Ten Days in Ossetia


ON a chilly June morning in 1918 the call of a maid roused me from a feverish sleep. After a hasty toilet, I shouldered my roll of blankets and a hand bag, and passed through the slumbering house out on to the deserted streets of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Terek district in the Northern Caucasus. The streets were deserted, with the exception of the scattered figures of the burgher guard. Only the murmur of the restless Terek woke the silence of the night.

Six mortal weeks had I vegetated in this pretty town, whither I had come on my way from Bolshevist Petrograd to Socialist Tiflis. My place had been taken in the diligence for Tiflis; but the Turks had begun their advance on the city the day before I was to start, and I had deemed it the part of wisdom to wait a bit and see what would ensue. The Turkish advance had been stopped, but the Transcaucasian federation had broken up. Three independent republics, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia had taken its place, and 5000 Germans had entered Tiflis.

At length I got word that I might come to Tiflis and work over my Georgian manuscripts without molestation; but by this time the conditions on the ordinary route — the Georgian military road — had become very unsafe. The Ingushi, — a branch of the Chechens, — who live on the foothills to the east and north of Vladikavkaz, were plundering all travelers, and those who got through to Tiflis left everything save their underclothes en route. I had no great objection to losing my garments, but I did not wish to lose my notes.

From this impasse I was rescued by the arrival of an Ossete friend, whom I had known well in Petrograd. The Ossetes are a tribe of Iranian origin, who dwell on the slopes of the Caucasus chain, in the valleys of the Ardón and the Digor on the north, and in that of the Djava on the south slope. He arranged that I should make the trip in the company of a cousin of his. This meant that I could undertake the trip without risk, and also that, in case the Teutons were too inquisitive, I could withdraw quietly and effectually.

My companions were three in number: Imprimis, Ivan Antonich Khetagurov, a native Ossete, once a priest and now a horse-trader. He was large and well built, slow-moving, deliberate and sage in manner, with a mass of long brown hair brushed back in a wave from his forehead. The others, his wife and her sister, round-faced, browneyed and -haired Ossete women, with sweet and gentle faces and plaintive expressions.

At about six A.M. there came to the door what the Russians call a telega: in other words, four elastic poles laid over axles, on which one sits sidewise, after the fashion of an Irish jaunting-car. Our baggage, plus one hundred pounds of flour, was placed in the middle, and we disposed ourselves upon it in attitudes as comfortable and artistic as the bad roads and the timid horses would permit.

Our way led over an open plain, dotted with innumerable barrows of the bygone races who had fought and died for the possession of the ‘Caucasian Gates.’ Here and there were patches of green Indian corn; but for the most part it was open pasture land, which stretched out toward the low hills that hedge in the caldron-like valley of Vladikavkaz on the north, while on the south the gigantic mass of Mt. Kazbék clove the horizon.

Out of the distance there gradually appeared a line of willows; behind the willows, orchards; and ultimately we bounced into the shady streets and luxuriant orchards of the town of Ardón. It is an Ossete custom not to eat in the morning: a highly laudable one, but painful till one becomes inured to it. By the time we had drawn up in the yard of a relative of Ivan Antonich’s, I felt that food was desirable. We were received with acclaim by a numerous family, and after a short wait were honored with an Ossete collation — bread, salt cheese, young onions, cucumbers, and beer. Ossete beer is not bad, but entirely lacks carbonic-acid gas. It takes time to get used to it.

About four o’clock we left, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, and rode southwestward over a trackless, grassy plain, to Alagír, our destination for the night. The horses, which had trotted briskly enough in the morning, began to show signs of fatigue. A vigorous conversation in Ossete on the part of my companions elicited the fact that our postillion had neglected to feed them; furthermore, the money which was to have been expended for corn had gone into the driver’s pocket. The beasts began to go slowly and yet more slowly, and at last we were forced to lead them by turns, which involved taking a mud-bath all round. We rolled into Alagír as the night fell.

Alagír is a place that is famed for its pears, and the whole village is embowered in a jungle of fruit trees.

Next morning we started for our initial destination, the village of Zaramág, high up in the mountains. To obtain what in Russian parlance is termed a phaetón proved impossible, and we were obliged to charter a conveyance, hight brichka-Americanice, a prairie schooner, quite innocent of springs.

