The Five Extraordinary Features of the Sochi Winter Olympics

There is real po­ten­tial for un­ex­pected events and even blood­shed at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Circassians March for No Sochi 2014

Circassians march for ‘No Sochi 2014′.


On 7 February 2014, the Sochi Winter Olympics will com­mence. It is es­tim­ated that these games will cost at least US$51 bil­lion — the most ex­pensive in his­tory — costing Russia more than the $40 bil­lion that China spent on the 2008 Summer Olympics. The UK spent some US$15 bil­lion on the Summer Olympics in 2012. Sochi was se­lected as the host city in July 2007, during the 119th International Olympic Committee Session held in Guatemala City. At that time the games were es­tim­ated to cost US$12 bil­lion; the cost of these ex­tra­vagant games has there­fore quad­rupled. The offer of US$12 bil­lion from Russia dwarfed the bids of the other fi­nal­ists from South Korea and Austria. The Sochi Winter Olympics have five ex­traordinary fea­tures, each of which this art­icle will now examine.

The Five Extraordinary Features of the Sochi Winter Olympics

An Olympic Park has now been con­structed in the Imeretinsky Valley on the coast of the Black Sea, with the Fisht Olympic Stadium and the Games’ in­door venues loc­ated within walking dis­tance. Snow events will be held at Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus moun­tains, and a lavishly-​appointed brand new railway, with trains by Siemens, has been con­structed. Therefore the first ex­traordinary fea­ture of the Sochi Winter Olympics is that they are being held in, and near, a sub-​tropical sea­side re­sort. At any rate, snow has re­cently fallen in the moun­tains, and Russia may not have to use the enormous quantity of ar­ti­fi­cial snow for which pro­vi­sion has been made.

The second prom­inent fea­ture is the ex­cep­tional de­gree of lavish spending, and al­leg­a­tions of cor­rup­tion (Yaffa 2014). In a lengthy art­icle, Joshua Yaffa gives de­tails of 21 con­tracts handed out to close child­hood friends of President Putin, the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, totalling US$7 bil­lion — 14% of the total ex­penditure. Yaffa relates that few crim­inal cases have been ini­ti­ated; how­ever, in June 2012 in­vest­ig­ators from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation opened a case against con­tractors at two venues — the main Fisht Olympic Stadium, which will only be used for the opening and closing ce­re­monies, and the bobsled course. The in­vest­ig­ators al­leged that the con­tractors in­flated costs by sub­mit­ting false or un­jus­ti­fied pro­ject es­tim­ates. The al­leged losses to the state budget amounted to nearly US$170 mil­lion at the sta­dium and US$75 mil­lion at the bobsled­ding venue. However, in an in­ter­view with for­eign media on 20 January 2014, President Putin denied that there was any evid­ence of cor­rup­tion, al­though he ac­know­ledged that there had been at­tempts to raise prices – as, he said, would happen in any country. Further, the con­struc­tion work has been dogged by many al­leg­a­tions of gross en­vir­on­mental damage in a very fra­gile set of eco­sys­tems; and of ex­ploit­a­tion and ser­ious ab­uses of the rights of the mainly for­eign la­bour force.

Third, the fact that the games have been loc­ated in Sochi demon­strates ex­treme in­sens­it­ivity or dis­regard for some of the many non-​Russian peoples of the Russian Federation. Sochi is of great sig­ni­fic­ance to the Circassian people, who suffered gen­o­cide at the hands of the Russian Empire in 1864. Zhemukhov points out (2012, 597) that the Sochi Games marks the 150th an­niversary of the de­feat of the Circassians in 1864 at the hands of Tsar Aleksandr II, after they fought for 101 years in the brutal and bloody Russian-​Caucasus War. Sochi was the site of the war’s last battles, and the port from which most of the Circassians were de­ported to the Ottoman Empire. Krasnaya Polana it­self was the place at which, on 12 May 1864, Russian sol­diers paraded to cel­eb­rate vic­tory at the end of the war. Indeed, Sochi was the last cap­ital of in­de­pendent Circassia from 1861 to 1864, and is named after the Circassian ethnic group Shache, who lived there until 1864.

