The revival of Orthodoxy in North Ossetia is nothing short of miraculous. Translated below are just a few of the stories that are being played out in ordinary lives of a nation returning to God. First written in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, then posted on Pravoslavie.ru, and now reposted here, this article will hopefully give a glimpse into these stories. As it is machine translated, we apologize in advance for any errors.
Image: Alanian Dormition Monastery, Kurtati Gorge. Khilikus, Kurtati Gorge
By Alexey Reutsky
North Ossetia is the tip of the iceberg of Indo-European civilization in the Caucasus, stretching deep into the ocean of history. Churches and sanctuaries, rock fortresses and watchtowers, the ruins of ancient cities and clan vaults in the mountains and gorges, fascinating in their beauty, are all visible traces of the vanished country, whose name is Alania. According to church legend, Christianity was preached to the Alanians by the Apostles Andrew the First Called and Simon the Zealot, the names of Alani saints shine in the host of martyrs of the early Middle Ages. In the XVIII century, after the accession to Russia, the Orthodox faith became a linking thread between the two peoples. Today descendants of ancient Alans build churches, serve their neighbours, do social work, keep the memory of those who suffered for their faith and fight for divine services in the Ossetian language, which they see as a source of spiritual enlightenment of their people. The article was published in the "Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate" (#9, 2022).
Churches and people
In North Ossetia, most churches in the post-Soviet period are built and restored on the initiative of ordinary people and with private donations. Each of the builders have their own fate, but what unites them is the ability to miraculously find the strength and means to bring their plans to life despite all the obstacles.
The snow-white Peter and Paul Church in the village of Elkhotovo, designed in the Byzantine style, attracts the attention of the sophisticated traveler by its unusual bell tower.
- I couldn't make it for a long time, it looked very crude, although the design was ready," says the architect Yulia Abisalova, a short, frail girl with a shy smile. - Then I began to leaf through the album of architectural monuments and I noticed the bell tower of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, its shape and proportions. It became the point of departure. Then I reread the hagiography of the apostles Peter and Paul, sat down at the computer to make drawings, and suddenly everything came together quickly and easily.
Julia was born in Nalchik, graduated from the architectural-building faculty of the North Caucasus Mining and Metallurgical Institute, married, and left for the Vladimir region. But soon her Ossetian friends, the Dzgoev brothers, turned to her for help and asked her to design a church. "This is my first job as an architect, and I think I only graduated from the institute to design this church," says Yulia.
Georgy Dzgoev, the initiator of the church construction, was born and raised in Elkhotovo. "My father was not baptized, but he always told us children that we were Orthodox," Georgy recalls. He himself was baptized at a mature age. When asked why he undertook this work, he answers that he came to faith in difficult circumstances of life, when the only outlet and the only opportunity to find spiritual balance was prayer and worship in the church. One day during a heart-to-heart talk with God a clear thought flashed through his mind: "Everything will work out for you, and you will build a church," and no doubts arose in his soul. And so it happened, life got better, the main task remained to be done.
- My confessor, blessing me for the construction, said: the church will be built, but you will not be spared temptations. And so it goes; sometimes you think that I no longer have the strength or the means, and then the construction will stop. That's when I mentally turn to God: "Your will be done, let it be as You want it to be. And my soul becomes certain, I find strength and benefactors," says my interlocutor.
He considers the fact that the land for the church was given to them free of charge a truly wonderful thing:
- Half the population of Elkhotovo is Muslim. Surprisingly, there was no opposition to the construction of the church among the villagers. On the contrary, many expressed support. And when we went to the head of the district, he agreed to give us the land for free during our very first conversation," continues Georgy. - It was also surprising because in the noughties Elkhotovo became one of the centers of vodka production and a transportation hub, from where it was transported across the country. Almost every family was engaged in the vodka business, and the land for a garage here cost more than a three-room apartment in Vladikavkaz, so there were no vacant lots in the village. And suddenly there is a neat little piece of land in a beautiful place - as if someone from above had taken it.
The church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul was laid in 2007, but it took another seven years before the construction began. Today, services are going on in the lower aisle, consecrated in honor of St. Nicholas of Tualy, and finishing work continues in the upper aisle. There has never been an Orthodox church in Elkhotovo, only a mosque. Father Boris Bitsoyev, the church's rector, is not embarrassed by the slow construction of the church: "So it is God's will. Maybe so that more people will be able to work here physically and simultaneously work on their souls. The main thing is that the church is already functioning, people gather for prayer, although the core of the parish consists of only 15-20 people out of the population of Elkhotovo of more than twelve thousand. The situation changed slightly after the special operation in Ukraine: more and more people began coming to services and ordering prayers for their relatives who are taking part in hostilities or have been drafted into the army.
Father Boris has been serving in Elkhotovo for only four years and has noticed that people are awakening interest in Orthodoxy, they are increasingly seeking to meet him, wanting to work for the church. The number of participants in the annual procession with the Mozdok icon of the Mother of God (a 19th century copy, which is brought from Mozdok) has grown to one hundred and fifty people.
- When we first started, people laughed at us, they didn't understand what was going on. And now, they come and help to carry the icon, lead their sick relatives to the icon to lay their hands on it, and I am very happy about it, - says the priest.
