By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog
On a colleague’s bookshelf I recently found a booklet containing some picture postcard views of Sochi. The usual snapshots, like the ones that are printed for visiting tourists to any medium-sized town. The names of the booklet’s authors did not say very much to me. But the press that produced it bears the name of Leo Tolstoy, and is apparently a local one, based in the city. Everything in the booklet is connected with celebrities, past or present.
I examined the cards carefully, one after the other. After all, it was my homeland, the Caucasus. When I’m away from home I always feel drawn to it, because it lies two or three hundred kilometres away. I had picked up the booklet, not with a thrill, perhaps, but certainly with interest. I didn’t put it back on the shelf. I threw it away.
The cards were accompanied by explanatory texts. From one of them I learned that the Orthodox Michael Archangel Cathedral in downtown Sochi is "the city’s oldest structure". Its construction began in late May 1872, and the money for the building work was collected by the first Russian settlers in the form of charity donations. Donors included the Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov, the millionaire Nikolai Mamontov and the landowner Alexander Vereshchagin. The cathedral was designed by Alexander Kaminsky, who also drafted the plans for the main building of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.
If we are to believe the booklet’s editors – and there is no reason not to – the call "to begin as soon as possible in the new lands the construction of places of worship that would elevate the spirits of the Russian settlers” came from Fyodor Dostoyevsky. After the Black Sea coast became part of Russia in the mid- XIXth century, he published an article about it in the Citizen journal, and the Michael Archangel Cathedral was the first "response" it got. The building was dedicated to “the head of the heavenly host” and his earthly incarnation at the time – the Russian Tsar's brother, who from 1861 to 1881 was governor general of the Caucasus and commander-in-chief of the many thousand-strong army stationed there.
Another card said that beside the uniquely beautiful Zmeykovsky Waterfalls there were two villages “founded by Russian settlers in the late 19th century” – Izmaylovka and Semyonovka, which housed veterans of the Izmailovo and Semyonov Regiments respectively. Originally serfs, these men had been drilled into soldiers, and were then retired as colonists to appropriate and develop the new territories.
The rest of the cards informed the reader that some of the public buildings in Sochi were build on the orders of Joseph Stalin, that the singer Alla Pugacheva tries to come here every year and give concerts, and that the popular Soviet film director Leonid Gaidai’s "Captive of the Caucasus" and "The Diamond Arm" were filmed in the city and its environs. The booklet shimmers with names: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Gagarin, Anatoly Karpov, Vladimir Putin (how could we do without him, the skiing enthusiast and devotee of “Our Russia”), as well as the names of rivers and woods, creeks and mountain peaks. The latter mostly not Russian and not connected with the usual parade of the great and the mighty. But why are they here?
For the uninitiated, the inside of the booklet’s cover provides a brief history of the region. There is a description of its former inhabitants who lived here before the "settlers" from the north arrived. But the lives of these earlier inhabitants were somehow lacking in human, and even Christian qualities, if we recall that the resort’s main attractions are religious symbols: churches, crosses and monuments to "heavenly soldiers".
Having informed us that the first human beings on the Caucasus Black Sea coast appeared "about 400,000 years ago”, the booklet’s authors go on to describe the Scythians, Sarmatians and Meotians. We are told that the ancient Greeks founded "trading colonies" here, and that "the Roman general Pompey the Great is said to have passed through this district on his way to wage war against Mithridates, the King of Pontus. There is also mention of the “great Byzantine Empire" (seen by some as a precursor of modern-day Russia), in the period of its ascendancy, of course, and not in that of its shameful fall. This is followed by a single line of text: "For many years representatives of the Adyghe tribes – the Abadzekh, the Ubykh and the Shapsug – were inhabitants of this region.”
Yes, they owned this land not for thousands of years, but only for "many". And in fact they did not really own it at all – they were just “inhabitants”. Whether for five, ten, thirty years, it is not important. The main thing is that they did not put roots down here, they went away. Where and how they went is not explained. If we are to believe the booklet’s authors, the only wars were fought with Turkey. They explain that as a result of one of these, in 1828-29, “The Black Sea coast was transferred to Russia.” It turns out that there never was any decades-long resistance by the mountain tribes, that their villages were never burned down, they were never driven out by force, and General Grigory Khristoforovich Zass with his trunkloads of Circassian skulls never existed. There was simply a peaceful relocation to new territories and the building of villages and hamlets, churches and resorts following the call of great men (and who will deny that Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a great writer?).
Fate has been as merciless to the earlier-mentioned ethnic groups as it was to the other Circassian tribes, about whom the booklet’s authors are modestly silent. Even after all these years they are unwilling to recognize these groups as the rightful and indigenous dwellers of the Black Sea coast, to remember that they once lived here, built houses and sowed grain, bore children and buried their relatives, defend this land for themselves, sword in hand. It would seem to be so simple: not to dissemble, making pretend guesses about questions like whether the word “Sochi” derives from Turkish or French. After all, there is no one to claim these territories. There are no owners – they were assimilated or vanished forever abroad. Go on, recognize the Circassians – then perhaps you will have repented.
But no – that is the thing that Russia will never do. That would destroy the elegant picture which is now the customary one, and would tear it at the seams. "Russia brought civilization to the Caucasus!" is painted on that picture in thick, juicy characters, and if it has killed anyone, it was for their own good. It’s so comfortable to feel that one is in the right. If the facts contradict too eagerly they can be ignored, forgotten, passed over in silence, removed from the context of the events of the past, and thus any embarrassing sense of holes in history can be avoided. It is in one of those holes that the Russians try to drown the memory of the Ubykh, the Abadzekh and the Shapsug.
Had the booklet’s authors written that many of the inhabitants of Sochi and its adjoining regions were massacred and even more driven out and deported, they would have had to point to the conquerors' historical guilt. And it does not look good that the whole of Russian society united around the distribution of the land that was seized – from the Tsar and his brother to the peasants and serfs, with a central role featuring the names of the country's famous architects, industrialists and great writers. Names that are the glory of Russian culture.
Set of 15 cards: Sochi, Pearl of Russian Resorts, Lev Tolstoy Press, 2009.
Photo: Circassian Site.
(Translation by DM)
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).