Are traditions untouchable, or can they be modernised? The case of N. Ossetia
North Ossetia is actively discussing the issue of traditions: should traditions be preserved in their original form, or should the culture and mentality of the society, like the republic itself, be modernised?
We asked opinions from both sides.
One’s own way
Member of the Ossetian ensemble Huzamonga Giorgi Chikhaviev says traditions should be strictly followed without modification.
“World history shows that under the onslaught of modernity, it’s hard to resist the national culture. Traditional morals disappear – and they are replaced by, to put it mildly, atypical values for this particular society.”
As for Ossetian culture specifically, Chikhaviev says “the situation is deplorable, this is only 20 percent of the culture that the Ossetians once had.”
If we were to take what remains and to start adjusting it modern principles, there would be a risk of losing everything. Then we will no longer be Ossetians, we will be nobody
Chikhaviev agrees that modernity has positive sides as well.
However, “you need to pass everything through a certain filter – and that won’t work out for the Ossetians.”
“Why do we have to integrate? Why can’t we stick to our national course? We must remain Ossetians, speak our native language, know our traditions, culture, and customs. We are talking about this – and not about all of us walking about in long skirts and Circassian coats. You can wear a modern classic suit and stay Ossetian.
You do not need to isolate yourself from the world – you need to take from the world the best, the positive, but not everything.”
“Standing still means not developing”
JAMnews conducted a quick survey on Instagram with the question: “Is it more important to spend one’s efforts or to preserve traditional culture or modernize society?”
The opinion of Giorgi Chikhaviev was supported by 62 per cent of respondents, agreeing that the culture of an ethnic group must remain unchanged.
38 percent of respondents were in favor of modern approaches and values.
“Traditions simply cannot remain the same throughout the history of the people,” TV journalist Inna Makieva told JAMnews:
“Standing still means not developing, not getting better, not accepting progress. The values of the 19th century are, among other things, the blood feud, bride prices, the dedication of horses to the dead.”
Certainly, their traditions and culture are what distinguish Ossetians from Peruvians, and Germans from Japanese, but after all, even the language is changing under the influence of modernity, Makieva said.
The bride performs a ritual circle around the chain over the hearth in the groom’s house for Safa (the Ossetian patron of the family) to accept her. But now, thanks to technical progress, our houses are not heated by furnaces. And the chain does not belong to the bridegroom, it is rented.
So what’s the point of performing this rite?
“Attempts to reincarnate old traditions and rituals are unlikely to lead to something good. It looks more like a very bad provincial theater”, says Inna Makieva.
Dances and towers: the excesses of confrontation
Dancing is one of the most recognizable elements of Ossetian culture. Several dance groups regularly represent North Ossetia at international festivals.
And it seemed up until just recently that dancing cannot be a topic of controversy – until modern dance came along.
North Ossetian blogger Arthur Yenaldiyev and his friend Soslan Gabaraev filmed a video on New Year’s Eve – they performed the Ossetian folk dance Khong, standing on hoverboards, with hats and Ossetian flags.
The video caused a storm of emotions and disputes.
There were innocuous and even positive comments: “lazy hong”, “cool”.
But there was also a lot of aggression, insults and proposals to put the dancers “on the list for a bed in the madhouse”.
Another characteristic conflict between modernists and traditionalists occurred in connection with the arrival in April 2019 in North Ossetia, Kris Shelest, a popular Russian Instagram-blogger
She posted on her Instagram page with 700,000 followers a number of photos of ancient towers in the region. Some thanked her for the free tourism advertisement for North Ossetia.
But supporters of traditional culture were outraged by the girl’s outfit: she was wearing rather short shorts against the backdrop of the mountains.
Not only unflattering comments, but also threats poured into Shelest’s account.
Russian publications came out with headlines: “Inhabitants of Ossetia insulted and humiliated by blogger because of leggings.”
“The blogger caught in hate storm after pose in photo in the mountains of Ossetia.”
Later, Kris Shelest apologized to both Ossetian officials and many locals. She said that the threats and insults did not change her attitude towards the Caucasus.
But what is the opinion of her audience who watched the angry comments?
With joint efforts
Both the authorities and activists are engaged in examining what ‘national culture’ means in North Ossetia.
One of the most significant events in recent years was the creation of the first national television channel Ossetia-Iryston. It broadcasts around the clock, and the share of its own content, according to its website, is 60 percent.
It is important that this content is created mainly by young journalists, on whom the emphasis was put on the creation of a television station.
In addition to entertainment projects, television programs also broadcast cultural and educational programs, for example, lectures on various national traditions and the reading of the Narts epic. Many programs are in the Ossetian language.
Another important project contributing to the preservation of culture is the online library of books in the Ossetian language Bærzæfcæg. It has been around for about seven years, it has more than a thousand books which can be read for free.
There were also several mobile applications for the popularization of the Ossetian language and literature, one of them is Iron Chinyg (the Ossetian Book). There are audio performances and audio books – recordings of legends, as well as works of classics of Ossetian literature.
Also in the republic there are free courses on the Ossetian language, translated from Russian and with cartoons voiced in the language.
For many years to come?
“Even the smallest progress requires long years of painful maturation,” wrote the French writer Emile Zola.
The question as to whether progress brings death to a culture or, on the contrary, is the way to survive, largely causes an acute confrontation of supporters of different points of view because they hardly hear each other.
But since the disputes continue, is it possible to say that the process of reaching a compromise is underway?