Ossetians, the descendents of Scythes, Sarmatians and Alans, occupy the northern and southern slopes of the central part of the Main Caucasian Mountain Ridge. Administratively they form the Republic of North Ossetia – Alania (8 thousand sq.km. with Vladikavkaz as a capital), within the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Ossetia (3.4 thousand sq.km. with Tskhivaly as a capital), a former Georgian province.
In spite of a geographic and administrative division, both parts of Ossetia form a single cultural nation, one and indivisible, sharing the same language and same culture. It was in 1922 when the Kremlin made the decision, without first consulting the Ossetians, to put North Ossetia under Russian jurisdiction and South Ossetia under the Georgian jurisdiction. But since both were still within the same State, the former USSR, there were not too many problems for Ossetians. The only thing that bothered Ossetians was the persistent attempts of the Georgian government to declare themselves, their culture and language the dominant ones. But times have changed - Russia and Georgia became separate States, dividing the Ossetians people, as well as many families and relatives, by imposed State borders. Taking into account the undersized Ossetian population, this has proven to be extremely catastrophic to our people.
Map of the Caucasus region. Ossetians live within the borders shown in red. The green line shows the administrative border between the two parts of Ossetia
The total population of Ossetians in the world today is roughly 640-690 thousand people. According to unofficial data:
1. 420-440 thousand of them live in North Ossetia
2. 65-70 thousand – in South Ossetia
3. 60-80 thousand – in other Russian regions and cities
4. 50-60 thousand – in Georgia
5. 20-30 thousand – in the republics of former USSR
6. 11-12 thousand – in Turkey and Syria
7. 12-15 thousand – in European and American countries
Ossetia’s neighbors are the Republic of Ingushetia to the East, Chechnia to the Northeast, Kabardino-Balkar Republic to the Northwest, Russian Stavropol region to the North and Georgia to the South.
Ossetian scenery is very rich and diverse characterized by hot plains, blossoming fields, everlasting snow caps on the most notorious mountains in Europe, ancient caves and impetuous rivers.
Since ancient times Ossetians have attracted the attention of many well-known historians and researchers including Herodotus, Miller, Shegren, Claprot, Verdnardsky, Dumesil, Sulimirsky, Bachrach, Littleton, Cardini, Abaev, Rostovtsev and Kuznetsov.
The history of Ossetians, from Alans, Sarmathians and Scythes up until modern days has been described in many scientific books, including “History of Ossetia” by M.Bliev and R.Totrov. The article “Alans. Who Are they?” by the member of the Russian Scientific Academy, M.Isaev, (written as a foreword to Russian edition of “A History of the Alans in the West”, by Bernard S. Bachrach ) is submitted to this chapter of the project “Ossetians”. The book itself describes the history of western Alans, who spread all over Europe and left their “footprints” everywhere starting from the British Islands to Northern Italy, France and Hungary.
During the last 8-10 centuries the Ossetian nation has gone through dramatic changes, from rapid prosperity, strengthening power and a huge influence over the Caucasian region to almost total distinction as a result of the Tartar and Tamerlan’s invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries. This total catastrophe ruined the Alanian State system, crashed the base of the economy and hindered the development of the Ossetian nation for centuries.
The last remains of the one time mighty Alans (according to some sources – just 10-12 thousand people) were locked up for almost five centuries within the highland Caucasian mountain gorges. During this time all of the international ties of Ossetians were limited with contacts with neighboring nations. It is for this reason that little was mentioned about them in historical sources during that time. But, as Russians say, bad things are always accompanied by good things. According to several modern historians Ossetians have succeeded in preserving their unique language, culture, traditions and religion due in large part to this lengthy isolation.
The centuries passed and Alans, now as Ossetians (based on Georgian “Ossi”) rebuilt themselves from ashes and their population increased.
By the first half of the XVII century Ossetians, living in the confined, harsh conditions of the high lands, decided to address the Russian government on the subject of joining this empire with the possibility of Ossetian people moving from the gorges and settling on the plains. The first Ossetian diplomatic delegation, elected from different communities, brought the Petition to Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in St.Peterburg in 1750. But tied up with the international pacts, the Russian side did not rush to make a decision.
