Monday, August 11, 2008

Who Are the Ossetians?

The current war between Russia and Georgia is over South Ossetia, an autonomous region of Georgia that won de facto independence on the ground back in 1993, with some assistance from the Russians, who have had peacekeeper troops there since. There are some odd ironies to this war, including that one of the places most ferociously bombed in Georgia in the current campaign has been Gori, birthplace of Josef Dzhugashvilii, better known to the world as "Stalin." While he is usually thought of as being Georgian, and certainly mostly was, there has long been a rumor that he had Ossetian ancestry, even though during his rule, Osip Mandelstam was accused of "anti-Soviet slander" for mentioning this rumor (apparently initially spread by anti-Stalin Georgian nationalist emigres). The basis of it is that a paternal great grandfather apparently did come originally from a thoroughly Ossetian village, Geri. Of course it was Stalin who initially split Ossetia into two halves, making the northern part an autonomous region in the Republic of Russia and the southern one an autonomous region in the Republic of Georgia, within the broader Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Another matter of some controversy involves the origin and identify of the Ossetians, who would like to have their own country (and while Russia helps them in the south, there is now way that help will extend to the north). Their language is clearly of the Iranian branch of Indo-European, related to Farsi/Persian, as well as such languages as Kurdish, Peshto, and Tajik, among others. They are also clearly descended from the Alans, who ran a medieval kingdom in the region for several centuries, only coming to an end with the Mongol invasions of Chingiz Khan. The bigger controversy has to do with the origins of the Alans, with the official Soviet view being (and the most widely held one now) that they were either descended from or closely related to the ancient Scythians of the golden grave mounds. While this view became widely accepted after the beginning of the 19th century, it overturned a competing view that has had some recent advocates pushing for it that the Scythians were of Turkish origin. That view was originally expressed by Herodotus.


John Emerson said...

The Soviet view is correct. The Scythians were Northern Iranians like the Ossetes. The view that they were Turks, which I have not heard before, almost certainly originated with a Turkish nationalist of one kind or another, who misread something in Herodotus (who never mentioned Turks to my knowledge).

During the later periods Western writers randomly described the steppe peoples as Turks, Huns, and Scythians without much regard to the distinctions between them. The Scythians were known first, then the Huns, and finally the Turks (and Mongols, who also could be called Turks or Huns). said...


Not so obvious. The first time the claim was made that the Ossetians and Alans were related to or descended from the Scythians was only made in 1805 by a Polish linguist, after the Russians had first conqurered the territory (including Georgia). It fit their self-view to have the noble, ancient Scythians be Indo-Europeans rather than the enemy Turks, just as you are correct that today the most fervent advocates of the Turkish ancestry view tend to be Pan-Turanian nationalists. In any case, the view prior to 1805 was strictly that they were of some sort of Turkic origin, given that the Huns are also usually viewed as being at least semi-Turkic.

The balance of current opinion does seem to favor the old official Soviet view. However, if you do some googling on this you will find some pieces of evidence that do not fit with it and would fit with a Turkic origin view, especially the widespread nature of the Kurgan mounds. The Ossetians are clearly descended from the medieval Alans, but whether or not the Alans were descended or related to the earlier Scythians or not remains somewhat less than certain in my view (some sources list them as parallel, presumably coming from an earlier common ancestor, with the Sarmatians also being so listed: Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans).

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Anonymous said...

Another rumor about Stalin's background is that his "sire" was actually a local priest (see this and this)

So, whether he was Ossetian is up in the air. said...


Well, I do not know about his father, but Stalin was a seminary student when young and into Georgian nationalism. He would drop all that when he became a socialist.