Zack Barsik is the founder of the Circassian Cultural Institute located in New Jersey and has been working on Circassians Affairs for the past twenty years. He is also one of the founders of the No Sochi 2014 campaign that has brought the Circassian plight back to the forefront. His work also led to the recognition of the Circassian Genocide by the Georgian Parliament. Learn more at nosochi2014.com or follow at @nosochi2014.
Dave Zirin: Who are the Circassian people, where are they from, and how does this relate to the Olympics?
Zack Barsik: This is something we’ve been working for over the past few years, to bring awareness to the world that the Circassians are the indigenous people of Sochi. If you look at history, we’ve been there for thousands of years, up until 1864 when Russia and the Czar Nicholas I culminated a 101-year war by eradicating, erasing Circassians from history. In those days, any news, or any journal where you would find the word “Circassian” was on the front pages in Europe. And we disappeared for 150 years, until Sochi was picked for the Olympics. Circassians used to be part of the ancient Olympic games, and being a Circassian also means that sports are very important for our culture. However, now with the Sochi Olympics we have absolutely no role in the Olympics in our capital, which is Sochi.
Isn’t Sochi a Circassian word?
That’s correct. It means ‘The Land Between Sea and Mountain.’ Many events that Olympians and guests of Sochi will see will be in Fisht Stadium. Fisht is another Circassian name. In Russia, what they’ve done is take everything that’s Circassian, but invite no Circassians to the party.
What happened 150 years ago? I’ve heard it referred to as the Circassian Genocide. What took place?
Recently we were able to gain access to the Georgian archives. The Georgian Parliament gave Circassians access for the first time. And, for the first time in our history we were able to see what the Russians did to us. We have an oral history; we’ve heard it from our mothers, our grandmothers crying. Telling us about the killings, of families being erased, of villages being destroyed. But it was more of an oral history. But a couple years ago when the Georgians gave access, to see this with their own eyes… to see the Russian campaign against Circassia, it was unbelievable to see this. And, two years ago the Georgian government recognized it officially as a genocide. [For those who want more information about the 1864 Circassian genocide, I recommend this article.—DZ]
What are the demands of No Sochi 2014?
The first demand that we’re looking for is the justice and the respect that the Russians should give Circassians by making the world aware that Sochi is the land of Circassians. They can’t hide this anymore. With the world being invited, every flag in the world will be flown except the Circassian flag. This is one of the most basic demands that we’re asking for. But we’re also have another demand. We have 200,000 Circassians in Syria, the only European minority in Syria, and they want to return. My relatives are getting killed there and Russia won’t let them in. The Russians in Syria were invited back and offered asylum [as war in Syria continued], but they never took back the Circassians. So that’s another big concern for us and we’re hoping to address this in the near future along with the human rights violations against Circassians for not allowing any of us to return