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Updated: Wed, 19 Feb 2014 07:59:02 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Sochi Olympic largesse barely touches nearby Circassian villages



Aisa Achmizov is a leader for Circassians in the villages of Bolshoy Kishmai and Mali Kishmai, about 40 kilometres north of Sochi, Russia. He struggles to keep language and traditions alive for his people, a Muslim ethnic minority native to the Caucasus with a long history of persecution under the czars and, later, Stalin. Glen Kugelstadt/CBC

Aisa Achmizov is a leader for Circassians in the villages of Bolshoy Kishmai and Mali Kishmai, about 40 kilometres north of Sochi, Russia. He struggles to keep language and traditions alive for his people, a Muslim ethnic minority native to the Caucasus with a long history of persecution under the czars and, later, Stalin. Glen Kugelstadt/CBC

Take a drive north of Sochi into the hills and it won't take long to escape the Olympic bubble. Gone is the new highway. The slick railway ends. The road turns to gravel, then mud, where cows roam free with passing cars. The spending spree didn't spread its wealth as far as the neighbouring Circassian villages of BolshoyKishmai and Mali Kishmai. Some still hope it will, while others are resigned and say it will never happen.

"I didn't receive anything and I won't receive anything," one woman, Sonya, explains to us as she shovels dirt for her garden. Sonya is Circassian, a Muslim ethnic minority native to the Caucasus with a long history of persecution under the czars and, later, Stalin.

"An improvement to our standard of living, so things would be better.… would be good. But I'm pretty sure we will never see this happen."

Another villager, Nina Chernachenko, invited us into her home to escape the cold and pelting rain. She has indoor plumbing; not everyone here does. While there is a large natural gas pipeline less than a kilometre from her village, she does not have gas heating in her home. Instead, she watches Olympic coverage on television, in the one room with an electric heater.

"It's too bad people won't see your [news] report here in Russia," Chernachenko tells me. "Maybe Putin would give us a better apartment."

Then she laughs, uncomfortably, and adds: "Hopefully they don't expel us."

To create the Olympic Park and its marvellous venues, Russia bulldozed everything in its way. Anyone who didn't like the plan got pushed aside.

But 150 years ago, another group that angered the state was dealt with even more harshly. The Circassians are indigenous to this region, but were expelled by the Russians after the Caucasus War.

Most were pushed onto ships and deported across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire. Many of those who survived the crossing were killed by disease. The ones who remained in Russia were resettled to far-off lands, or killed en masse.

The population went from 800,000 to just a couple of thousand very quickly.

We visited two villages where Circassians now live, though some of the traditional mountain people prefer to be called "Adyghe" (pronounced "a-dee-gee"). Our first stop was an apiary, full of wooden houses for bees, with an elaborate roundhouse designed for hordes of visiting tourists. Except – there aren't any.

The village has gone to considerable expense, but seems doomed to learn "if you build it, they won't necessarily come."

The woman selling honey and trinkets told us: "People come here [to the Black Sea] to holiday and to swim. But they have no idea how the Circassians live, our traditions, our dances, our culture. Many never knew we were here."

The Circassians lobbied to be included in the extravagant Sochi opening ceremony. While it featured multiple facets of Russian history, the role of the country's indigenous people was not part of it.

Circassian farmer Rashid Achimikov says he felt excluded from the Sochi Games. "At every other Olympics, they always show the indigenous people of that country during the opening ceremonies. It's sad."

There is an exhibit, complete with well-attended daily stage shows inside the Olympic Park. But no one is rushing to the hills around Sochi to visit their ancestral lands.

The Circassians are reluctant to criticize anything. Many Russians are. Those we met spoke positively about hosting the Olympics. They share in Russia's pride. One farmer pulling hay out for two of his cows made it to one of the signature events, Russia taking on the U.S. in men's hockey. (It didn't end well for the Russians so we didn't ask too much about it.)

Halid Tlif, an elder we met by a fire inside the village's makeshift cultural centre along the river, explained, "Our destiny has been very tragic, what happened to our people, and now we have to try so hard to hold on to our culture and our traditions, for what our ancestors fought for."

As the crow flies, the villages lie only about 40 kilometres north of Sochi, a place where buckets of money spilled freely into Olympic projects. But the inkblot of cash did not reach much farther on the map.

For the Circassians in the hills, life is unchanged by the party below.

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