(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, anthropologist and professor of Geography and International Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is author of Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor, and currently is writing a book about international humanitarianism and internal displacements in the Republic of Georgia.)
This week, athletes from all over the world are in Sochi, a small town on the Black Sea, to participate in the XXII Olympic Games. While the skaters stay close to the coast, skiers are in Krasnaya Polyana, a site high in the North Caucasus. The games are an exciting display of athleticism and dedication. But I am not watching, because the games are the pet project of Vladimir Putin, who is responsible for ethnically cleansing more than 26,000 people in the South Caucasus. Having done more than 16 months of fieldwork with these victims of ethnic cleansing, the thought of watching the Games and celebrating the Russian dominance of the Caucasus is profoundly disheartening.
Sochi has been the site of genocide since 1864, when the Russian Empire drove more than 600,000 Circassians out of the Caucasus and into the Black Sea. While many Circassians made it to Turkey, where they became stateless and often enslaved, many more Circassians died while being ethnically cleansed. Over three fourths of the Circassian population was annihilated in and around Sochi by the late 1860s. But the reasons to oppose a Russian-sponsored Olympics in the Caucasus are not only historical. Since he came to power in 1999, Putin has led a brutal war of attrition in Chechnya and Ingushetia, two provinces who attempted to break free of Russia in the 1990s. In response, Chechens and Ingush have turned to hardline Salafist Islam, and have carried out scores of bombings against Russian targets, including the latest, in which suicide bombers blew up a trolley and a railway station in the southern city of Volgograd.
My own anger and dismay against Putin, though, is personal. In 2008, during a conflict with Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia, the Russian 56th Army, on orders from Putin, first bombed Georgian villagers to drive them away, and then burned their houses and, in some cases, even bulldozed their villages to ensure they could never return. For almost five years, these people have remained in settlements—refugee camps, really—along the administrative boundary with South Ossetia, which has become increasingly militarized as the Russians solidify their occupation. In 2009, I spent a full year with these Internally Displaced People (IDPs), learning about their loss and confusion, watching them struggle as beneficiaries of international humanitarian agencies, and documenting their attempts to rebuild their lives economically and socially.
The pain that Putin caused didn’t just come as the spectacular trauma of war. It comes on a daily basis, as what Elizabeth Povinelli has called “cruddy suffering.” Life as the recipients of humanitarian aid has been hard enough: I have watched people try to feed their families on day after day of the noodles that came in packages from the World Food Program, seen mothers struggle to get anti-convulsants for their epileptic children from teams of humanitarian medics who arrive unexpectedly and leave without following up on patients, and seen the ill-fitting used clothes and scroungy toys given as “aid.” But life after most of the humanitarians moved on to the next international emergency has been even worse. People once employed as teachers, nurses, and office workers have struggled to find new jobs in a region where de facto unemployment is over 50%. Men and women who once made their livelihoods farming their large and lush orchards are now left attempting to tend tiny plots, many of which are in low-lying areas that regularly flood. Development aid has primarily come in two forms: infrastructure which has been helpful or microcredit which has not. It’s no wonder that people have succumbed to chronic diseases and alcoholism. When I finished fieldwork and started writing my book, I featured the stories of four people in the first chapter. Two years later, three of them are dead and the other is in prison. Life in the settlements is grim and depressing, and my friends and informants all long for the lives that Vladimir Putin took away from them.
Putin sees the Sochi Games as Russia’s triumphant return to the international stage. No longer the weakened and impoverished country that it was in the 1990s, Russia wants to use the Olympics to show off both its beauty and—given the intense security regime made necessary by Chechen insurgents—its might. Like Hitler at the 1936 Olympic games, Putin hopes to use the Olympic moment to showcase his grip on power. So, while the athletes compete and Putin puts on a show, the State Security Service has cordoned off the region to prevent any of the many groups repressed by the current regime, including Georgians, Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis, political dissidents, or gay rights activists, from entering and disrupting the Games. Nobody would wish for an incident like the Volgograd bombing that killed 34 people. But the only other way to foil Putin and his preening display of power is to openly discuss his attempts at genocide and his history of ethnic cleansing, and to then stop watching his show.