After Turkey was defeated in the Russian-Turkish War (1768-1774), and geopolitical conditions changed, with the growing Russian influence in the Caucasus region, the government could afford to act more decisively than before.
In 1774 a well-known Kuchuk-Kaynardzhy agreement was signed, and shortly after that Ossetia became a Russian province. However this administrative agreement was relatively formal and Ossetians continued to feel independent for a long period of time with intermittent revolts against the Russian administration like the one in Digorsky Gorge in 1781 flaring up in Ossetian mountain communities.
Nevertheless, joining Russia allowed Ossetians to further vital national interests. It helped to advance the decisions on resettlement from the highlanders to plains, foreign security guarantees and the establishment of Ossetian-Russian market relations.
For the next 100-150 years, hundreds of Ossetians became highly educated teachers, enlighteners, writers, military commanders, and respected government and public figures. Most of them received their education in St.Peterburg, Moscow and other large Russian cities. By the beginning of the last century, there were dozens of Ossetian military generals and thousands of officers honored with some of Russia's highest awards. They served faithfully, with Alanian honor, protecting their homeland everywhere from the Far East to the Balkans.
The turbulent political events of the 20th century inflicted a new blow to our nation, like other nations of the former USSR. The February and October Revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War split the Ossetian community into hostile groups. They undermined the base of internal social relationships, moral principles and ancient traditions. Sometimes even close relatives and family members found themselves on opposite sides of political barricades. Many progressive people were killed, others left the country forever. But the biggest loss our people endured was during the repressions of the 1930’s when almost everyone who constituted the face of their nation was executed or sent to Siberia.
During the World War II Ossetians gained great glory and respect by utilizing qualities inherited from their ancestors. Ossetians always considered the military service and Homeland protection a great honor. They did not forget that the Alans preferred to die with honor than to live with shame. Ossetian children usually start dreaming about becoming military officers from early childhood. The fact, that this project includes information about 78 Ossetian generals confirms this statement.
From a total population of 340 thousand people at the beginning of the World War II :
- 89 900 people went to the front to protect their Homeland.
- 46 thousand of them were killed in battles
- 34 Ossetians were honored with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet honor. Compared to the population size, it is the highest number between the nations of the former USSR.
- More than 50 Ossetians became generals and admirals.
- 2 Ossetian families lost seven sons each in the battles of WW II.
- 2 families – six sons each.
- 16 families lost five sons each
- 52 families lost four sons each.
The Ossetians - Outstanding high rank commanders, with men such as Army General Issa Pliev, Army General Georgy Khetagurov, the “father” of Soviet special forces, Colonel-general Khadzhimurat Mamsurov, Major-general Ibragim Dzusov and many others were making significant contribution to the overthrown of the Nazi regime, freeing our country and all of Eastern Europe of fascist invaders.
The post-war period of Ossetian history can be characterized by the rapid growth of the industry, agriculture, and entertainment facilities. Ossetians reached great achievements in fine arts and sports. The natural resources of Ossetia favored the establishment of such large industrial enterprises as Sadonsky and Kvaysinsky lead and zinc mining complexes, “Electrozinc” and “Pobedit” huge industrial plants, “Emalprovod” and “Vibromachine” in Tskhinvaly, Alagirsky Resistant Manufacturing, the Beslan Maize Industrial Complex (at one point in time being the biggest in Europe), “Kazbek” Furniture Manufacturing, several big plants of electronic industry, etc.
Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia – Alania, is one of the key cities in the Caucasian region, the industrial, transportation, tourism and cultural center. There are over 100 nationalities living in peace and harmony. They are all proud of the prestigious North Ossetian State University, Gorsky State Agrarian University, North Caucasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, North Ossetian Medical Academy, two Higher Military Schools and many colleges.
The cultural life in Ossetia is rich in various events. There are several famous state theatres, philharmonics, outstanding folk dance ensembles (“ALAN” and “SIMD”), the unique equestrian theatre “NARTY” and many more well-known musical, drama and choreographic groups functioning in both parts of Ossetia.