Our line of march was the Ossete military road, which runs from Ardón to Kutaís in western Georgia. The road has had no military importance for a considerable period and its condition leaves much to be desired.

The prairie schooner bounced from rock to rock, and we tried in vain, by cutting branches and grass, to form some sort of cushion to avoid the shocks.

The road was divinely beautiful all the way. We followed up the valley of the Ardón and soon passed into a gradually narrowing gorge, clothed to the very summit of the cliffs with a luxuriant deciduous verdure. At length the great limestone crags in places almost perpendicularly overhung the rushing brown waters of the river. Every little nook and cranny in the cliffs was filled with vegetation. Great masses of rock campanulas depended from the cliff sides; ferns and cryptogams crowded every reachable crevice. The road ran, for the most part, high above the torrent, but now and again descended almost to its borders.

Of travel there was little. Now and then we met a man on horseback, or foot-passengers, for the most part loaded with sacks of corn, which they were carrying into their homes in the mountains. The Caucasian chain for the most part is densely populated, and the arable land is not sufficient to raise grain for the population. In normal times they exchange their products, such as cheese, butter, wool, and wood, for grain from the plains. In other cases, they take service and send home their wages, with which their relatives purchase the extra food needed. With the dislocation of transportation all over Russia, however, normal traffic has been interrupted. Hence those who need grain must needs fetch it for themselves.

This mighty gorge extended for almost one third of our day’s journey — thirty-six miles; then we passed into a strip of territory almost waterless and barren. Sage brush and aromatic vegetation, such as is characteristic of semiarid countries, took the place of the luxuriant foliage of an hour before. The huge cliffs gave place to steep slopes covered with scrub and sparse grass. After passing a silver mine, we came to an Ossete aúl (village), where for the first time we had a close view of the towers and fortifications that are peculiar to these places. One was reminded of San Gimignano. Square, fairly lofty towers, pierced with loopholes, rose from many of the houses; and on the opposite side of the precipitous river-bank, with a seething caldron of brown foam beneath, refuges were plastered on the face of the cliff like gigantic swallows’ nests of masonry. They could not be reached from above, because the cliffs jut out, and from below ascent was almost impossible. The only thing that could eject the inhabitants would be modern artillery.

From this point our way rose into the subalpine belt. The vegetation once more became luxuriant, but the character of the flora was changed to a considerable extent. Great Caucasian lilies lifted their fairylike green stalks, crowned with a magnificent series of golden trumpets, to a height of sometimes eight feet. Campanulas of the Alpine type made the fields and roadsides blue. Huge pink cleomes clustered among the shrubs like a swarm of gigantic rosy wasps; while among the watercourses the ghostly devils’ helmets of the white aconite danced and nodded in the fresh breeze.

Our party had been increased by a new member at Alagír. This was a relative of Ivan Antonich’s wife, a Bolshevist by persuasion, an engineer by profession, who was on his way to Georgia to agitate among his fellow countrymen there. He had an agreeable baritone voice, and sang Ossete songs to us. I remember a sad and plaintive chant about a maid whose lover was poor but valiant. During his absence on a foray, her parents forced her to wed another. On her way to her new home she met her lover and leaped with him from a dizzy precipice into the brown waves of the Nar.

Now and again a horseman would catch up with us, enfolded in the stiff and voluminous burka (felt mantle), with astrakhan cap and the inevitable rifle and dagger. One of these cavaliers had been in America, and asked me a series of naïve and touching questions about the growth and well-being of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he had resided for a considerable time.


The third stage of our trip led us through an open Alpine valley, without any large vegetation save scattered groves of conifers here and there on the slopes. Our destination, as I mentioned, was Zaramág, a point on the Ardón where five rivers meet, so that it makes a natural centre from which to start to cross the main chain of the Caucasus. After thirteen hours of most excessively tiring bumping over the uneven road, we came in sight of the ruined castle that overlooks the scattered village. Our brichka very nearly went into one of the smaller rivers, through a plank breaking on the bridge as we went over; but, rather by good luck than good driving, the accident was averted.

