The Complex Caucasus Region: A Brief Geo-Political Orientation

As presented at the GLC program, “Sports, Sexuality, and International Politics: SOCHI 2014,”
March 19, 2014.

Map of region

Map of the region.

I’d like to start by situating us geographically in Russia and particularly the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Sochi is on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from Turkey and Ukraine and very close to the Caucasus Mountains, a region of very intense ethnic strife.

The Caucasus Mountain region comprises the three countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia and the southern part of Russia. Sochi is right along that border that runs between Russia and Georgia and the small outlines on the map are indicating regions that are autonomous or semi-autonomous, which means that they aspire to national self-determination. But there are a lot of conflicting wishes about how to transform national identity into a political boundary.

This is occurring in places as close to Sochi as Abkhazia, which is contested territory. It belongs to the Republic of Georgia in the eyes of Georgia and most of the world, but it is an independent state in the eyes of Russia and Venezuela and a few others. This gives a sense of how fraught this area is and why there were such fears around security.

You may have heard in the news that, for example, in the months leading up to the Olympics, in October and December 2013, there were terrorist attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd, which is only 400 miles from Sochi. Those attacks comprised suicide bombings on public transportation and so the fear of a similar catastrophe befalling the Olympics was what was driving the Russian government to heavily militarize the area and impose very strict security rules.

Naturally, we were all relieved that there were no security breaches at the Olympics. There were, however, several attempted public protests over the environmental damage caused by the Olympic Park construction and protests over President Putin’s authoritarianism. The media often did not report on negative incidents such as the environmentalists who were arrested in Sochi—the news of which I got through Twitter.

Russian militia whipping performer

News photo of incident.

The one exception was the staged event by members of the feminist rock collective Pussy Riot. The group intended to go to an area close to the Olympic Park—they did not get into the park—and were planning to perform and videotape their most recent political action titled, “Putin Teaches You to Love Your Motherland.” They did actually get quite a bit of attention because they were attacked and beaten by the members of the quasi-militia Cossacks—a group of individuals loosely bound by some sort of national memory, and who are not an official part of the legal or police system in any way, but are almost like contractors of the Russian government and can be sent out to do some of the dirty work without necessarily getting the hands of the Russian police dirty. In the above image we see a member of the Cossack militia with his whip actually lashing a member of Pussy Riot. They were whipped, sprayed with pepper spray, and detained by police for several hours. 

Russia’s poor record in human rights, including the 2013 legislation against so-called “homosexual propaganda” being distributed to children, as well as the ethnic and political tensions in the Caucasus mountain region, made Sochi an unlikely venue for the Olympics. The billions of dollars spent on the Olympic Park and the Opening Ceremony were invested in constructing an image of Russia as a technologically advanced and culturally sophisticated member of the global community. The actual situation in the conflict-torn and impoverished Sochi region of Russia, however, belies such an idealized image.

Colleen McQuillen is associate professor of Slavic and Baltic languages and literatures, coordinator of the Polish and Russian language programs, and acting associate director of the School of Literatures, Cultural Studies and Linguistics. She is the author of The Modernist Masquerade: Stylizing Life, Literature and Costumes in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).