20 years under Putin: a timeline

Neither the Russian Olympic team’s victory in the unofficial medal competition at the Sochi Winter Games nor Russia’s achievements in sports can compensate for the number of acute issues that surfaced in the course of the Olympic preparations. One of them is the Circassian issue, which has been kept undeservingly under cover for years. Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert Orttung of George Washington University tell the story of the Russian conquest of Sochi, during which the Circassian population was almost wiped out.



It so happened that the 2014 Sochi Olympics coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Russian conquest of Sochi. At the opening ceremony of the Games, a spectacular show narrating the thousand-year history of Russia was presented. Unfortunately, this show didn’t say anything about the Circassians, the indigenous people of Sochi. The defeat of Sochi, the last capital of an independent Circassia, was the final battle in the hundred-year Russian-Caucasus War (1763–1864). That historical fact still troubles the approximately 1 million Circassians living in Russia and the 5 million-strong diaspora. In 2011, Georgia became the first member of the United Nations to recognize that czarist Russia had committed genocide against the Circassian people in Sochi. The local parliaments of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygeia, and Abkhazia had already formally acknowledged the Circassian genocide.

Who lived in Sochi before the Russian conquest, and how did that conquest happen? Why did the organizers of the Games unjustly omit the complicated history of the Olympic capital?


The Capital of Ubykh

From its founding, Sochi was the capital of Ubykh Principality, part of the Circassian Confederation that stretched between the Kuban and Psou rivers on the lands of today’s Krasnodar Krai, Adygea, and Karachaevo-Circassia. The Ubykh Principality was traditionally under the political influence of the Ottoman Empire; almost every Ubykh family had Turkish relatives. Early in the nineteenth century, Russian sources stated that the Ubykhs “had a democratic society and exercised Islam” (Caucasus Archeographic Commission 10:2331).

The first contacts between the citizens of Sochi and Russians took place after the 1829 Adrianople Treaty, according to which the Ottoman Empire recognized Circassia as part of the Russian Empire’s sphere of influence. To gather information about the new territory, a Russian intelligence officer, V. V. Tornau, was set to Circassia on a mission. While in Circassia, he met with the prince of Sochi, Ali Akhmet Oblagu, who ruled over 10,000 citizens (Tornau 2000, 134). However, Tornau failed to arrange a meeting with the leader of the Ubykh Principality, Dogomukho Berzek, whose headquarters sat higher up the Sochi River. Berzek was one of the most influential figures in the Circassian Confederation. His two British advisers, J. S. Bell and J. A. Longworth, called him “a Circassian Washington” (Bell 1840, 344–46).

In September 1837, the Russian Emperor Nicolas I sailed to Circassia to personally inspect the shores of the Confederation. After the trip, the czar commanded: “We need to control Sochi and Tuapse. Accordingly, the neighboring villages should be destroyed” (Abkhazia and Abkhazians 2005, 92). Following his order, on April 24, 1838, a Russian regiment composed of 8,000 troops disembarked at Sochi. Prince Oblagu organized the defense of the city. After suffering 262 casualties, the Russians occupied the Sochi hill and erected a fortress to fortify their positions. For over a month, the fortress was guarded by the Russian fleet, anchored in the Black Sea by the mouth of Sochi River, until it was accidentally destroyed by a storm on May 30, 1838. The news of this catastrophe found its way even into the American newspapers of the time, with the Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury reporting on September 8: “It was believed that no less than 30 Russian ships had been put hors du combat by the hurricane. The garrison of the fort Sotcha, having made two sorties to protect the wrecks of the two corvettes, was attacked by the natives, and compelled to retreat with the loss of 1,000 men out of 1,100 of which the party had consisted.”

In response, Berzek came to help defend Sochi. He constantly kept the fortress under siege; only the support of the Russian fleet saved the fortress from being destroyed. Nicolas I did not take kindly to Berzek’s activities and offered reward “to anyone who would assassinate him, and carry his head into any of the forts.” Bell, who had the utmost respect for Berzek, witnessed and described how a letter with the “promise of reward for murder was handed, open as it had been received, to the Hadji, in the midst of the congress. Immediately after it had been read, Kerantuk—a young and near relative of the Hadji and every way worthy of the relationship—got hold of it, tore it into three fragments, and threw it in wordless but bitter indignation upon the ground. I interposed for its preservation, explaining to them its value as a proof, in other countries, of the extreme wickedness of the Russian character” (Bell 1840, 347).

In October 1841, another Russian regiment reached Sochi—the first traveling by land—and reported, “We are in the heart of Ubykh land” (Caucasus Archeographic Commission, 9:5132). The advance, however, turned into a military disaster; the Newport Mercury reported on February 26, 1842, “of the autumn campaign of the Russians against the Circassians and of [the Russians’] defeat at Sotcha, where some 500 were slain. It is believed that the Russians have lost some 8,000 men, mostly by disease. The Crimean hospitals are filled with the sick.”

Losses on the Ubykh side were significant as well. Eleven members of the Berzek family were killed, and Dogomukho’s son was wounded. After the bloody battle for Sochi, the London Times on January 18, 1842, demanded, “The European Powers ought by all means to interfere to stop the useless and demoralizing effusion of blood.”


Capital of Circassia

Dogomukho Berzek died on July 2, 1846, on his way home from his last pilgrimage to Mecca, and his nephew, Kerantuk Berzek, took over the Ubykh Principality. The new ruler organized the 1848 Adagum Assembly, at which the Ubykh Principality became the leading member of the Circassian Confederation. Thus, Sochi became the new capital of the Confederation, replacing Tuapse.

In the meantime, the Russian fortress remained a constant threat to the new capital. In February 1852, the Russian troops pulled off a successful military maneuver and managed to burn down the city of Sochi. However, the success was short-lived, since during the Crimean War (1853–1856), Russia was forced to destroy all its fortresses on the Circassian coast, including the one in Sochi.

After the Crimean War, as the London Times reported on February 28, 1856, Circassian ambassadors traveled to Constantinople to request the recognition and guarantee of the independence of their country by England and France. The Europeans, however did not satisfy the request.

The Circassian issue has been suppressed and ignored for 150 years and will not be resolved on its own. The current policies of the Kremlin, as shown by the Olympic preparations, leave little hope for a change in approach.

Later on, the 1856 Paris Treaty allowed Russia to concentrate significant military forces in Circassia. Having conquered the eastern Caucasus in 1859, Russian troops in Circassia formed an army, joined by regiments from Dagestan. Overall, 300,000 soldiers in the Russian army advanced against Circassia. Each year, the Russians lost 30,000 soldiers; it has been calculated that one-sixth of the state’s budget was spent on the war, which had lasted, with periodic intermissions, since 1763 (Milyutin 2004, 198). By contrast, the Circassian Confederation had up to 80,000 well-equipped soldiers and 50,000 reservists (Caucasus Archeographic Commission, 12:8493).

As the Russian military forces exceeded the Circassian forces by many times, the Confederation faced the necessity of creating a more efficient state. On June 13, 1861, Circassia became a federative republic, with three federal districts: Ubykh, Shapsug, and Natukhai. Fifteen members were elected to the parliament (called the Majlis), which was established in Sochi. The New York Times on September 4, 1861, announced that the “Circassians proclaimed a Republic.”

At the same time, the Circassian political leaders were aware that the republic could not long struggle against the Russian Empire without international military support. The first decree of the Majlis was that the republic accept Russia’s patronage while maintaining Circassia’s status as an independent state. The speaker of the Majlis, Kerantuk Berzek, met with the Russian acting general governor of the Caucasus, Grigory Orbeliani, and handed him a written statement from the Majlis. In turn, Orbeliani offered to organize a meeting with the Russian czar, Alexander II. While preparing for the negotiations, Russian military minister Dmitri Milyutin directed the Russian czar’s attention to the difference in both sides’ understanding of the subject of the negotiations. The Circassian side was “asking for peace, despite our demand for submission” (Milyutin 2004, italics in original4). The minister presumed that the Circassians had a “secret intention to draw out the struggle until a new European war, which is eagerly anticipated by our enemies, domestic and foreign.” Milyutin proposed to deport the Circassians to the Russian territory and occupy Circassia with Cossacks (Caucasus Archeographic Commission, 12:9335).

On September 16, 1861, Russian czar Alexander II and Majlis speaker Kerantuk Berzek met in a Russian military camp on the Fars River. As a representative of the Circassian people, Berzek “asked His Majesty to accept them as Russian citizens.” Alexander II replied that he “was very glad to see them as his citizens” but demanded that the Circassians either move into Russian territory or move out to Turkey. Berzek refused to comply with the czar’s request, and negotiations turned fruitless.

A year later, the Majlis sent an ambassador, Ismail Dziash, to London with a petition requesting military assistance from Britain to aid in Circassia’s war against Russia. One of the British MPs, David Urquhart, voiced his support for the Circassians, comparing their war to the recent Polish insurrection in Russia. “Circassia offers [to Great Britain] a second Poland which English ships can reach,” said Urquhart (Urquart, 65). However, international complications prevented the British Parliament from offering real support to the Majlis.