Until the Genocide, all the Adygey (prop­erly, Circassian) sub-​ethnoses lived in a common ter­ritory as “Circassians”, but the com­munity was decim­ated after 1864 (Khakuasheva 2013, Goble 2013). The Soviet gov­ern­ment took steps to di­vide the Circassian pop­u­la­tions into five sep­arate polit­ical units: the Russian Federation ethnic Republics of Kabardino-​Balkaria, Karachayevo-​Cherkessia, and Adygeya (an autonomous en­tity within Krasnodar Krai), as well as the Shapsug District of Krasnodar Krai and the Mozdok District of the Republic of North Ossetiya. The Soviet re­gime also act­ively sup­pressed in­form­a­tion about the Russian-​Caucasus War. Khakuasheva ar­gues that as the Sochi Olympics draw closer, there is an in­form­a­tion war the main goal of which is to li­quidate all traces of the war — and of the Genocide. The Circassians have res­isted and con­tinue to resist. Deluguian (2005) has pointed to “truly mass mo­bil­isa­tion” pro­cesses in the post-​Soviet Caucasus. The Abkhaz people, closely linked to the Circassians, broke vi­ol­ently from Georgia after the col­lapse of the USSR, and have pur­sued their own goals of sovereignty.

Russia’s re­cog­ni­tion of the gen­er­ally un­re­cog­nised re­public of Abkhazia fol­lowing the 2008 Russian-​Georgian war has fur­ther com­plic­ated the is­sues. Zhemukhov (2012, 521) ob­serves that the Circassian move­ment has been very active since 1989, de­vel­oping a clear ideo­logy, and pur­suing its stra­tegic goals. The fact of the Genocide has been re­cog­nised by the par­lia­ments of Kabardino-​Balkaria (1992), Adygeya (1996), Abkhazia (1997) and Georgia (2011). Indeed, Georgia, smarting from de­feat in 2008, has act­ively en­cour­aged and sup­ported the Circassian move­ment. There are many more links with the huge Circassian di­a­spora in Turkey and else­where, and many Circassians have vis­ited their home­land. These is­sues will most cer­tainly haunt the Sochi Olympics.

Fourth, is the issue of mil­itant ji­hadist move­ments in the Caucasus. The city of Volgograd, just north of the Caucasus, suffered a sui­cide bombing in October 2013 when a fe­male sui­cide bomber blew her­self up on a city bus, killing six pas­sen­gers, most of them teen­agers. On 29 and 30 December 2013 the city suffered two more bomb­ings, first at the city’s main train sta­tion, and second on a trol­leybus, killing an­other 30 people. On 20 January 2014 two mem­bers of a mil­itant group “Vilayat Daghestan” posted a video on­line, in which they claimed re­spons­ib­ility for the December bomb­ings, and threatened to at­tack the Sochi Olympics.

The Russian au­thor­ities have placed a ring of steel around Sochi, but there are growing fears that there could be fur­ther at­tacks close to or in Sochi it­self. The leading Russian ex­pert of the Russian se­curity ser­vices, Andrei Soldatov, wrote (2013): “It seems the Russian secret ser­vices do not un­der­stand that main­taining con­trol over everyone and everything (es­sen­tially the idea in­her­ited from the Soviet past) and pre­venting a ter­rorist at­tack are far from being the same thing.”

Fifth, there is the high-​profile issue of the law against “ho­mo­sexual in­form­a­tion”. On 30 June 2013, President Putin signed into law new le­gis­la­tion which passed the Russian par­lia­ment in a very short space of time: the State Duma voted al­most un­an­im­ously in fa­vour at the start of June 2013, and the upper house, the Federation Council, on 26June 2013. This has caused the most con­tro­versy in­ter­na­tion­ally, with calls for Coca-​Cola to with­draw its spon­sor­ship, and a number of world leaders an­noun­cing that they will not come to Sochi. The law was en­titled “On the pro­tec­tion of chil­dren from in­form­a­tion causing harm to their health and de­vel­op­ment”, and amended a number of Russian laws as well as the Code on Administrative Misdemeanors.

From 1 July 2013 when the law came into force, the “spreading of in­form­a­tion dir­ected to the forming in ad­oles­cents of non-​traditional sexual ar­range­ments” be­came an of­fence. The pro­pa­ganda of non-​traditional sexual at­ti­tudes among chil­dren would be pun­ish­able by a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 roubles for in­di­viduals, for re­spons­ible per­sons 40,000 to 50,000 roubles, and for legal per­sons from 800,000 to 1 mil­lion roubles (£18,000). Imprisonment for a term of up to 90 days may also be im­posed. Aggravating cir­cum­stances in­clude use of the mass media and in­ternet, in which case the fine for an in­di­vidual could reach 100,000 roubles, and for a re­spons­ible person: 200,000.

