Every killing is a treat, for the barrel-chested Ossete
— Osip Mandelstam, 1933
For a Westerner raised during the Cold War the figure of Joseph Stalin is most often associated with state terror under a brutal dictatorship. It can therefore be surprising to see his image today all over Ossetia, both North and South, and even more so to learn that many consider him to be an Ossetian national hero. Most impressive is a huge portrait painted on a boulder by the side of the road through North Ossetia’s Tsey Valley near a popular ski resort. The opposite side of the boulder bears a monumental image of Kosta Khetagurov (Oss. Khetagkaty Kosta), the father of modern Ossetian literature. Tamir Salbiev notes that we have here the ancient Indo-European pairing of the Poet and the Hero.
In South Ossetia, the main street in the capital Tskhinval is named for Stalin. His image can be seen all over the region, in the form of official statues as well as spray-painted onto walls and found on calendars, t-shirts and stickers on the rear windows of cars. On 27 April 2020 South Ossetian president Anatoly Bibilov signed a declaration reviving the name Stalinir, by which Tskhinval was known from 1934 to 1961, as an officially accepted “alternative name” for the South Ossetian capital.
Joseph Stalin (born Iosip Dhzugashvili in Gori, Georgia in 1878 when it was a part of the Russian Empire) is usually described as having been an ethnic Georgian, and he seems to have grown up in a Georgian-speaking household. I have not come across any evidence that he spoke Ossetian, although his native region had a mixed population in which Ossetes were present if not actually a majority so he certainly heard the language spoken and may have spoken it himself as well. DNA research has shown that he carried the G2a-Z6653 gene, which is considered to be distinctive to the Ossetes. But I have not seen anything to suggest that Stalin embraced an Ossetian identity on any level. Does the claim that he was an Ossete have any basis in fact?
Identity is an elusive concept having many layers, and never more so that today when it is taken as a human right that one may construct one’s identity however one wishes. The same may be said for projecting identities onto the past. (In the US the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has made a practice of “baptizing” many historical figures including most of the American Founding Fathers, retroactively turning them into posthumous Mormons.) The resulting claims are often contested, and one finds no lack of Stalin supporters today in Georgia as well as across the former USSR as well. But perhaps nowhere, even in Georgia, are feelings for Stalin as pronounced or as generalized as they are in Ossetia.
Positive attitudes towards Stalin among today’s Ossetes are not universal, however. In the words of a former member of the South Ossetian parliament, Roland Kelekhsaev, “Stalin is Ossetian, we consider him Ossetian, but he did nothing useful for Ossetia. We have witnessed the fact that South Ossetia was given to Georgia, and North Ossetia to Russia. The best representatives of the Ossetian intelligentsia were repressed. Ossetia was divided into northern and southern parts.”
The Dzhugashvili family almost certainly had an Ossetian component, and it is sometimes said that “Stalin’s paternal grandfather was an ethnic Ossete.” Intermarriage among the many diverse communities of the Caucasus has always existed, despite the region’s notorious tribalism, so the degree of importance one gives to any given ancestral element is to some extent at least a subjective affair. Perhaps in the end the matter of whether Stalin can be considered an Ossete or not is less a historical question than one of contemporary sociology and politics.