The Ossetian culture and fine arts gave the world and Russian society such great and famous people as Valery Gergiev (one of the best musical conductors of the present), Veronica Dudarova (the first in the world lady-conductor), Svetlana Adyrkhaeva (Bolshoy Theatre ballet-dancer), the founder of the Soviet equestrian circus Alibek Kantemirov and his sons (Kantemirovs’ dynasty), the theatre and movie stars Vladimir Tkhapsaev and Nikolay Salamov, as well as variety performers Felix Tsarikaty and Akim Salbiev.
Ossetians bring glory and fame to their Homeland at sport competitions of the highest level. The free style, Greco-roman style, sumo and judo wrestlers, karate and tae kwon do fighters, calisthenics gymnasts, arm wrestlers and other Ossetian sportsmen compete not only for Russia, but for several other countries as well.
We are very proud of 12 Olympic champions, dozens of World champions, plenty of Europe, former USSR and Russian national champions. At the last 2004 Olympics in Athens, Ossetians have got 4 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals. This achievement is really unique for the nation of less than 700 thousand people and will likely be unbeaten anywhere in the near future.
The Ossetian youth of today wants to fight and compete in sport arenas, not in bloody battles. They want to live in peace with love towards everyone around them. They want to build their future through studying and hard work.
The achievements of Ossetians in different fields of science and economics are truly outstanding. People like George Tokaty - one of the key scientists in development of the NASA space programs, Vaso Abaev – an eminent linguist and historian, Yuri Kuchiev – captain-commander of the nuclear icebreaker “Arctica”, which sensationally reached the North Pole in 1978, Taymuraz Bolloev – one of the best known Russian businessmen and former CEO of the largest Russian brewery corporation “Baltica” and others have made and continue to make important contributions to the industry and the world of science.
Nowadays Ossetia is a fast developing Russian region. Ossetians want to establish business and cultural connections all over the world in order to reach more achievements. They are open minded to communicate and they look forward to the future with great hope.
Unfortunately, despite all of the positive facts and statements, the situation around Ossetia is not as quiet and peaceful as Ossetians wish it would be. In the early 1990’s the nationalists who came to power in neighboring Georgia, adopted a new policy, which was described with the slogan, “Georgia for Georgians!” They started pushing southern Ossetians out of the country unless they adopted everything Georgian. Ossetians resisted. The nationalists then unleashed a bloody conflict between Georgians and Ossetians, in a repeat of the genocide actions of 1922, when many people were killed and dozens of thousands escaped to North Ossetia.(In 1922 according to the mutual agreement between Georgia and the Russian Federation, but without asking the opinion of Ossetians, the nation was split up: South Ossetia was put under the Georgian jurisdiction and North Ossetia – under the Russian one.)
On December 11, 1990, Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished the South Ossetian Autonomous Region with his decree. Afterwards, the extremely nationalistic and aggressive Georgian policy pushed Ossetians through a referendum to make a decision to establish independence over South Ossetia. Later on the Georgian militia (mixed with criminals) entered Tskhinvali.
The war was short but bloody enough, with many casualties, including civilians, women and children. Eventually the Georgian militants were kicked out of Ossetian territory, but we can never forget those who died fighting the national-chauvinists and protecting their Motherland, protecting their people. We can never forget, the civilians who were tortured to death, nor the old men and women with children who were executed by militants on the Zar highway. The senseless, powerful, chauvinistic policy of Georgian leaders brought the friendly and kindred nations into opposition for years.
Years have passed and the political leaders on both sides have changed a number of times. But the conflict is still like a smoldering fire, ready to flare up at any time. The Georgian government continues to try to force the so-called “separatist regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under Georgian jurisdiction. They are using a wide range of strategies to realize their goals, including threat of war, political pressure on opponents from USA and European organizations. At the same time Georgia more and more stands on the path to confrontation with Russia, its long time closest ally and guarantee of stability and development in the whole Caucasian region.