I had had letters of recommendation to an Ossete, a relative of my friend in Vladikavkaz, whom one might call the squire of the town. On arriving at Zaramág, however, I found that he lived across the river, and that to make the trip that evening was somewhat difficult. ‘Where shall we stay then?’ was my query. ‘At the first house we come to,’ was the answer. ‘Really,’ thought I, ‘are the Ossetes as hospitable as that?’ I had heard much of Ossete hospitality, but had deemed the tales to be somewhat exaggerated.

True enough, at the first house we reached, the owner rushed out and led our bullocks almost by force into the court, while we ourselves were invited to enter the house. The dwelling was a one-story affair. The roof, flat and covered with earth, was supported by roughly hewn beams and trunks of trees. In the interior, with the exception of what we would call the parlor, there was no floor except the hard trampled earth. The structure was without a chimney, and without windows, barring one in the living-room.

We were seated in state in this latter room, on Ossete chairs hewn with an adze out of a tree-stump, while our host and hostess stood before us. Such is the Ossete custom. No one except an elder of the village is allowed to sit in the presence of a guest, until the guest practically forces him to do so. If the Ossete is a young man, he will not do it even then.

Our host expressed his deep regret that he had no calf or goat or sheep that he could kill for us, and asked our pardon while he made inquiries in the village to find one, but in the course of an hour he returned without any sort of ruminant.

By this time I began to wonder what we were going to get to eat. A fourteenhour trip, and on scanty luncheon, had created an appetite.

The ladies of our party, immediately on entering the house, had collapsed on the bed and sunk into a deep stupor. We men waited and waited, and finally in came the hostess, carrying a small table, octagonal in form, whereon were a number of what looked like monstrous griddlecakes on a large copper plate. These were symmetrically cut into triangular sections, were steaming hot, and exhaled a most appetizing odor. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘Hot khachapuri,' was the answer. ‘What is in it?’ was my next query. ‘Cheese,’ they responded.

Then our host, whose name was Siqóëv, appeared with a bottle in one hand and a ram’s horn in the other. This was my introduction to Ossete araq on its native heath. Ossetia drinking is a serious affair, most carefully regulated by etiquette; and to infringe the custom is a sign of the very greatest ill-breeding. The order of toasts is immutable. First the host drinks your health, then you drink the host’s, then he drinks to the health of your relatives, and you drink to the health of his. Next a toast is drunk to the health of those relatives who are absent, both his and yours; then a bumper for the benefit of those Ossetes who are on the great road, that is, not in their native homes. Finally you drink to the health of your host’s wife, and after that you are free to drink as you please. If these toasts were drunk in beer, one could put up with it; but that is not good form. A man drinks them in araq, which is nothing more or less than corn whiskey of noticeably inferior quality, heavily freighted with fusel oil. After ten tumblers—or rather, ram’s horns —of this particular beverage, one is inclined to sleep.

Cheese-cakes and araq were all we had; but the quantity of these we disposed of would not have disgraced a squad of rookies.

We camped down for the night on the earth-floor of the hut, blankets and quilts being spread for us. The permanent inhabitants of the house were reasonably numerous; but fatigue and corn whiskey made me impervious to any kind of minor discomfort.

Next morning I crossed the river to Tsmi, where I met my new host, Ilikò Khetagúrov. Ilikò was a typical Ossete, tall, slender, broad-shouldered and thin-hipped, with a grizzled goatee beard, rather low forehead, aquiline nose, and black eyes, and with the formal, somewhat pompous yet courtly manners peculiar to the Caucasus mountains. He was fairly well educated, and had for a considerable time been a clerk in a regimental chancellery. Hence he had a good command of Russian. As the best-known man and roadmaster of the district, it fell to his lot to entertain most of the guests passing through the country. This an Ossete will do, should he bankrupt himself a dozen times in the process.

Ilikò’s house was arranged more according to the European plan than those of most of his neighbors. It was a two-story affair, while bed linen, wall paper and European chairs put the stamp of civilization upon it.

With Ilikò I spent almost a week, becoming very friendly with him and with his two younger sons. By these latter I was called in as consulting expert to suggest some sort of cosmetic for his daughter, calculated to improve her complexion; went trout-fishing; hunted thieving cats with a Mauser revolver; wrote down Ossete words, collected superstitions, and consumed an indefinite amount of hot goat’s milk and corn whiskey, and generally led an active life.

