How to Create a Scandal in Ossetia

For the past two months I have been subjected to a crash course in the realities of Ossetian life, specifically the nightmare of official bureaucracy. After Fatima and I married in January 2020 I applied for a residence permit since I intended to stay in Ossetia for at least a year in order to research my book. The process takes four months, however—not a day more and not a day less—and my visa was about to expire so we were forced to leave Russia. We returned in May, with much difficulty due to the pandemic, but instead of my residence permit I received a letter from the immigration office stating that it had been denied. We were in shock.

My paperwork, which took two months to assemble, had been in order, so we were at a loss to understand the reason for my rejection. After much investigation and confusion, through a number of people we finally came to understand that I had unknowingly neglected to observe a particular, unofficial Ossetian tradition when submitting my application…

Nevertheless, having given up more than a year’s salary in Canada, invested in an apartment in Vladikavkaz, and with Fatima being four months pregnant, we decided not to go down without a fight. We began by submitting letters to the Head of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, Vyachislav Bitarov, asking for his help. He ignored us. We contacted lawyers, who scoffed at us and said it was our own fault. (“That is how things work here,” said with a condescending sneer.) We sent a letter to Putin in Moscow. (His website promises a response within thirty days. We are still waiting.) All other avenues seemingly exhausted, Fatima took our case to social media. At last some movement! Within hours of posting our story on Facebook and Instagram, it had been viewed and shared thousands of times.

The vast majority of comments we received were overwhelmingly supportive. There were also many sarcastic references to government corruption, some suggestions that I might be a spy, and a few nasty insults directed at Fatima for marrying a foreigner. I don’t personally use social media, so the whole experience was quite eye-opening for me. Clearly in this day and age this is the most effective means for reaching people on a massive scale. It can also provide a unique, and sometimes surprising window into the psyche of a society. In this respect, the comments left on social media can serve as valuable data for a sociologically-minded researcher attempting to understand his subject. I provide a sample here:

“I don’t understand you. How is it possible to come from Canada to Ossetia? You and your future children have a golden ticket. Use it! Good luck.”

“Run away from here if you have the opportunity.”

“They let street scum live here but not respectable professors. Shame on our republic.”

“Kyrgyz and Chinese come to Russia, steal and rape but still get passports and it’s normal.”

“You were refused because you didn’t follow aghdaw (Ossetian traditions)—which means giving bribes.”

“He should have paid them from the start. Probably he doesn’t know that without paying bribes you can’t do anything here.”

“Where is our Ossetian hospitality? Laws are laws but we shouldn’t forget humanity.”

“He married an Ossetian and bought an apartment. What more does he have to do, give his right hand and his left kidney?”

“I WANT TO ASK RICHARD TO FORGIVE US. I FEEL ASHAMED FOR MY PEOPLE.”

“This is Russia, baby.”

“Our girls are the best.”

“We should thank him for doing us the honour of marrying an Ossetian and writing a book about us??”

  • “You are a snake.”

“Maybe he is a spy.”

  • “Yes, he wants to discover the recipe for Bavaria” (the beer company owned by Bitarov)

“He would do better to do research on Bavaria.”

“Ossetia can get by without his book. I wouldn’t trust him.”

“Half of the republic wishes they had your problems.”

“He came here because he failed in his own country.”

“Richard stay where you are. We’re coming to you. You’re gonna live in our house while my grandma is in Fiagdon.”

“I can help you find a job.”

“She should have married an Ossetian and not mixed her blood.”

“You shame us by marrying a foreign man. Chechen women never marry foreign men, and we shouldn’t let our women do it either. If you were my daughter I would disown you. Get the hell out of this country.”

“I support you with all my soul. Don’t pay attention to all the negative comments. They are just uneducated enemies of Ossetia. God bless you.”

One young woman with a sexy profile photo sent us a text exchange between herself and a senior politician whose name she neglected to completely white out (we recognized him as the head of a major political party):

Young woman: We should help these people!

Politician: Fuck. Why me?

Young woman: Because we are descended from Alans!

The heated public discussion over our situation did indeed garner the attention of the authorities, but not their sympathy. Instead, the next morning they ran an article in the government news outlet Abon (“Today”) denouncing me as a kind of criminal. The same afternoon Fatima and I were visited by a pair of agents from the Ministry of the Interior. In quite a friendly way, they let us know that the government was not happy about the furor our post had generated and even feared it could lead to civil unrest. They wanted Fatima to sign a document promising not to make any further posts, which she refused to do. We told them we were fed up and intend to leave the country.

We are tired of this. There is no more point in staying here. It was fun, until it wasn’t.

Published by Richard Foltz

Professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

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