The South-Ossetian side emphatically undertook a historical justice restoration policy* to unite with the Republic of North Ossetia within the Russian Federation. Having experienced two waves of genocide (1922, 1990) at the hands of Georgians they do not intend to join Georgia again. In 2004 South Ossetian leaders officially addressed the Russian State Duma (Parliament) with a petition to allow South Ossetia to join Russia. So far the problem is still unsolved. South Ossetia considers itself a separate independent republic, though for the Georgian officials it is the Georgian Tskhinvaly region.
After the USSR collapsed the situation in the surrounding North Ossetia regions become complicated as well. Some old ethnic problems that were kept locked up during the soviet era now came out. In the early 1990’s increasing tension between North Ossetia and its eastern neighbor Ingushetia brought these nations into direct conflict over a long time ethnic dispute based on a territorial discrepancy in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia. (Ingushetia is a nation of about 300 thousand people, closely related to Chechens)
The history of this territory can be traced back to the XVIII century, when North Caucasian highlanders began to settle on the plains. The Russian Cossacks began to settle on these territories roughly at the same time. They established those several controversial large villages, which is now a major part of the Prigorodny district. The Cossack settlers were prosperous enough and their vast majority did not support the communists during the 1917 revolution and subsequent Civil war. They took the side of the former regime fighting against the Red Army.
In return some communist leaders, led by Lenin’s companion-in-arms Sergo Ordzhonikidze began to incite Ingushes to punitive operations against neighboring Cossack civilians. Their aim was to force Cossacks to live their villages. As an incentive, Ingushes would occupy them and get their territory “rounded”. Encouraged by the Bolsheviks, they made plenty of plundering raids on Cossacks. After all in 1922, with the support the Red Army, they reached their goal. Ingushes had occupied those several villages for the next 22 years.
In 1944, the Kremlin committed another injustice, this time against Ingushes, Chechens, Balkars, Karachay and some other small nations. Due to mass desertion from the front during World War II, and the support of brigandage in back-areas of the Soviet Army; these nations within 24 hours were forced into cargo cars to find themselves resettled on the Kazakhstan steppes and other deserted Northern Asian territories. Some people died on their way including innocent old men, women and children. The severe environment and struggle for survival hampered the development of the Ingush nation for years.
After the Ingush villages were emptied, the peasants from the Southern and Northern parts of Ossetia were forced to settle them. This proved to be a mistake on the part of the Soviet government, because it later turned into a ticking time bomb set up between Ossetians and Ingushes.
It was in 1957, when the new Soviet leaders, with Nikita Khrushev leading, decided to correct this mistake and let the exiled nations to come back to their cities and villages. And Ossetians were obligated to resettle. Though some of them had already built new houses in Ingush villages, they had to live these homes and start a new life somewhere in North Ossetia, having nothing.
According to the Decree issued in Moscow, part of the Prigorodny district was left under Ossetian jurisdiction and most of Ossetians stayed living there. Instead, the Checheno-Ingush Republic received three districts, which earlier had belonged to the Stavropolsky Region. Since then, there has been a mixed Ossetian-Ingush population living in those several villages. This part of the Prigorodny district became a bone of contention between the two neighboring nations.
The tension continued to increase. The Ingush youths of the Prigorodny district behaved themselves very harsh and aggressive towards Ossetians, trying to let everybody know “who the real masters are on those territories”. Fights were common and became regarded as ordinary events. There were many murders, robberies, abuse reports and other crimes were committed. And even if it was an ordinary crime, but committed by people of different nations, both sides always considered it as ethnically motivated. But the regional communist leaders were afraid of Moscow accusing them of not establishing friendship and cooperation between the nations. So they always tried to hide these negative cases, forcing the police and justice system to repress them. All this accumulated some indignation in the population at large.