“A Murdered Nation”

Fearing interference from European powers, the Russian government made a final push to resolve the Circassian question. War Minister Dmitri Milyutin openly stated in 1863 that “if the mountaineers cannot be civilized, they have to be exterminated.” Recent research has revealed documents showing similar evidence that high-ranking Russian decision makers were prepared to commit mass murder. Scholar Walter Richmond quotes general field marshal Aleksandr Bariatinskii, an active participant in the Caucasus Wars, as saying, “We must assume that we will need to exterminate the mountaineers before they agree to our demands” (Richmond 2013, 71).



On March 18, 1864, the Russians and the Circassians clashed in their final battle, which took place next to a destroyed ancient Christian monastery at the mouth of the Goydlikh River. The Circassians were defeated. The Russian army entered the Ubykh Principality, burning every settlement to ashes on their way. On May 21, Prince Mikhail Nikolaevich held a parade in Krasnaya Polyana to celebrate Russia’s victory over Circassia.

On August 23, 1879, the New York Times called the Circassians “a Murdered Nation.” One participant in the final battle, a Russian army officer named Ivan Drozdov, wrote in his memoirs, “A disaster of such a scale has rarely befallen mankind. . . . The entire north-east shore of the Black Sea was covered with corpses and dying people[;] among them there were a few groups of the barely alive, waiting for their turn to be deported to Turkey” (Drozdov 1877, 257, 248).

Out of 4 million inhabitants (according to the London Times), only 10 percent of the Circassians remained in the Caucasus. About half of a million were deported to Turkey. The rest were killed or starved to death during the war. According to Russian registration records, 74,567 Ubykhs were deported from Sochi to Turkey together with their leader, Kerantuk Berzek (Berje 1882, 166). Uprooted from their soil, the Ubykhs assimilated into Turkish society. Linguists witnessed the disappearance of the Ubykh language, recognizing it as a dead language in 1992, after the death of Tevfik Esenc, the last Ubykh speaking his mother language.


Resort City

After the Russian conquest, Sochi gradually became a luxury resort. Russian leaders were especially fond of Krasnaya Polyana. In Soviet times, Joseph Stalin spent his holidays there. It was Stalin who dispersed the remaining Circassians in Russia among the three republics of Adygeia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Circassia.

When Russian president Vladimir Putin presented the Sochi Olympic bid to the International Olympic Committee in 2007, he mentioned a few facts about the history of Sochi. For example, he said that it used to be an ancient Greek colony and later was under Turkish influence. However, he failed to mention the Circassians at all.

That omission angered the Circassian world. The Circassian diaspora organized a “No Sochi 2014” movement, declaring that “if you let the 2014 Games go on as planned in Sochi, you’ll be skiing on the graves of our oppressed ancestors”. The Circassians in Russia addressed the Olympic organizing committee on various occasions, offering to include elements of Circassian culture in the opening ceremony of the Games. They cited the examples of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, at which references to the aboriginals were included in the opening ceremonies. But these attempts were ignored.

Today, the Circassian movement has three demands for Russia: recognition of the Circassian genocide; repatriation of the diaspora; and unification of the Circassian republics of Adygeia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Circassia into one Circassian republic within the Russian Federation.

But these demands have fallen on deaf ears. The opening ceremony of the Games in Sochi coincided with the arrests of dozens of Circassian activists in Russia who had organized demonstrations against the 2014 Olympics. To protest the arrests, the Circassian diaspora took to the streets in New York and Istanbul.

The Circassian issue has been suppressed and ignored for 150 years and will not be resolved on its own. The current policies of the Kremlin, as shown by the Olympic preparations, leave little hope for a change in approach. However, Circassian activists will continue to address this issue, demanding its resolution by the Russian government.



Abkhazia and Abkhazians in Russian Periodicals. Volume 1: The 19th—Beginning of the 20th Centuries. Sukhum, Abkhazian Academy of Science. 2005.. (In Russian)

Bell, S. 1840. Journal of a Residence in Circassia, vol. 2. London.

Berje, A. P. 1882. “Deportation of the Mountaineers from the Caucasus.” In Russkaia Starina, vol 33. Saint-Petersburg. (In Russian)

Caucasus Archeographic Commission. 1866–1908. Acts of Caucasus Archeographic Commission. Tiflis, 12 vols. (In Russian)

Drozdov, I. 1877. “The Last Fight with the Mountaineers in the Western Caucasus.” In Kavkazskii Sbornik, vol. 2. Tiflis. (In Russian)

Milyutin, D. A. 2004. Memoirs: 1856–1860. Moscow. (In Russian)

Richmond, Walter. 2013. The Circassian Genocide. Rutgers University Press.

Tornau, F. F. 2000. Memoirs of a Caucasus Officer. Moscow. (In Russian)

Urquhart, David. 1863. The Circassian War as Bearing on the Polish Insurrection. Robert Hardwicke, London.