The Ossetes are nominally Christians, but Christians only after a fashion. They take the Christian religion easily, in so far as it does not interfere with their customs, and the priests have been wise enough to go with the stream and not to strive against it. Christianity has not succeeded in eradicating either blood feuds or sacrifices, as we shall see later on. Here is the story of how Ilikò met the devil.

It was when I was a very young man, about one-and-twenty, and I was returning from the southern slopes of the Caucasus chain to my father’s home in the valley of the Nar. I had intended to make an earlier start than I did, so as to get across the pass and down into my own village before sundown; but I was delayed, and it was already dark when I reached the top of the pass. Like all the passes on the northern side of the mountain, it has a very sharp drop for a considerable distance, then an easier slope continues the way down.

Although it was very dark, and the valley had a bad reputation, still I was not particularly afraid, for I had made the trip many times and knew every foot of the way. After a prayer to Saint Michael, protector of travelers, I started down the hill. At the foot of this steep slope that I mentioned there is a little mountain meadow, perhaps fifty yards in diameter and almost circular. I had just got down to the edge of this meadow, when I saw before me a shadow moving in the darkness. I looked at the shadow carefully, and I saw that it was a man dressed in a black burka; but this man was of no human stature. He was as high as a tall man seated on horseback, and a head more than that. His back, however, was toward me.

When I saw him, I stopped for a moment and wondered what I should do. To return up the pass was not safe; to go around the meadow was dangerous, for I knew that, if I looked on his face, it would mean bad luck; so I grasped my rifle tightly, and stepped slowly forward, keeping both eyes glued on the figure. As I stepped forward, the figure moved on in advance of me across the little meadow, and with every step that it took, it grew slightly shorter in size, so that it at length became the size of a very tall man, of a woman, of a tall boy, of a young boy, and then of an infant that can only just walk. By this time we had crossed the meadow and I saw it no more.

I was not very much worried, for I knew in general that devils haunted that valley, but that they did not bother people for the most part. I continued down the hill and finally came to a village where one of my aunts lived. Here I waited in uncertainty as to what I should do. I did not wish to go up and knock at the door, for I knew that, should I see a light, I should lose consciousness, so I stood around and waited. Fortunately my aunt happened to come out of the house. I went up and spoke to her; she invited me to come in, but I said, ‘No, I will sleep on the porch here; bring me out a mattress and quilt.’

In the morning I told my relatives about it, and they said I was most fortunate. If the devil’s face be turned away, the sign may mean either good or bad, or it may mean nothing at all. Should, however, his face be toward you, it means you will die within the year. Sometimes, though very, very rarely, one sees a man clad in a white burka, and that is a great and unusual sign, and it means that he who sees it will be happy his whole life through.


My next move after leaving Tsmi was to cross the main chain on horseback and come down to Georgian territory, into the town of Tskhinváli. As my former traveling companion, Ivan Antonich, was to make this trip, I decided to wait until he could go, and this circumstance gave me the opportunity of being the guest of honor at an Ossete religious festival, as they call it, a quvd. This festival was in honor of the Archangel Michael; he, and Gabriel, Saint George, and the prophet Elijah, are the four chief figures in the Ossete religion. In this quvd took part the inhabitants of five villages, all situated in the Nar valley, or in those of its affluents. The village by which I was invited passes under the euphonious name of Dzatskh, and is situated on the steep hillside of the river Dzrug, which flows into the Nar a mile above Tsmi.

The road from Tsmi led up a hill at an angle of about sixty degrees, and the sun, in spite of an altitude of over six thousand feet, baked like an oven. I finally reached the top of the spur, to find a large number of Ossetes clustered about in the shade of a flourishing grove of white birch trees.

Here I was greeted with acclaim by the assembled multitude. A number of rough shelters had been constructed out of birch branches, and covered with burkas and hides of sheep and cattle. Scattered round on the luxuriant greensward were a number of mammoth caldrons, of the type in which, according to comic pictures, the cannibals used to boil their victims. Under a number of these fires were burning, and in them quarters of sheep and cattle were cooking.