In 1981 the Ingushes murdered a young cab driver, ethnic Osset. It was the last link in a long chain of similar crimes. It ignited the revolt in Ordzhonikidze (now Vladikavkaz), North Ossetia. Tens of thousands of people demanded decisive actions from local government firms in order to protect them and to punish the criminals. But instead of talking to people and trying to find a proper solution, the Kremlin brought the special police and army forces to “calm them down”. After cases like that, the Soviet leaders always tried to treat the symptoms of the disease, while trying to hide the disease itself. The logic was that there is no problem if nobody sees it. The problem of 1981 was “solved” the same way. Ossetian leader Bilar Kabaloev was replaced with an ethnic Russian, stranger in Ossetia, Vladimir Odintsov. This “brave cowboy” started to discipline Ossetian people right away. To reach this goal he brought to Ossetia his own team, complete with shady individuals. He assigned them to lead the police, KGB, prosecution and other key offices. For the short time they set up the conditions of chaos, menace, distrust and total deception. Many of the well known respected Ossetian leaders were accused in wrongdoing. There were several cases of trumped-up charges being laid against those who used to be part of the Ossetian nation’s “face”. Eventually the justice came forward and all those Ossetians were acquitted.
At the same time Odintsov and his team set up the green lights for Ingushes. As a repressed nation they got the most-favored-nation treatment, including hundreds of quotas in every Ossetian University. An order was established decreeing that in every important government office or communist party committee at least one of the key people had to be Ingush. Ethnic Ingushes occupied many of the high-income positions in retail, food, marketing, and transportation industries. All this only served to aggravate the situation between the two nations.
In 1992 Boris Eltsin signed legislation on the “Rehabilitation of the Repressed Nations”. Though it was a humane act with good intentions, without any constitutional base and definite ways to make a reality of it, this law ignited extra tension, which eventually brought Ossetian and Ingush nations into a bloody ethnic conflict. The numerous cases of fights, murders, armed opposition provoked the sides as well. Besides that, several mass-meetings were held in Nazran (the capital of Ingushetia at the time), demanding to get back the Prigorodny district and part of Vladikavkaz (the capital of North Ossetia) under the Ingush jurisdiction. In that situation, everybody saw the disaster coming, the government of North Ossetia took some steps to strengthen their defensive capabilities, establishing the National Guards battalions and People’s Militia providing them corresponding training. The tension escalated to dangerous heights.
After the sides exchanged some bloody “compliments”, early in the morning on October 30, 1992, heavily armed groups of the Ingushes, crossed the border of North Ossetia and started an operation with the intention of taking over the Prigorodny district and part of Vladikavkaz. Some of the ethnic Ingushes, in the villages with mixed populations joined the occupants, shooting at their neighbors. They set Ossetian houses up in flames, killing everybody who dared to resist. The first strike was made on several officers in a local Police station in Chermen. They fought bravely, but the offence had a huge advantage over them. Ingushes killed those who survived the attack with grenades, so that the disfigured corpses of the officers lay under the collapsed walls for the next several days. Another bloody crime was committed in Kartsa, where 25 hostages were executed in the local community center. And those were not the isolated instances.
The offenders met a desperate resistance. But since it was a surprise attack, after the first 2 days the Ingush invaders managed to reach Eastern suburbs of Vladikavkaz (15 km from the Ossetian-Ingush border). On their way they killed more than 100 Ossetians and hundreds of others were taken as hostages. Many Ossetian houses were burnt or destroyed with grenades and other explosives.
These acts stunned and shocked the population all over Ossetia. On the second day of the war thousands of young Ossetians from all cities and villages started arriving in Vladikavkaz with the intention of protecting their people and kicking the “uninvited visitors” out of Ossetia. They joined the People’s Militia battalions, created earlier. This force was joined by another battalion of about 500 volunteers who arrived from South Ossetia. They were armed and had good experience obtained fighting against Georgian invaders.
As it usually happens, the aggressive actions of one side provoked an outbreak of anger and revenge from the other side. That time the invaders got what they deserved and even more, because they exposed the civilian Ingush population of North Ossetia. Unfortunately, in some cases the vengeance actions were too harsh. There were many casualties on the Ingush side, including some civilians killed by cannon fire and grenades. Also, there were many people taken hostage by Ossetian militiamen in order to exchange them later for their relatives and other people held hostages in Ingushetia.
On the 5th day all of the “brave” invaders were kicked out of Ossetia following the arrival of Russian troops had entered the area to separate the fighting sides. They did not interfere too much and responded only if they were attacked. Ossetians expected the troops to be more involved and were not pleased with their neutrality.
