boh pomahaie! Za vas pravda, za vas syla I volia sviataia! Struggle, and ye shall overcome the foe: For God shall succor you in battle's throe; His strength is on your side, and freedom stands With justice on the threshold of your lands!

When I first heard these lines recited as a boy, I understood them as an attempt by Shevchenko to inspire Ukrainians in their fight for national liberation. However, as I later learned, Shevchenko wrote these lines in the poem 'Kavkaz' (The Caucasus) in support of the Caucasian peoples in their struggle against Russian subjugation in the 19th century. After reading 'Kavkaz' in its entirety as a young adult for the first time, I recognized it was a very powerful poem. However, it was not until some time during the first Russian-Chechen war of 1994-96, when I reread it, that I became aware of the poem's universal validity, timeliness and timelessness.

Last year, when preparing a lecture for a course on Ukrainian history and culture, I chose 'Kavkaz' in English translation as one of the three poems by Shevchenko that would be read and discussed in class. In preparation for the lecture I also read a short work by Ivan Dzyuba, 'Zastukaly serdeshnu voliu' (Wretched Freedom Cornered), first published in the journal Suchasnist in 1995, and an article by Ivan Franko, 'Temne tsarstvo' (The Kingdom of Darkness), first published in 1881.

The Russian invasion of Chechnya last fall, which marked the beginning of the latest Russian-Chechen war, caused me to turn to 'Kavkaz' once again. This time what struck me was Shevchenko's understanding of the principle of equality among nations. I also felt great sorrow for the Chechens, who today have been largely abandoned by the international community to a horrible ordeal in their fight for independence, and admiration for their bravery, both for having fought the Russian invaders in the 19th century for 50 years and for facing, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the same foe twice at the end of the old and beginning of the new millenium.

Shevchenko wrote 'Kavkaz' in 1845 upon learning of the death of his close friend Yakiv de Bal'men, a nobleman who died fighting in the ranks of the Russian army 'pacifying' the Caucasus peoples. It is for this reason that Shevchenko lamented toward the end of the poem that de Bal'men had shed his blood not for Ukraine but 'for her executioner.' Remarkably, Shevchenko held no animosity toward the mountaineers who had killed his friend. Instead, Shevchenko flung all his fiery invective, irony and searing sarcasm against the Russian imperial machine, the real executioner of his friend and destroyer of the freedom of the peoples of the Caucasus.

According to Dzyuba, Shevchenko's defense of the 'small,' 'uncivilized,' and 'non-historical' nations was a phenomenon not known in European poetry of the time. The Greek struggle for freedom from Ottoman Turkish rule in the 19th century had been popular among the European intelligentsia, and the English romantic poet George Gordon Byron lost his life fighting in the ranks of Greek insurgents. However, the Greeks were Christians, who were fighting Muslim Turks. Moreover, they were seen as a nation with a long history who had bequeathed classical civilization to the world. In comparison, who were the Chechens and other Caucasian peoples? They were viewed as 'uncivilized' tribes who had no future as nations, and the idea of allowing some form of self-government for them was unthinkable. Shevchenko's defense of these 'primitive' peoples was even more remarkable when one considers that the Caucasian nationalities were largely Muslims fighting a Christian power.

In some of the more ironic and sarcastic passages in 'Kavkaz,' Shevchenko exposed the crass hypocrisy and moral degeneration of the Russian Orthodox Church, which supported and was an integral part of the imperial machine. (It seems that not much has changed when one reflects on the support of the Russian Orthodox Church today for Russia's latest attempt to reconquer Chechnya.) Despite this sharp criticism of the church by Shevchenko, 'Kavkaz' is a deeply spiritual poem, in which the poet turns to or invokes the name of God on several occasions. Another strong point in Shevchenko's poem is the way he emphasized what he valued most in life. He noted the outward splendor and wealth of the Russian Empire, but concluded that its subjects were really 'naked' because they were slaves. In well-known lines he characterized Russia as a country that 'teem[ed] with tribes and prisons, past all counting,' where each of its many peoples 'in his own language holds his tongue,' afraid of the consequences of speaking out against oppression. Shevchenko made clear that he valued not external wealth and imperial power, but 'this wretched thing called freedom,' which the Caucasian peoples possessed and which the Russian conquerors did not have, but wanted to take away.

In his article, Ivan Franko wrote that 'Kavkaz' was a fiery invective against the 'kingdom of darkness' written from an ecumenical point of view, and that it perhaps contained the poet's strongest expression of what it meant to be a human being. Reflecting on today's news on the war in the Caucasus, one is astounded at how successful Russia has been in dehumanizing and demonizing the Chechens, and in devaluing the struggle of its victim for independence. In Shevchenko's day, the Chechens and other peoples of the Caucasus were referred to as 'savages'; today they are besmirched as 'terrorists' and 'bandits.' While many Chechens may not support the actions of some of their own warlords, it is not they who have been indiscriminately bombing and shelling Chechen villages and cities, and committing atrocities against civilians.

Viewed historically, today's brutal war is merely a new act in a 200-year-long drama of Russia's subjugation of Chechnya, and the latter's struggle to be free of colonial rule. In its essence, then, Russia's bloody campaign is a classical colonial war, which has very little or nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Yet, international political leaders have continued in their public statements to 'acknowledge Russia's right to fight terrorism.' The Kremlin, for its part, has correctly interpreted this as giving tacit consent to the destruction of Chechnya, the president of which was elected in an internationally monitored vote in 1997. Statements by President Clinton on Chechnya have been particularly shameful and despicable. During the 1994-96 war, he compared Boris Yeltsin with Abraham Lincoln. In an essay published in Time magazine's first issue of 2000, he wrote that Russia's challenge in Chechnya was to turn the war into a 'model' on how to deal with 'terrorists and separatists,' and described Russia's brutal assault on Grozny as aimed to 'liberate' it. Clinton obviously did not read the December 6, 1999 issue of Time in which a leading Russian general referred to the Chechens as 'monkeys,' complaining that there was no point in trying to make 'whites' out of them. While world leaders have criticized Russia for its actions in Chechnya, most statements have condemned the use of force that has harmed civilians.

Not one leading political figure has openly stated that, under international law, the Chechens have the right to self-determination. Moreover, none have pointed to the fact that Russia has violated its 1996 and 1997 agreements with Chechen leaders ending the last war, in which it pledged to conduct relations with Chechnya on the basis of international law, and to solve outstanding problems without resorting to force. This spineless policy of appeasement has done nothing to discourage what now can be described as genocide against the Chechen nation.

Although it appears that the 'kingdom of darkness' is once again enveloping Chechnya, as Shevchenko wrote in 'Kavkaz,' the spirit of freedom, symbolized by Prometheus (a relief of whom stands next to Taras Shevchenko's statue in Washington, DC) will never die. Imperialism, which leads to colonial or neocolonial wars, will suffer defeat, eventually. Imperial thinking, which justifies the domination of the strong over the weak, and acts of barbarity on the part of great powers in the name of 'higher principles,' will be condemned and abandoned. The Chechens, and other less fortunate peoples, will take their rightful place in the international community.

In the meantime, rereading Shevchenko's 'Kavkaz' shows its relevance even today, more than 150 years after it was written. As such, it is a classic of anti-colonial literature. Ukrainians can justifiably be proud of their great poet who raised his voice against those on 'the lofty throne' in defense of 'wretched freedom'.

Bohdan Klid lives in Edmonton, Canada, and works as Assistant to the Director at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta.