'The Caucasus may be likened to a mighty fortress: Marvelously strong by nature, artificially protected by military works, and defended by a numerous garrison.
Only thoughtless men would attempt to escalade such a stronghold.
A wise commander would [...] advance by sap and mine, and so master the place.'
- Alexi Velyaminov, 19th century Russian general
The end of the 18th century signalled the start of an era in which Russia and other European powers would race to conquer and colonise previously unknown territories. Coinciding with this was the collapse of the Nogais Horde, a regional power by the descendants of the Mongols which traditionally act as the buffer between the Russians in the north and the Caucasians in the south. Both events would serve as the catalysts behind which the two great people were destined to meet.
These garrisons would gradually evolve into the major cities of the North Caucasus today, and they all bear names that explain the intention of their founding: Neotstupny Stan (meaning 'No Retreat'), Burnaya (meaning 'Stormy'), and the most well-known of them all is perhaps Grozny (meaning 'menacing' or 'Terrible'), the capital of Chechnya today. Ossetia's capital Vladikavkaz, its name meaning 'the master of the Caucasus', was one of them too.
Founded by Imperial decree in 1784, a year after Georgia became a Russian vassal, Vladikavkaz was established to guard the Georgian Military Highway (GMH) that would allow Imperial Russia to hold onto its most prized possession to the south, Georgia.
But these garrison settlements served another purpose too: it would function as a base for the Imperial Russian army to attempt to invade neighbouring Chechnya and Dagestan. Perhaps by fate, even in the 1990s when the Chechens rebelled once again, Vladikavkaz was still serving the same purpose for the Russian military to incur into neighbouring Chechnya. During WW2, Vladikavkaz lived up it's name and guarded the USSR's Caucasus against the foreign invaders. The Wehrmacht was stopped just a few kilometres north of the city - from there they started the retreat which they would never return. But it was only in 2007 that Vladikavkaz was conferred the status 'City of Military Glory' for it's 'outstanding heroism' during WW2.
Sebastian Smith wrote in his book that the Ossetians 'seem to have fated to help the Russian conquest'. The Ossetians, being the only Iranian speakers and non-Muslim natives in the region, were much more in need of an ally and therefore also more naturally drawn to the Russians. In the 18th century, Imperial Russia was able to exploit that differences and used the Ossetians against their Muslim neighbours in their conquest of the Caucasus. By 1774, Ossetia had become the only region in the North Caucasus that was peacefully incorporated into the Russia Empire.
But both the breakup of the Soviet Union, and then the deterioration of the relationship between Russia and Georgia had all taken their toll on Vladikavkaz. It no longer receives as many visitors as it once did. Today, the six lane wide roads of the city centre, originally built to allow both armies and traders to mobilise rapidly along the GMH looks strangely out of place. Vladikavkaz is a city that has seen better days.
But I found it a very charming city nonetheless; wide roads are lined with the typical 2 storeys high, Russian Empire era buildings completed with beautiful brickworks and colourful facades. The slow trams still grace the city, and without them the wide roads would certainly look even more empty.
Vladikavkaz is also an exceptionally green city, parks look slightly wild with overgrown plants and bushes, and they look rather like mini forests within a city rather than a well groomed garden. In the evening, the streets are dark as the tree canopy along the pavement made it almost impossible for the street lamps to penetrate.
Because Vladikavkaz is 740m high on the Terek River, even in the summer as you look south from the city there is a very high chance that you will be able to spot the impressive snow capped mountains of the Great Caucasian Range along the horizon. Wikitravel calls Vladikavkaz the potential 'Chamonix of Russia', it is hard to imagine Vladikavkaz or North Ossetia as a holiday destination in its own rights but you can understand it might not be far before tourists flock to this place.
Today, to most travellers Vladikavkaz is nothing more than a transit hub: to the Russian holiday makers they pass by here to head to Georgia or Sochi. And for the adventurous few they transit from Vladikavkaz to Chechnya and Dagestan. The 1991 Lonely Planet USSR I carried with me called the Ossetian countryside 'one of the most bizarre landscapes of the USSR' (still called Lonely Planet USSR by 1991 because, well, the Soviet Union collapsed when the book was already being printed) I decided to have a go at what the Ossetia countryside has to offer.
I discovered it was not only me but the locals were also not entirely familiar with what lies around the Ossetian countryside either. On the way I was picked up by an Ossetian mother and her daughter. The daughter works in Saint Petersburg and came back to visit but the mother, who has lived here her entire life, had genuinely no idea about the sites I was talking about. Together we passed by ruins after ruins of fortified villages and stone towers which dotted the rural landscape - evidence of the frequent invasions the local inhabitants had to face.
One could feel how desperate they were just by observing how these towers were built. In the gorge of Dzivgis a huge stone wall was built in front of a sheer cliff that would make the fortification almost impossible to scale. Behind was a network of catacombs and caves which provided the living quarters for the local defenders.
As if by fate, the skeleton of huge abandoned Soviet sanatoriums today sat idly next to the equally abandoned medieval stone towers. Soviet sanatoriums, much like the earliest spa resorts in Britain, were usually built around mineral springs thanks to the medical and healing properties of the mineral-rich water.
Visiting these spa resorts (usually within the 2 weeks state-funded vacation) was seen as 'purposeful' by the Soviet regime. It was purposed to increase workers’ productivity by the time they returned to the factories. The Caucasus, famous for its clean air and water, was the ideal location for some of the most popular and iconic Soviet resorts. The amount of sanatoriums built indicated the importance of ‘holiday-making’ in the USSR: when the Soviet Union came to an end in the 90s, the total capacity of sanatoriums in the USSR could accommodate more than half a million Soviet citizens to be on a holiday at any time.