The final results of that brief war were sad for both sides:
1 Total killed – 546 people (including 105 –Ossetians, 407 – Ingushes)
2 About 1000 people were wounded and mutilated
3 Thousands of people at both sides were taken hostage. Couple dozen people got missing and were never found again.
4 Vast majority of Ingush and most of Ossetian houses in the conflict area were burnt out, destroyed or heavily damaged.
5 Almost all of Ingush population of North Ossetia (about 30 thousand people) had to escape to Ingushetia, becoming refugees for years. Most of them were innocent and suffered that disaster because of political instigators, who provoked the youth on meetings and in mass media to “decisive actions” against Ossetia.
Thirteen years passed by. Most of the refugees returned to their villages. The government gave them the lots and money compensations to build new houses. But the problem that brought the neighboring nations to war remains unresolved. Nobody repealed the Articles 3 and 6 of the Russian Federation’s Law “About Rehabilitation of Repressed Nations” which ignited the conflict in 1992. So, based on this law Ingushetia keeps rising up at all levels, attempting territorial demands from North Ossetia. The argument is that, it does not matter how long Ossetians have been living there. This is Ingush native territory and they want it back.
Ossetians refuse any possibility of changing the existing borders, because Ossetians have been living there for more than 60 years. Those who were born there do not have any other homeland and they would rather die on this land, than give it to somebody. The Russian government does not want to change anything. They do not want to change the borders, because it could have the effect of producing a very dangerous chain reaction, since there are many similar problems throughout Russia. It would disrupt the unity of the Russian Federation. But they do not want to change the provocative meaning of the law either, because such an action would upset Ingushes and turn them away from the Russian central power.
There has always been a good tradition in the Caucasian region – all disputes, conflicts between people or between nations eventually should be solved through dialog and mutual repentance. But so far there is nothing like that between Ossetians and Ingushes. Only demands to opponents and to Moscow, nothing more.
Ordinary people would have found a consensus a long time ago. But it can be speculated that there is probably another, “third party” presents, which is not interested in completely extinguishing the flame. They want it to be smoldering, with the possibility to ignite it at any time they need. Now, it is not a secret to anybody in North Caucasus, that there is a powerful yet invisible “third party” which from time to time tries to blow up the whole Caucasus by embroiling the uninvolved nations in a big war. Some bloody events of the last several years can help us draw such a conclusion.
One of those events happened when four young Ingushes from the families who had returned to the Prigorodny district as refugees, blew up a large bag of explosives in the middle of the crowded central market in Vladikavkaz on March 19, 1999. Fifty-two people (mostly old women and students) were killed instantaneously and 168 were wounded. There were some more explosions at the other crowded places of Vladikavkaz.
But the most monstrous and brutal terrorist act in recent history happened on September 1, 2004 in Beslan, North Ossetia. It stunned the whole world. Early in the morning a large group of heavily armed terrorists entered the town of Beslan from Ingushetia and surrounded School #1 taking more than 1200 people hostages, including almost all of the students who attended the school and their parents, who had come to the school with flowers to celebrate the Day of Knowledge. They kept the hostages locked up in the school gym with no food and no water for three days. They executed most of the young men right away and set up plenty of bombs all over the school. When two of the bombs accidentally exploded the parents, relatives of the hostages, volunteers and Russian Special Forces rushed in, chaotically storming the school in an unplanned move. As a result of those horrible days: 331 people died, 186 of them children. The vast majority of the other hostages were wounded.
According to the official investigation all of the terrorists, but one, were killed. They say, the criminals do not have nationalities. And it is probably true. But Ossetians cannot force themselves to forget the undoubted fact that most of the beastlike terrorists were Ingushes, some Chechens.
Years will pass and the generations will change before the pain of losses and wounds will fade. And maybe then, wisdom will bring people in the North Caucasus to the conclusion, that the peace and stability are the most vital things for all nations and people in the region. The wisdom inherited from our ancestors should overpower the political ambitions and national adventurism. Nowadays, in spite of all shocks, Ossetians stay friendly to any nation around, prepared for dialog to solve longstanding problems.
Edited by C. Morgan, B.A. in Archaeology.