I was led under one of the shelters, and we sat around and conversed on general topics. The Ossetes are much interested in what goes on in the outside world, as economic interests and frequent migration lead them to keep closely in touch with it. Many of them had spent considerable time in various large Russian centres, and quite a number of the younger men had finished the Gymnasia at Vladikavkaz or other places. Only the elderly men and guests of honor were allowed to sit under the shelters. The younger men stood around and attended to their seniors’ wants.

The view was entrancing. To the south of us extended the long spur that joins the main chain of the Caucasus; to the left and the right lay the tremendous valleys of the Nar and the Ardón, dominated to the eastward by the soaring symmetrical snow pyramid of the Tépli, and to the westward by the gigantic mass of the Adáï-khokh, like a primeval Ossete nart (Titan) framing in his gigantic arms a snowy beard of rivers and serac-cut glaciers.

Far, far below us we could see the tiny hill of Zaramág, crowned with its ruined castle.

After resting a bit, I was invited to go up and visit the shrine. It stood just at the crest of the mountain, a small, oneroom, stone-walled, roofed and vaulted structure, with a rude altar inside made out of a single block of stone, and walled around outside by a breast-high stone wall of unhewn boulders. The outside of the structure and the fence were decked with the bleached bones and horns of the Caucasian deer, tur (Ibex Caucasicus), bear, and others; here and there a rotten fragment of skin clung to the stones.

The two oldest men of each village in turn went into the enclosure, first, however, removing their shoes. Here they offered up a prayer, which I had repeated to me and translated, but which proved to be extempore in each case. It expressed the thanks of the village to the Archangel for the good he had sent them during the past year, and expressed a desire that this grace might be continued in the future. Then they withdrew and joined the main body. Not here was there a sign of the Christian religion, whether in emblem or in ritual.

The Archangel Michael is a weighty figure in the Ossete Pantheon. He is the bringer of rain and the protector of travelers. Ilikò recounted to me that his intercession had never failed to bring rain in time of drought, and related one instance of this from his own experience.

‘I was attending a quvd in the Tsmi valley at the end of a fearful drought. We were just about to return home, when I had a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of something bright and golden flashing through the air away from our peak to a neighboring one. I spun round, and saw a figure whirling sidewise through the air, like a great dragon-fly, glistening as if it were covered with golden scales. Just as it reached the other crest, there was a stunning clap of thunder, and a fearful rainstorm began.’

After prayers, a meeting was called of all present to discuss whether or not a squadron should be raised to prevent Bolshevist incursions into the country. In the meantime the meat was cooking; when it was sufficiently boiled, the caldrons were tipped over and the broth poured out into flat wooden basins very much like old-fashioned chopping-bowls. Into each of these a handful of coarse salt was thrown, and then they were handed to each in turn, to drink from. It was not an easy job, for they weighed nearly twenty pounds and the size of the circle made it incumbent on one to tip it very gingerly, else a warm stream was likely to go down one’s neck. The size of the basin, however, made it possible for each man in turn to touch his lips to a different part of the rim. The meat was then extracted from the caldrons and cut up with kinjals (Caucasian daggers). Beer and araq were then produced, and the feast began.

There was a cold breeze blowing, and by requesting various younger members of those present to drink certain toasts in my stead, I succeeded in staving off undue indulgence until the time came for me to leave, in order to get back to Tsmi before darkness fell. Then I found to my dismay that, before I could depart, I would have to drink a parting toast with the inhabitants of each of the five villages in turn, and also try some of their very special beer, which had been brewed for the occasion. Five tumblers of corn whiskey, plus two of beer, was a bad foundation for a walk down the almost vertical drop that led to the valley of the Nar. In some cases, however, a special providence looks out for the traveler, as well as for other categories of humanity, and I reached Tsmi without untoward incident.

The next morning I said my goodbyes to Ilikò, and started for Dzatskh, whence I was to take my departure over the main chain. We were held up a day in view of the fact that a fourth horse could not be found.

I did not much regret the delay, for the situation of the village was entrancing. There were only eight houses, which were stuck like swallows’ nests on the precipitous hillside. Waving fields of grain covered every available inch of earth. Above the ravine swayed a cool gray-green pine and larch forest, above which the white shoulder of the Tepli pierced the heavens. The houses rose in terrace form, and here I sat and smoked with the elders, while the boys ran back and forth with smouldering branches, to coax the reluctant pipes into a blaze once more.