The first pro­sec­u­tion under the new law has now taken place. On Tuesday 3 December 2013 the Arkhangelsk court con­victed the well-​known Russian LGBT act­ivist Nikolai Alekseev under the new law and fined him 4,000 roubles after he con­ducted a one-​man picket at the en­trance to the Archangel Childrens Library No.3.

On 19 January 2014, in an in­ter­view with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, President Putin in­sisted that gay people face no dis­crim­in­a­tion at work or in so­ciety in Russia, and the new law did not harm any­body – its aim was purely to pro­tect chil­dren. He said: “I my­self know some people who are gay. We’re on friendly terms. I’m not pre­ju­diced in any way.”


For these five reasons, the Sochi Winter Olympics are highly con­tro­ver­sial even be­fore they start, and there re­mains a real po­ten­tial for un­ex­pected events and even bloodshed.

Bill Bowring is Pro­fessor of Law at Birk­beck Col­lege, Practising Barrister, and International Secretary of the Haldane Society. A fluent Russian speaker, Professor Bowring is an ex­pert in Russian law.

Show References

—Derluguian, George (2005) Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-​System Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
—Goble, Paul (2013) “Moscow Exploits Stalin’s Ethnic Engineering to Keep Circassians Divided, Expert Says”, 1 October 2013, at http://​win​do​woneur​asia2​.blog​spot​.co​.uk/​2​0​1​3​/​1​0​/​w​i​n​d​o​w​-​o​n​-​e​u​r​a​s​i​a​-​m​o​s​c​o​w​-​e​x​p​l​o​i​t​s​.​h​tml (ac­cessed on 22 January 2014)
—Inal-​Ipa, Arda (2012) “The Circassian ques­tion and Abkhazia: his­tor­ical factors and con­tem­porary chal­lenges” 23 May 2012 at http://​ab​khazworld​.com/​a​w​/​a​n​a​l​y​s​i​s​/​7​7​3​-​t​h​e​-​c​i​r​c​a​s​s​i​a​n​-​q​u​e​s​t​i​o​n​-​a​n​d​-​a​b​k​h​a​z​i​a​-​b​y​-​a​r​d​a​-​i​n​a​l​-​ipa (ac­cessed on 22 January 2014)
—Khakuasheva, M. A. (2013) “‘Strange’ eth­nonyms and the prin­ciple of split­ting up” (Kabardino-​Balkaria Human Rights Centre, part of Za Prava Cheloveka (For Human Rights), at – 06-​10 – 24-30&catid=5%3Aanalinic&Itemid=7 (ac­cessed on 22 January 2014)
—Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty (2014) “Islamist Group Claims Volgograd Attack, Threatens Sochi Olympics” 20 January at http://​www​.rferl​.org/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​r​u​s​s​i​a​-​v​o​l​g​o​g​r​a​d​-​b​o​m​b​i​n​g​s​-​c​l​a​i​m​e​d​-​s​o​c​h​i​/​2​5​2​3​5​8​2​6​.​h​tml (ac­cessed on 22 January 2014)
—Soldatov, Andrei (2013) “Russia terror ana­lysis: Volgograd and an Olympics under threat” The Daily Telegraph 31 December 2013 at http://​www​.tele​graph​.co​.uk/​n​e​w​s​/​w​o​r​l​d​n​e​w​s​/​e​u​r​o​p​e​/​r​u​s​s​i​a​/​1​0​5​4​4​4​7​0​/​R​u​s​s​i​a​-​t​e​r​r​o​r​-​a​n​a​l​y​s​i​s​-​V​o​l​g​o​g​r​a​d​-​a​n​d​-​a​n​-​O​l​y​m​p​i​c​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​t​h​r​e​a​t​.​h​tml (ac­cessed on 22 January 2014)
—Yaffa, Joshau (2014) “The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics” Bloomberg/​Business Week January 2, 2014, at http://​www​.busi​nes​s​week​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​2​014 – 01-​02/​the-​2014-​winter-​olympics-​in-​sochi-​cost-​51-​billion (ac­cessed on 19 January 2014)
—Zhemukhov, Sufian (2012) v.40, n.4, “The birth of modern Circassian na­tion­alism” Nationalities Papers, 503 – 524

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Repost: e-​International Relations

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