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The (New) State of Alania

A recent referendum renaming South Ossetia opened up the age-old topic about Alanian history and heritage in the Caucasus. From JAMnews.

by Mikhail Shevelev 24 May 2017

On 9 April 2017, in a referendum held simultaneously with the presidential elections, nearly 80 percent of South Ossetian voters supported the renaming of the country as the “State of Alania.”


The Alans are an Iranian-speaking ethnic group that founded, in the fourth century, a state at the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains that lasted until in the 13th century. The Mongols later conquered the territory, forcing the Alans to hide in the Caucasus Mountains.


More recently, following the brief Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, Russia officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, breakaway territories from Georgia proper, as independent countries. Georgia and its Western allies staunchly opposed Russia’s decision but could do little to reverse it, even though only a handful of other states have followed Russia’s lead in recognizing the territories.


Today, many historians consider modern Ossetians the descendants of the ancient Alans, while also stressing the noticeable Alan influence in the cultures of other Caucasian people.


Generally, the topic of Alanian heritage evokes an ambiguous reaction in the northern Caucasus. On one hand, some express a strong interest, as part of an attempt to find ideological support in their own historical roots after the disappearance of the chimeras of the Soviet era. On the other hand, skepticism abounds about the way politicians try to benefit from raising the issue.


North Ossetia, or the State of North Ossetia-Alania, was the first to use the name Alania officially. Its capital Vladikavkaz is full of mentions of Alans and Alania. These are particularly frequent on posters for upcoming folk concerts, which can compete in popularity only with adverts for micro-headphones for passing exams, which are plastered all over the walls of the university building. 


Ads in Vladikavkaz


One can also spot these words on the walls of a local soccer stadium where a team called FC Alania Vladikavkaz used to play. That has been history since the team went back to its previous name, “Spartak.”


In Search of Their Roots


However, the interest in Alanian heritage is genuine here. For example, Oleg, a middle-aged artist who sells his own and other paintings in the center of Vladikavkaz, eagerly tells you how far the ancestors of modern Ossetians ventured in their military campaigns. According to him, the names of the Russian rivers Don and Donets, as well as the European Danube, have Alanian roots.


The youth follow in the footsteps of the older generation. Young intellectuals from Ossetia, who were schooled in Moscow and Europe, have organized themselves in a Facebook group that often uses self-deprecatory humor. “Yes, there is something Alanian in us," they write. However, they do take the topic of discovering their roots seriously.


They say that they are primarily concerned with the preservation of their native language – also because the Ossetian history is not rich in material objects. According to UNESCO, the Ossetian language is disappearing.


The native language of the Ossetians has become the language of the street and at home over the past few decades. Russian has, meanwhile, become ever more important, and has taken over more important functions. Therefore, the current objective is to make the Ossetian language fashionable.


Young man wearing traditional Caucasian clothes


“It should be targeted at special audiences and made trendy – then everything will be fine,” the young people explain (in Russian).


Overall, the idea of creating the State of Alania on the territory of South Ossetia does not enjoy special support in South Ossetia. It speaks to neither the young nor the elderly, neither to intellectuals, nor to manual workers.


When asked about the referendum in support of Alania, people say they do not expect anything positive from the initiatives of the government. This one in particular is seen as a move aimed at attracting state money for new passports, stamps, and seals.


Young people are embarrassed when we attempt to discuss the topic. They feel uncomfortable to admit that they are hearing about it for the first time, ultimately saying something along the lines of “Actually, we are busy with exams now.”





In the North Caucasus, other ethnic groups claim the right to be called the descendants of the Alans too.


A short distance from Vladikavkaz, just across the border with Ingushetia, there is a newly built Alanian Gate, a project of Beslan Tschoyev, the mayor of Nazran, Ingushetia’s former capital, who is a big fan of the Alanian ancestry idea.


The gate is a solid brick structure standing in the middle of a road. It is beautiful but quite generic, and the reference to Alanian culture is not entirely clear. Installed near the city of Voronezh, such a gate could symbolize a return to Slavic roots; near Kazan, it would allude to Tartar roots.


The Alanian gate


The Karachays and the Balkars, two other Caucasus nations, have their own views about the Alans and their heritage in the Caucasus.


"We are the Alans, and the Alanian temples are ours. Take them away from us, and we will cease to be the Alans, we will lose our centuries-old heroic history and will turn into ‘Mankurts,’ people without a clan and tribe," Kazbek Chomaev, former chairman of the Congress of the Karachay People, once said.


A while ago, passions flared up in North Ossetia (staying, however, within the limits of decency) about an “Alan” song performed by Kabardian singer Omar Otarov. The song attempts to prove that Kabardians are the real Alans.


The song received a record number of comments in a popular North Ossetian Facebook group called “Magas and Dediakov,” after two ancient Alanian cities. This group is dedicated to an academic discussion about the Alans, their origin, and modern descendants. A few sample comments:


“The lyrics contain just one verse (out of 20) that doesn’t say the word ‘Alan,’ which is ridiculous. Scientists put so much effort into collecting every indirect mention of the Alans, while the song is simply filled to the brim with the word ‘Alan,’ and the academic world shows no reaction.”


“So what’s the song about? Judging by the translation, this is a call of an unknown speaker to his fellow tribesmen to go to war with some unknown ‘strangers from the sea’ that have ‘black blood.’ Who are these awesome people? The author of the post calls them Adyghes. Well, thankfully they’re not the orcs of Sauron.”


“This song about the Alans is sort of a meditation session: ‘Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan …’  This masterpiece of its genre has set a record for the frequency of using this word.” 


Mikhail Shevelev is a contributor to JAMnews, a news and analysis site based in the South Caucasus, where this article was originally published. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All photos courtesy of JAMnews. 

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