The 2014 Winter Olympics will soon convene in the Russian city of Sochi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.  Sochi is one of President Putin’s favorite resort areas—widely believed to be the main reason the city was chosen to host such a high-profile event.  The prospect of a Russian city hosting the Winter Games has been met with a storm of protest from activists highly critical of Russia’s abysmal human rights and environmental record.  Perhaps no group has better reason to feel aggrieved by the selection of Sochi itself as the host city for the Olympics, however, than members of the Circassian Diaspora.  This group’s ancestors had made the city and the surrounding region their home for centuries before being killed or driven into exile by the Russian army in a vicious process of ethnic cleansing.  That the Winter Olympics are being held on the 150th anniversary of the commencement of this brutal act has only deepened their sense of grievance, as has the knowledge that Olympic events will be held on ground that contains the buried corpses of thousands of their ancestors.

The first sustained Russian assault on the Circassians, a nominally Sunni Muslim tribe that inhabited a particularly isolated portion of the Caucasus Mountain range, began in 1763 and continued for the next hundred years.  The Russian assault was motivated in substantial part by a desire to gain control of ports on the Black Sea, with the related economic and military benefits that would come from integrating this region into the larger Russian society to the north.  Perhaps more than any of the other indigenous tribes, the Circassians fiercely resisted the Russian Empire’s efforts to expand its dominion over the Caucasus.  A turning point in the struggle came with the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, after which the Ottomans ceded their protectorate on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, a significant portion of the Circassian homeland, to Russia in the Treaty of Adrianople.  Although the Circassians had extensive religious and trade ties to the Ottomans, they had also largely retained their political autonomy and refused to recognize the authority of the Russians.  Military aid to the Circassians from Great Britain, Poland, and other European rivals of Russia was not sufficient to alter the course of the conflict, and by 1864 the Russians had crushed the Circassian resistance.

What followed for the Circassians was yet another ugly chapter in human history.  Concluding that they were ungovernable, the Russians implemented a policy of expelling them from the region by force.  Hundreds of thousands of Circassians were loaded onto boats and sent to destinations in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere.  Many drowned or died from disease along the way.  Ethnic Russians and other peoples loyal to the Russian Empire were encouraged to settle in their place.  Within a few years virtually no Circassians remained in their historical homeland.

The Russian treatment of the Circassians, while barbaric, was by no means unique, as evidenced by the United States government’s treatment of the Creek and Cherokee Indians during roughly the same time period.  In the 1830s the United States forcibly expelled the Creek and Cherokee nations from northern Georgia and relocated them in desolate parts of the American Southwest.  Many Native Americans died from the horrific conditions that accompanied their transfer.  White settlers quickly occupied the vacated lands.  One hundred sixty years later, in a cruel similarity to the present, Atlanta served as the host city for the 1996 Summer Olympics, in the same area of northern Georgia where the Creeks and Cherokees once dwelled.  Although of little consolation, the United States government has at least formally acknowledged the injustice done to the Creeks and Cherokees, something the Russian government has refused to do for the Circassians.

The expulsion of the Circassians and the Creek and Cherokee Indians are just two of many examples from modern history of the devastating attacks on tribal peoples by highly organized central governments.  Unfortunately, as painfully described by Akbar Ahmed in his excellent book The Thistle and the Drone:  How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam, the assault on tribal peoples has continued to the present day in many parts of the world, including portions of southern Russia not far from where the Circassians once lived.  In certain instances, mistreatment of tribal peoples is motivated by a desire to gain control over valuable natural resources found in the peripheral areas that the tribes inhabit.  In other cases, it is motivated by a desire to secure borders or to establish sovereignty.  Since many of the tribal peoples in question are Muslim, Western analysts commonly frame the tribes’ responses to state intrusions as a form of militant jihad, in other words religiously motivated, even if the underlying causes of the conflicts have little to do with the tenets of their faith.

The advent of drones, laser-guided missiles, high-precision spy satellites, and other advanced technologies have greatly increased the effectiveness of governments in combating and controlling tribal peoples on their peripheries.  Regardless of the specific weapons used, however, these conflicts have consistently ended the same way—with tribal peoples losing their political and economic viability, if not their homelands as well.  The Winter Olympics in Sochi provide a timely occasion to reflect on the grave injustice done to the Circassians and other tribal peoples in the past and on the morality of the continuing relentless assault on tribal peoples in the present day.