Home > Holodomor
| d&d (Furman, Odynsky, Katriuk) | Zuzak Letters |
Huffington Post | 02Jan2014 | Brian Glyn Williams,  '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
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,
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:
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
of Circassians living in the Galilee region of Israel and
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Bohdan Klid lives in Edmonton, Canada, and works as Assistant
to the Director at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies,
University of Alberta.