The Many Battles for Sochi – Olympic Town Has Seen Its Fair Share of Bloodshed

For more than 2,000 years, the areas surrounding what is now Sochi have been invaded by Huns, Mongols, Turks and Russians. Here 19th Century Circassians fight the Tsar's armies.

For more than 2,000 years, the area surrounding what is now Sochi has been invaded by Huns, Mongols, Turks and Russians, among others. Here 19th Century Circassians fight the Tsar’s armies.

The eyes of the world are fixed on Sochi as some of the planet’s best athletes vie there for Olympic gold. Yet, this isn’t the first time the Russian Black Sea resort town has been the scene of fierce competition. Over the past two millennia, a host of factions have descended onto the region to challenge one another in a series of contests that were far more dramatic than any Winter Games. Situated on a geopolitical fault line between East and West, armies from ancient times right up to the modern era have slugged it out for control of this strategic sea port and land corridor. Consider these:

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 6.50.18 PMLand of the Zygii
The ancient Greek writer Strabo knew the area surrounding present day Sochi quite well. During the 1st century AD, the noted historian and cartographer recorded that the entre region, then known as Zyx, was under the control of a warlike seafaring peoples called the Zygii. From the early Bronze Age right up to the 4th century AD, a loose coalition of theses nomads fought off repeated incursions by Scythians, Cimmerians, Sarmatian and even Roman legions, that is until the territory was finally over run by the Huns. Later, the Byzantines would subjugate and Christianize the region, building both mighty cathedrals and a string of fortifications.

Mongols and Turks
During the 13th Century, the area surrounding present-day Sochi fell to Mongol raiders. The Central Asian conquerors swept through the Caucuses on their way into Europe, devastating everything in their path. Two centuries later, the Ottomans would have their turn. In 1453, the same year the Byzantine capital of Constantinople fell to the Turks, Muslim invaders would seize control of much of the Caucuses and convert the inhabitants to Islam.

The Russians are Coming
Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the lands surrounding the Black Sea, including modern day Sochi, would become an epic battleground between the armies of the Ottomans and the ever-expanding Russian Empire. No fewer than ten different wars were fought throughout the region. The last of these contests saw much of the Caucuses ceded to Tsar Nicholas I following the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople. Within five years, a fortress and town were established at the mouth of the Sochi River by Russian settlers. The territory continued to be plagued by unrest as local Muslims known as Ubykhs launched repeated raids as part of an ongoing insurgency against the Tsar’s rule. Russia temporarily abandoned the entire area in 1854 to focus instead on defeating a joint Anglo-French and Ottoman force in the nearby Crimea. They came back with a vengeance a decade later and brutally suppressed all resistance along the Sochi river and the wider Caucuses. A massive battle was fought in March 1864 in the hills surrounding the outpost during which 5,000 Islamic warriors known as Circassians were cut down by Russian troops. In the years following their victory, the Tsar’s forces would drive more than half a million Muslim inhabitants from the territory in a policy some historians and locals refer to as a genocide. The persecution also led to the near complete annihilation of the Ubykh people. [1] Toward the late 19th century, Sochi would expand thanks to a surge of German, Polish, Greek and Jewish immigrants.

Bolsheviks, Georgians, Nazis and More
Sochi would once again see violence, this time between royalist White Russian forces and Bolsheviks following the 1917 downfall of Tsar Nicholas II. In fact, the eastern Black Sea would become a minor theatre in the five-year Russian Civil War. Following the communist revolution, forces from independent Georgia invaded Sochi, taking the city from the White Russians in 1918. Royalist troops recaptured the area later that year, but then both factions were driven out by the Red Army in 1920. Moscow consolidated its grip on the entire region and named Sochi a holiday town for the workers of the U.S.S.R. The obscure seaside outpost grew amid a flood of visitors.

Later during the Great Patriotic War, Hitler’s forces stormed the Soviet Union and made for the rich oil fields of the Caucuses. Although Nazi Panzers drove deep into Russia, they never did reach the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Instead, the Red Army sent its wounded to recover in the warm seaside holiday town. During the war, Sochi boasted as many as 100 different army hospitals. Following the hostilities, the city continued to be a popular vacation spot for Russians. Although on the very doorstep of the troubled former republics that have been rocked by war since the collapse of communism, Sochi has been spared the fate of nearby Georgia, Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and Chechnya. Today it remains a mecca for Russian sun worshipers.


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