Monday, November 13, 2006
VLADIKAVKAZ: Few other parts of Russia are as closely guarded as the passes into the Caucasus, but when Ruslan Yenaldiyev looks up to the knife-like mountain range, his faith is not in tanks and satellites, but a bearded man on a white stallion. "I met a lad here not long ago who told me he'd seen the horse in the sky himself," businessman Yenaldiyev, 28, said after praying to the mysterious horseman, named Wasterzhi, at a sacred forest outside the city of Vladikavkaz. "It must be true." Yenaldiyev is one of the approximately half million Ossetians, an ethnic group whose ancestral lands rise from the plains to control two vital and heavily militarised mountain passes into Russia's US-backed southern neighbour Georgia. But holding the strategic key to the turbulent Caucasus-the name of North Ossetia's capital Vladikavkaz means "Ruler of the Caucasus"-is not all that makes the Ossetians unique.
Believed by scholars to descend from the ancient Scythians, an Iranian-speaking nomad tribe, the Ossetians still practice a pagan religion that has roots thousands of years old, but which has disappeared everywhere else. At the same time, Ossetians are nominally Christian. That means they stand out from the other native peoples of the multi-ethnic North Caucasus who are Muslim, a factor turning Ossetians into natural allies of the Russians during centuries of brutal tsarist conquest. "The Ossetians have a special role because of religion. They are also the only North Caucasus people who voluntarily joined the Russians," said Ruslan Bzarov, a historian at Vladikavkaz State University. "There is a sensation of being unique." But although Russians consider the Ossetians partners in a hostile region, few know about that bearded man on the horse, or much else about how different-and totally un-Russian-the Ossetians really are.
Yenaldiyev is Christian, like a majority of Ossetians, but at the same time believes firmly in a god named Khutsau, dated by scholars to an ancient religion practised by the Ossetians' Iranian ancestors, who later developed Zoroastrianism. So after he miraculously survived a recent car accident, Yenaldiyev went with friends last week to Wasterzhi's grove, a spellbound place where the tall beeches and other trees are considered sacred and not even a leaf or twig is allowed to be removed. As one of Khutsau's chief saints and protector of all Ossetians, Wasterzhi is popularly portrayed as an armoured knight riding through the sky on a white horse with prominent testicles. Legends of him appearing over mountains and villages are legion. "I came to give a great thank you," Yenaldiyev said after the ceremony, which revolved around mumbled prayers, drinking toasts, and eating three specially made cheese pies cut eight ways-a combination that Bzarov, the professor, said signifies "cosmic harmony."
The traditions of Khutsau and his saints-particularly Wasterzhi-have rebounded since the Soviet collapse, "as a symbol of freedom and unity of the Ossetian people," Bzarov said. On Wasterzhi's feast day thousands of people flock to the wood to slaughter bulls and rams and hold ritual celebrations at long tables under the trees. But being such a distinct group in the North Caucasus brings its own dangers to the Ossetians. The neighbouring Ingush, who are Muslim, bitterly complain that Moscow backed the Ossetians during a brief 1992 territorial conflict in which tens of thousands of Ingush were forced from their burning homes.
Then in 2004 North Ossetians became the victims when Chechen-led militants took hostage an entire school in the town of Beslan, resulting in the deaths of 332 people. Today, North Ossetia finds itself at the eye of a storm between Russia and Georgia as the separatist province of South Ossetia on the Georgian side of the Caucasus mountains tries to break away and unite with the north. The North Ossetian authorities threaten to intervene across the border if Georgia uses military force in South Ossetia. "Georgians were never warriors, so we're not afraid of them," said Alla Akhpolova, a spokeswoman for the North Ossetian interior ministry. However, the North Ossetians' status does not spare them the racist treatment frequently meted out by Russians to people from the Caucasus. "I was on a train once when a bunch of drunk Russians got on and attacked me," said Soslan Belikov, 30, also visiting the holy forest of Wasterzhi. "You can see the scar on my head. They said I was a Chechen. They make no difference. To them, we're all what they call 'black arses.'