But you would be wrong if you think people have stopped coming here for the mineral water judging solely by the condition of the crumbling sanatoriums. Both the gathering and the drinking of mineral water in this part of the world is not just a pastime hobby, but a passion and some might even say - a religion. Georgia to the south has long famed itself for its mineral water, and in the nearby district of Stavropol Krai there is even a town called Mineralnye Vody, literally meaning 'Mineral Water'.
But it's the mechanically pumped water springs that got all the attention. Faithful crowds gathered around the rusty metallic boxes, frantically filling up their water bottles of all sizes. The status of mineral water is close to sacred here: on the side of the pumps it always reads 'Do not desecrate this holy place that has been here for centuries!' or 'Thanks be to God for this water from paradise!'
But the taste of the metal in the water is so strong that sometimes I wonder if drinking water that literally taste like a rusty sludge can bring much health benefits. For the crowd, however, the rustier the water tastes, the healthier it is. You can literally figure out the tastes of the water from different springs only by looking at the size of the crowd in front of it: the rustier the water tasted, the more people there were.
We continued on the gravel road and eventually arrived at a small Russian army encampment at the border with South Ossetia. South Ossetia had won its de-facto independence in the 1990s civil war in Georgia, and has since gained control over its own territory with the help of Russian support. Its government has recently expressed interested in joining the Russian Federation, of which they hope they can finally unite with their Ossetian comrades to the north, with Russia being their patron. It is unsure if that will eventually happen but for now South Ossetia remained a disputed territory and its entity as an independent country is only recognised by a few. For now the two Ossetias remained separated and the border is still heavily guarded by soldiers from both sides.
Meanwhile, a Russian soldier came out to find out who we were via his stationary binoculars. Since by law a foreigner must have a permit in order to venture into the frontier area around the Russian border, without the proper papers it was time to turn back.
For the average tourists, the 'must-go' of Ossetia is perhaps the necropolis at Dargavs. Known as ‘the Village of the Dead’, it is a necropolis that consist of 44 beehive shaped tombs built with whitewash limestone, typical of the region’s architecture.
The large holes in the middle of the tombs allow you to look inside which immediately revealed the ancient wooden coffins and the bare white human remains inside. Some say the reason why the coffins resembles the shape of a boat was intentional - as ancient Ossetians believe that the river next to the necropolis carries on to where the living cannot navigate, and only the dead would be able to pass and continue their journey to the next world.
Although deep rooted in their native pagan beliefs, today most Ossetians see themselves as Christians. However, since the 90s there has been a revival of their native pagan religion. I was told that many Ossetian families still perform animalistic practices like ram sacrifices. Like in early Christianity when saints were 'created' to replace Roman gods which looked after the specific needs of the believers, many Ossetian pagan gods are being venerated by the Ossetians as their own unique Christian saints today.
I was invited into the mosque to rest from the scorching heat outside and to adore it's elaborately painted interior. The imam I got talking to here was an Azeri, perhaps purposely so as the builder of the mosque was an Azeri oil magnate himself. When the USSR ceased to exist, ethnic tension resulted in brief but violent clashes between the Ossetians and the predominantly Muslim Ingush people. A bomb was planted in the mosque and the explosion ripped through the southern wall of mosque in 1995.
The origin of the conflict was a typical manipulation by Soviet mapmakers when Ingush territory were deliberately incorporated into the new North Ossetia ASSR. The shape of Ingushetia on a map looks like a rather unconvincing crescent, the missing chunk is the East Prigorodny district in North Ossetia today. During the 1990s, serious ethnic clashes between the Ossetians and Ingush in East Prigorodny resulted in the deaths of many.
It was the 1940s when the Soviets were rewarding the Ossetians for their unwavering loyalty with the land they had recently confiscated from the Ingush, who were then exiled to Central Asia en masse. When Stalin died in 1953 the Ingush were finally allowed to return to their homeland, only to find parts of it now occupied by the Ossetians. That laid the foundation for a territorial dispute that would remain unresolved until today.
For centuries, despite their differences, the Ossetians have sided with the Russians. The Russian-Ossetian alliance started in the times of the Empire, lasted throughout the USSR’s lifetime and the troubled early days of new Russia until today. As the minority of being non-Muslim in the North Caucasus, the Ossetians have always looked up to mighty Russia as their natural protector.
As far as the Ossetians are concerned, this is the only way they can preserve the existence of their people against their 'vicious' neighbours. In the 90s Ossetian-Ingush ethnic conflict over East Prigorodny, the Russian peacekeepers were widely accused of siding with the Ossetians. And for the second time in history, the Ingush were to experience another genocide on their homeland: Officials registered 65,000 refugees in Ingushetia whilst 3,000 Ingush houses were being set on fire.
And it's not only in North Ossetia, their ethnic kin in South Ossetia today were only able to maintain a de-facto republic away from Georgian control only because of Russian help, first in the 90s and again in 2008. Some may say that perhaps amongst all the native people of the North Caucasus, the Ossetians were the only ones who have played it right in in Russia's centuries old game of divide and conquer.
But siding with the Russians also comes at a price. On 1st September 2004, the inhabitants at the sleepy town of Beslan, ten miles north of Vladikavkaz, would watch in horror at what cost that would come.
[Continue to my next article here - Beslan: 'We offer you peace, but the choice is yours.']
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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