February 15

COMMENTARY: At the Olympics, just don’t mention the Caucasus

Joshua Keating

In all the celebrations of Russian nationalism that have accompanied the Sochi Olympics, one thing that’s been missing is any evocation of the region where the games are taking place. As Thomas De Waal points out at the Carnegie Moscow Center, any sense of the Caucasus seemed to be entirely missing from the opening ceremonies:

Watching those onion domes and Tolstoyan balls, an outside spectator could have been forgiven for not knowing that Sochi was incorporated into the Russian empire only in the mid-19th century by colonial conquest — that this is “Russia’s South,” with a very different history to its heartlands.

Before the games, I wrote a bit about Sochi’s key role in the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians, in one of the darker periods of Russian history. You can hardly blame the organizers of this, or any, Olympics for not dwelling on conquest and genocide, but it’s still striking that there doesn’t seem to have been an effort to present even a sanitized and romanticized picture of what makes the Caucasus unique. (Remember the fake “ethnic minorities” at the Beijing Games?)

As Christian Caryl writes in the New York Review of Books, Russia’s selection of the North Caucasus as a venue — in the face of all apparent economic, security and meteorological logic — seemed calculated as a demonstration of the strength and stability of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It was the military campaigns in the region that propelled his rise to power and helped him solidify his rule, after all.

But for the purposes of international consumption, Russia seems intent on selling the notion that this is just another part of Russia. And with its focus so far on Moscow, Siberia and vodka, NBC isn’t exactly helping to fill the gap.

This may become even more pronounced during the closing ceremonies on Feb. 23. In Russia, that day is also Defender of the Fatherland Day, a military holiday that has become a kind of generalized celebration of masculinity. But Russia’s Chechen and Ingush populations remember it as the 70th anniversary of the day that Josef Stalin’s Soviet government began the forced deportation of their entire populations to Central Asia, an operation that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

I wouldn’t expect to see much mention of it at the ceremony.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer focusing on international news, social science and related topics at Slate.com, an online current affairs and culture magazine owned by The Washington Post.
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