When the time came to start, there was no saddle for my horse, and it was necessary for me to do the next twelve miles bareback. We turned up the valley of the Dzrug, on which Dzatskh is situated, and made our way up a narrow gorge, filled with luxuriant and supremely beautiful Alpine vegetation: part of the way among the boulders of the river-bed, and then again high up on the slopes.

As we ascended, the valley gradually opened out and terminated in two great cirques, or, semicircular valley-heads. At this point, abutting directly on the main chain, there was a large aúl, also called Dzrug, where we spent the night.

On starting from Dzatskh we had had no breakfast and only a slice or two of bread and some cheese on the way up, so that, by the time we got to Dzrug, my appetite would not have disgraced a wolf. And I was not displeased to note a sheep killed for our benefit. As a mark of particular esteem, the beast’s throat was cut in our presence, and the animal was flayed before us. The titbits, such as the heart, tongue, liver, and sweetbread, were roasted on a spit. The rest of the sheep was boiled whole. The inevitable araq and khachapuri made up the balance of the meal, which was shared by most of the village as well.

It is amazing how rapidly the human stomach can accommodate itself to a prandial arrangement of this type, and likewise how valiantly a man can eat under such circumstances. I estimate that I devoured about one quarter of the sheep at that sitting.

The next morning we were under way about nine o’clock, this time with a saddle beneath me. The trail led along the farther cirque, through magnificent Alpine meadows covered with a dainty mosaic of white valerian and pink pyrethrum, and zigzagged upward along a rocky slope covered with marvelous electric-blue gentians of a type which I had thought peculiar to the Engadine. Here and there low patches of Caucasian rhododendrons, with their beautiful cream-colored corymbs and dark green foliage, were visible. We crossed the tail of several snowdrifts, and swung round a small snow-lake, then zigzagged up a steep snow-slope to a narrow flat shale ledge at the top, whence we beheld the upper waters of the Rachá River and the rolling forestcovered foothills, which slope down into the plains of Georgia. Far to the southward the tree-clad slopes of the AntiCaucasus blocked the horizon, shimmering in the haze of the noonday sun.

We were continually meeting travelers, all of whom were laden with sacks of corn, which they were bringing up from the lower levels.

The southern slope of the pass was formed by a tremendous slide of shale covered with masses of purplish brown fritillarias. It dropped almost perpendicularly for three thousand feet or more, and down it the path swung. We scrambled down into a luxuriant valley, abounding in rank Alpine vegetation, into which numerous cascades dashed. Here we stopped at a spring to eat, washing down our simple food with cold water sucked up through the stems of burdock leaves.

Our way led down the river for several miles, then climbed the eastern slope of the hills; and after swinging round several spurs, dropped down into one of the affluents of the Jáva River. The vegetation had already changed from subalpine to that of the lower levels — Caucasian azaleas, and mullein, wild cherry, chestnut, and spruce, which last we had not seen at all upon the northern slopes.

Toward sundown we reached a small Ossete village called Tli, wedged into a deep ravine, where we stayed for the night. Going on the next morning, we discovered that our hospitable hosts had extracted from our pack during the night about half the bread that I had had baked for the trip. This infringement of Ossete custom made my companions extremely angry, and they declared that they would spread the story far and wide among their compatriots on their return.

The rest of our journey lay through thickly forested valleys, in and out over small spurs, through broad sunscorched meadows to the river Jáva, which we reached at the village of the same name. Here again my foreign appearance caused considerable excitement, and we were forced to attend a village meeting, at which I was requested to show my passport: some of the inhabitants were of the opinion that I was Prince George Machabéli in disguise. The said esquire had been, that spring, dispossessed of his estate, which lay not far from Tskhinváli, just on the edge of Ossete territory. When, however, the land committee went to take possession of the estate, the prince and his retainers met them with a machinegun, and the committee returned home in a somewhat perforated condition. My passport, however, with its red American seal, produced the desired effect, and we continued our trip without incident to Tskhinváli, where with cordial leave-taking, I parted with my two companions to complete my journey by a four-hour drive to the railroad at Gori.