When Valter German’s ancestors came to the mountains above Sochi, Russia, from impoverished Estonia, they found a bucolic valley with few traces of the indigenous people chased out by the Czarist army.
However, the history of Russia’s brutal deportation of the native tribes from the area 150 years ago has stirred up international controversy and threatens to taint the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Russia is trying to promote the area as a skiing destination, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin regularly photographed sitting on ski lifts and chatting in cafes overlooking the slopes.
Some of Russia’s largest companies, including Gazprom, Sberbank and billionaire Vladimir Potanin’s Interros group, are investing in three resorts that will host most of the Alpine skiing events at the Sochi 2014 Games.
However, the giant construction site in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains above the Black Sea has a turbulent history marked by decades of war and ethnic migration.
German’s ancestors were among the Estonian families who set up the village of Esto-Sadok, or Estonian Garden, in the late 19th century, said the retired nature reserve ranger, who chairs Sochi’s Estonian society.
The Estonians settled in the picturesque valley and remained the ethnic majority there until the fall of the Soviet Union. The main activity in the village of 150 was a communal farm that kept beehives.
However, the peaceful spot concealed a dramatic history. More than a decade earlier, the Czarist army had deported the original residents en masse to Turkey after it had won a long-drawn-out war in the Caucasus.
“When I was growing up, I -remember the centuries-old pear and walnut trees left by the native population,” German said.
The Russian army had fought part of the Caucasus war against the indigenous tribes in the Sochi area with the aim of pacifying militant neighbors and gaining control of the Black Sea coast in a campaign documented by poet Mikhail Lermontov.
The site of the future ski resorts was then part of a region called Circassia. At the time, it was the largest country in the Caucasus, almost the size of present-day Portugal, historian Samir Khotko said.
To mark the end of the Caucasus war, Czarist troops staged a large military parade on May 21, 1864, just down the river from Esto-Sadok.
After the Russian victory, the largely Muslim Circassians were deported en masse in what some descendants want to be recognized as genocide of the ethnic group, now numbering several million people across the globe.
“They were massively forced from their burnt-out villages without any means of survival. The deportation was enforced by military troops at a huge human cost. Many died of typhoid fever onshore, in ships or in quarantine after reaching Turkey,” Khotko said.
Today, the vast majority of Circassians live outside of Russia, with about 800,000 populating Russia’s North Caucasus regions of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea.
While some Russian-based Circassians have not protested the Sochi Olympics, others have called the seeming collective memory loss a slap in the face of their ancestors.
A group from the US-based diaspora staged a protest last year close to the headquarters of the Russian delegation during the Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.
The aim of their “No Sochi” campaign is to ban Russia from holding the Olympics on the site of the Circassian “genocide,” according to a statement on their Web site.
Circassians also convinced the parliament of Georgia to approve a resolution recognizing the deportation as genocide last Friday, making Russia’s archfoe the first state to do so, just one day before the 147th anniversary of the end of the Caucasus war on May 21.
The fact that Russia’s political rival became involved is partly Russia’s fault for ignoring the issue, observers said.
“Everyone knows perfectly well that there was such a country and such a people, but prefers not to discuss it,” Khotko said.
“Whenever you stick your finger into Sochi, you stick it into the Circassian tragedy,” he said. “Ignoring it is what provokes indignation.”