Saturday, September 7, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Circassians Were Original Population of Sochi, Olympic Guidebook Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 7 – Despite the Russian government’s reluctance to talk about the genocide its tsarist predecessors committed against the Circassians in 1864, a new pamphlet prepared for guides for the Olympiad next year specified that the Circassians are “the indigenous population” of Sochi and that Sochi and many nearby names are Circassian words.

            In his “Olympic Names of Sochi” (in Russian), which has been published in 1500 copies, Igor Sizov, a journalist there, says that everyone should remember that “the majority of geographic names in Sochi have arisen as a result of a mixingof lnguages, customs and cultural traditions of various peoples.”

            “The terms ‘Sochi,’ ‘Laura,’ and ‘Fisht,’” for example, were given by “representatives of the Circassian tribes of the Abaza, Ubykhs, and Shapsugs.” The name ‘Adler’ “appeared thanks to a mixing of words from Circassian and Turkish.” “’Kranaya Polyana,’ ‘Veseloye,’ ‘Kazachiy Brod’ are Russian.” And the place name ‘Rosa Khutor’ has “Estonian roots.”

            Sizov told Russian news agencies that a a native of the city, he had grown up with stories about the ethnic diversity of the names of the Sochi region, but in compiling his book, he drew on the works of some of the best onomasticians working there, including Kasim Meretkuov, Vladimir Vorozhilov and Grigory Chuchmay (

                In the introduction to his pamphlet, Sizov says that representatives of 102 nationalities now livein Sochi but that the Circassians “are considered the indigenous population.” They were followed by the Turks in the 16th century and by Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Estonians, and Greeks in the 19th.  Most left their mark in the placenames of the region.

            Sizov divides his booklet into two parts. In the first, he provides a detailed discussion of the history of the names of some of the sites most closely connected with the Sochi Olympiad.  In the second, he gives briefer background information on 17 other, less prominent places that visitors may nonetheless encounter and could be expected to ask about.

            The name “Sochi” itself, he says, is unquestionably Circassian and specifically Ubykh, one of that nation’s subgroups. In Ubykh, the word means “the family group which lives near the sea.” Sizov dismisses an alternative explanation that it comes from another Circassian term for the river because the etymology is wrong: that river has no branches as the name would suggest.

            “Krasnaya Polyana” is a purely Russian term, Sizov continues, but it wasn’t given to the place by Russians but rather by Greeks who sought asylum from persecution in the Ottoman Empire and, having acquired some Russian, called their village by the Russian words for beautiful field.  
            The main Olympic stadium in Sochi is called Fisht, a Circassian word that in translation means “White Head” and refers to a snow-capped mountain that the Circassians in medieval times viewed as sacred. Adler of Adler Arena comes from a combination of Ubykh and Turkish, not from German as some think.

            One of the most interesting ethnic backgrounds of a name in the region is that of “Roza Khutor” where several Olympic competitions will take place. It has nothing to do with colors but rather with Estonians: It was named for one of their number who settled there in an oak grove in the 19th century and who was visited by the great Estonian writer Anton Tammsaare.

            And yet another intriguing name is “Laura.” Despite the assumption of many that it is of Russian origin and was the daughter or wife of some Russian commander during the Caucasan wars, in it fact “has Circassian roots” and comes from the name of an Abaza prince who livedin the area.

            Among the 17 brief entries, most are of Circassian origin as well, Sizov says, including Aibga, Akhun, Akh-Tsu, Achipse, Matsesta, Mzymta, Psekhako, Chvizheptse, and Chugush.  Others are of Moldovan, Cossack or Russian origin. As for the Black Sea, he adds, that too is Russian but has less to do with color and with its waters being rough.

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