On 22 September 2020, a large new Orthodox educational centre opened in the capital of the Russian republic of North Ossetia–Alania. At the opening ceremony, the head of the republic, Vyacheslav Bitarov, emphasised that the Ossetian people were associated with Orthodoxy through centuries-old traditions. That statement may have far-reaching consequences because in recent years, the region has been beset by a fight for primacy between the two leading religious groups in the region: Orthodox believers and local traditionalists. Although Russia has no official state religion, the question of faith cannot be separated from matters of political orientation towards Russia and local national identity.
In this tense climate, seemingly small incidents can have serious repercussions. In July 2019, a spat broke out over a comment shared on Facebook. Referring to an Orthodox procession that had just taken place, the little-known politician Roman Gabaraev wrote, ‘If only you [the Orthodox people] would get out of Ossetia with your icons, priests, relics, and all your other rubbish.’
The comment was posted in a group whose traditionalist members seek to re-create the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian faith. Their guidelines take a negative position towards Orthodox Christianity, which they see as one of the main tools for the assimilation of an ethnically non-Russian population. For these traditionalists, every version of Christianity is a non-Ossetian phenomenon.
Orthodoxy in Ossetia: de facto national religion or personal choice?
This concept of Orthodox Christianity contradicts the prevailing view of the Ossetians as the only Orthodox people of the North Caucasus. According to the official narrative, their ancestors—the Alans—adopted the Orthodox faith from Byzantium at the beginning of the tenth century. Today, the republic is preparing to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of the Alans’ adoption of Christianity. This image of North Ossetia–Alania as an Orthodox region is promoted not only by local Orthodox believers but also by the republic’s authorities. Until recently, the authorities diligently presented Orthodox Christianity as a common spiritual foundation for Russians and Ossetians to demonstrate their loyalty to Russia’s federal centre.
Many Orthodox believers in Ossetia soon became aware of Gabaraev’s Facebook comment. Within five days, an open letter from the Orthodox public to the head of the local diocese appeared and was widely distributed on social media. The letter called on the archbishop of Vladikavkaz and Alania, Leonid Gorbachev, to protect local Orthodox believers from the hostility of religious ethnic traditionalists.
In North Ossetia–Alania, Orthodoxy appears to be the de facto national religion. Yet unlike in many other regions of Russia, many locals perceive Orthodoxy not as the foundation of a national identity but as a matter of personal choice. For them, the republic’s authorities should not provide the Orthodox Church with special advantages in the public space.
But from the point of view of Orthodox activists, the church has every right to these advantages, as they show North Ossetia–Alania’s connection with the whole country. Meanwhile, in the opinion of Orthodox believers, in a context where the choice of Orthodoxy as a religion is an individual matter, the position of Orthodoxy depends on the changeable policy of the republic’s authorities.
Until recently, Vyacheslav Bitarov, had shown no special allegiance to Orthodoxy—unlike his predecessors. What Bitarov did demonstrate is adherence to ethnic traditions, including what some call the Ossetian popular faith: pilgrimage to local shrines and participation in ritual prayer meals.
Back to a primordial monotheistic faith?
Ethnic revitalisation movements, which have become more active in the republic since the late 2000s, interpret this traditionalist trend as ideological support for their advocacy activities. These activists enthusiastically seek to re-create the true Ossetian religion, which they see as primordial Aryan monotheism. The actions of these movements unequivocally imply a limited presence for Orthodoxy in the public sphere as a majority religion.
Local Orthodox believers understood Gabaraev’s words as a part of this policy, which allegedly had some government support. That made Orthodox activists and church representatives especially nervous. They are afraid that their church is losing its position in the republic. That is why, responding to the open letter and trying to take control of the situation, archbishop Gorbachev treated traditionalists’ criticism of Orthodox Christianity as an act of separatism: ‘I will not let the spiritual and state umbilical cord that links our great fatherland Russia to our small homeland Ossetia be broken.’
The local court punished Gabaraev for his statement with a small fine. He reacted by saying, ‘It’s not a big price to let Ossetians know that they have their own religion.’ For him and his associates, the struggle was not over.
A fundamental conflict continues
It was not over for archbishop Gorbachev, either. In a sermon in November 2019, he said that the ethnic Ossetian religion was a modern invention and that any claims about the Aryan roots of Ossetian traditions were complete nonsense.
An audio recording of this sermon spread quickly on social media and caused outrage among many, even moderate traditionalists. His dismissive statements about the invented genealogy of the ethnic Ossetian religion were interpreted as a lack of belief in the antiquity of the entire Ossetian culture.
Bitarov, meanwhile, remained unfazed. After all, the 1,100th anniversary of Christianity in North Ossetia–Alania is too serious a celebration to alienate Moscow. So in a gesture of peace to archbishop Gorbachev, he promised in July 2020 that the republic’s business community would help the diocese prepare for the celebration. These funds supplement money received from Moscow under a programme to reinforce the unity of the Russian nation. In the case of North Ossetia, it is clear that the money will be spent on demonstrating how Orthodox Christianity is rooted in the region.
On the frescoes of the temple in the new centre, many Ossetian historical events are presented in the framework of Orthodox Christianity. As a local journalist pointed out, ‘Looking at these frescoes, it becomes clear that Christianity is really the most traditional faith for Ossetians.’ So for now, the Orthodox diocese of Vladikavkaz and Alania is strengthening its position in the republic. In the short term, this success may help cover up the fundamental conflict over Ossetians’ religious identity, but it is unlikely to resolve it in the coming years.
Sergei Shtyrkov is a social anthropologist and an associate professor at the European University in St Petersburg. He is also a senior research fellow at the Department of the Caucasus of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), a research centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences.