Will He Write a Book About the Ossetes?

Strangely, the author of this article did not actually contact me to ask what answer I would give. However, since many others have written us asking the same thing, I will reply that at this point I truly do not know. I am legally bound by my contract with my British publisher to write it, but as I hope anyone will easily understand, after the shocking and unjustified treatment I received from the government of North Ossetia-Alania I cannot say that I now have any motivation or desire to do so. My last days in Ossetia, during which Fatima and I were hounded and threatened by MVD agents and others, were very stressful. For now we are happy simply to be safe and able to get on with our lives after these nightmarish events. 

Certainly it will be impossible now to write a book in the way that I intended. I had approached the project with a heart full of love, and that love has now been brutally crushed. If I do write a book about Ossetia, it will be more objective now, but probably not as fun or as interesting to read. I won’t hold up the Alans as some kind of cultural heroes or waste any more time making impassioned pleas for the world to recognize South Ossetia. If I write the book now it will probably be considered more “scholarly”, but I have never been very interested in writing “scholarly” books per se. Scholars are not supposed to show passion or feeling, but personally I enjoy books only when they possess these qualities. Many scholars are content to write merely based on what they read in written documents, but I have always felt that it is important to live and experience a culture before daring to write about it. That is why I was so excited to spend—as we had planned—nearly two years living in Ossetia, something no Western scholar had ever done before. I was going to immerse myself in Ossetian life, try to learn the language, even learn to play the fændyr. What I did learn about Ossetian culture over the past few weeks, I wish I did not know.

I was forced to leave Ossetia after a total of only seven months, most of which I spent going from one government office to another, dealing with sour-faced bureaucrats whose major goal is apparently to prevent people from getting anything done. First it was ZAGS (the registry bureau), who set up every obstacle possible to me and Fatima getting married even though I had spent a month making sure we had all the required paperwork in hand. At one point they actually screamed at us to go and get married in Canada. We could not understand why they were making things so difficult. Everyone told us they wanted money, but no one at ZAGS ever asked us for this directly. Since we are not required to give bribes to government bureaucrats in North America, I have no idea how the process is done. Eventually we went over their heads and managed to get married, after more than a month of struggle.

Then it was time for me to apply for a residence permit. Again, a long and complicated process, but when we submitted my paperwork we were told everything was in order. Although my visa was soon to expire, I could not understand why after marrying a citizen I had to leave the country to wait for my residence permit to be processed, since no other country does this as far as I know. But we left, and ended up spending a total of eight weeks quarantined in a hotel room because of COVID. What a honeymoon!

We looked forward so much to returning to Vladikavkaz, getting my residence permit, and starting our new life together. The shock when we received a rejection letter instead was devastating. Vladikavkaz was our home, and now we were being told we had to leave? I had nowhere else to live, having sold my house in Canada and spending over three million rubles to buy an apartment in Vladikavkaz which I believed would be a home to me for the rest of my life, including summer vacations after I returned to teach in Canada and maybe even my eventual place of retirement. 

We spent the next three months trying everything possible to salvage the future we had planned. Only after all else had failed, did we finally go public by sharing our story on social media. This finally got the attention of the authorities who had been ignoring us, but instead of using their capacity to solve the situation they chose instead to escalate it into a huge public scandal by digging in their heels and spreading lies. 

We still cannot understand the real reason why my application was rejected. Since the “un-official” official story is now that “the true reason is very serious and cannot be revealed, even to a government minister”, which is complete and utter nonsense, we are left only with the explanation that so many Ossetians have given us, which is that it is about money. Again, not being sufficiently familiar with the culture I cannot know whether this is true or false, but so far no other plausible explanation has been offered. If there is one, we are still waiting to hear it.

I am neither a political scientist nor a journalist and have no desire or intention to write a book about official corruption and Cold War paranoia. If I do end up writing a book about Ossetia it will be an attempt to give the interested reader a general introduction to the history and culture of the Ossetes, from their roots going back to the ancient Scythians and Sarmatians through the medieval Alan period and up to the present day. Such a book is very much needed in the English-speaking world, and I very much doubt that anyone else will write it. Maybe with time I will recover some of the excitement and motivation that I felt up until a few weeks ago. I hope so.

It is very rare for a Western scholar to come to Ossetia to do research, so those who are in charge of academic institutions there may perhaps be forgiven for not fully grasping the basics of how visiting scholars are generally hosted in the world. They should understand that a visiting researcher has two essential needs, without which doing research is practically impossible: 1) a recognized affiliation with a local scientific institution, and 2) access to libraries. Scholars tend to value their dignity and do not like to ask for favours, so it was quite painful for me to have to ask repeatedly for these two things throughout the entirety of my stay in Ossetia. Sadly, I never received either.

During my time in Ossetia I was invited to restaurant dinners a few times and gave a half dozen or so lectures. I was taken to Dargavs and Tsey, and one colleague was kind enough to host me in his home in Tskhinval on two occasions. Almost every scholar I met gave me a signed copy of his or her own book. But without an institutional affiliation I was left utterly defenceless in the face of malicious officials. Bullies always look over your shoulder to see who is standing behind you, and if they see no one, then they know that they can do with you as they please. The bullies in the immigration office looked over my shoulder and saw no one. And without library access I could not do any documentary research. I hope that if any foreign researcher ever has the temerity to try to work in Ossetia after what happened to me, his Ossetian colleagues will take these conditions to heart and make sure that he or she has a more successful experience than I did.

Postscript: Yesterday the press officer for the President of South Ossetia announced that they are considering giving me citizenship. We immediately sent word that while we are grateful for this consideration, they need not trouble themselves further. I do not feel safe at this point even transiting through Russia, which means that we can have no intention of returning to either of the Ossetias for the foreseeable future.

Published by Richard Foltz

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

3 thoughts on “Will He Write a Book About the Ossetes?

  1. I am sorry for negative experience you and Fatima have had. However, I suppose there have been a lot of positive emotions as well, you have met your love and you have dug deep into Ossetian culture and language. I do hope that you will finish your book on the Ossetes. The world, culture, scholarship, future need it. And you are the only living person in the world who can really do this.

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  2. I cannot tell you how much I regret this situation. In the last months your posts had become an inspiring source of first-hand information about Ossetia in English. I feel sorry that your stay in the country has ended this way. Anyway, please try to keep the good side (your wife, your coming child, the nice people you met and everything you liked and loved of the country and decided you to try a new life there). Hope you and your family will be able to overcome these circumstances, wish you and Fatima the best

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  3. Absolutely devastating. I’m terribly sorry to hear this, but unfortunately have only my emotional support to give. Good luck with your endeavors!

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