A bright blue dome with a yellow cross - the church of the Holy Spirit in the village Zmeiskaya, on the border with Kabardino-Balkaria, towering over the stretched along the street one-story Cossack houses. Its builder, the oldest parishioner Anatoly Vasilievich Fursov, is simply called Uncle Tolya. He is not much of a talker, answers questions sparingly and only occasionally grins in his mustache while listening to priest Anatoly Golodnov, the rector of the church, talk about him. Uncle Tolya 86 years old, hereditary Cossack, was born in Zmeiskaya in a deeply religious family. For a long time he taught mechanics at the local vocational school, then traveled around the country, and just before it collapsed, he returned to his native village with the idea of building a church. The one that once adorned the village was demolished in the 1930s.
When Uncle Tolya got a job at a brick factory, he agreed that he would be paid his salary in bricks. The land for the church was bought with the help of the whole village. Friends helped to build it, there was no special project, an ordinary dwelling house with a dome, which was given by a friend from Pyatigorsk after replacement of the drum and head in his church during the overhaul. The earned brick was enough for the foundation and foam block lining, the chairman of the local collective farm helped with planks and galvanizing, the roof was held on iron poles, and the role of piles was performed by railway rails. The church was laid in 1989, and it has been the center of Uncle Tolya's life ever since. Father Anatoly Vasilyevich remembers Father Anatoly Golodnov as a teenager from the noughties when he came to Zmeiskaya to serve as interpreter on the Holy Ghost Day from Ardon.
- I was in that church when I was a kid," Father Anatoly confirms. - That's how I remember it: all whitewashed, the icons have curtains. It was upholstered in painted plywood. It was very modest, but very tidy. Parishioners were mostly elderly women.
He recalls that outstanding talents Anatoly Fursov showed when he was appointed a priest to the second parish in the village Nikolaevskaya. To restore the ruined church there, uncle Tolya found a whole truckload of old bricks, which he cleaned up himself. And he donated another 30,000 rubles for the church utensils. When I listen to his story and look at Anatoly Vasilievich, who sits modestly nearby, a short, but sturdy and still strong village inhabitant, I understand that it is thanks to people like him that the Orthodox faith is alive in Ossetia today.
Most of the parishioners of Svyatodukhovsky church are Ossetians, and on holidays during the service there is not an inch to spare. Since the rector is a native of these places, during the services "Heavenly King," "Holy God," the Creed, the Apostle and the Gospel are heard both in Russian and Ossetian. On holidays, Alan Mouravov, a longtime acquaintance of Father Anatoly, a deputy of the Committee on Science and Education, Culture and Information Policy, who combines his political activities with the leadership of the North Caucasus Agrarian and Technological College, comes from Ardon to read the Apostle and the Gospel.
Alan Lazarevich graduated from the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary, then a master's degree in theology at the Don State Technical University. Today the revival of Ardonskaya (Aleksandrovskaya) Theological Seminary has become his life's work.
- Without this theological school, which will prepare future pastors and teachers for our diocese, we will not be able to revive the divine service in our national language, - Alan Mouravov is convinced. The main task is to get the people to church. Listening to worship in the Ossetian language, believers will try to grasp the meaning, understand the sequence of services, and want to learn more. The number of parishioners will increase, because most do not yet grasp the meaning of the Church Slavonic text. People will understand that Orthodoxy is their original faith, not an imported faith, as representatives of the so-called "traditional" faith convince them. I think that in the long run the well-being of the Republic of Ossetia-Alania depends on how firmly Orthodoxy will be established here.
In the firm conviction of both Father Anatoly and Alan Mouravov, the revival of liturgical life is the first step toward the restoration of the institution. So now their attention and efforts are focused on the restoration of the house church of Intercession in the building of Ardonsky seminary. While in Ardon there is only one church in honor of St. George the Victorious for 20 thousand people, before the revolution there were three for five thousand people.
The Ardonsky seminary was opened in 1895. Many members of the Ossetian intelligentsia graduated from the seminary; among the rectors and inspectors of the religious school were the holy martyrs Andronik (Nikolsky), Nikodim (Krotkov), Pimen (Belolikov), canonized in 2000 at the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many members of the clergy of the Vladikavkaz diocese suffered for their faith during the Soviet regime. In particular, the Commission for the Canonization of Saints is collecting information about them.
Knock, and it will be opened to you.
Two and a half years ago, Archpriest Evgeny Popovich, cemetery priest of St. Ilyinsky Church in Vladikavkaz, was assigned to head the Committee on canonization of saints. There were no documents to start the work and no list of Alanians saints was approved by the Synodal Department for Canonization. But the priest did not get discouraged. Gradually work of the commission developed in three directions: gathering of the information on ancient saints , new martyrs and locally venerated ancient woman Anastasia of Vladikavkaz. Information on these ancient saints was minimal; it was possible to find in obscure saint books and monthly publications of Local Churches, but working on getting information about any of the other directions was near impossible. Realizing that he would not be able to do it alone, Father Eugene asked for help from parishioners, and people responded. Thus, "Antiquity Fan Club" appeared in the parish.
Parish enthusiasts studied the archives of the Stavropol, Vladikavkaz, Saratov and Ryazan Diocesan Gazetteers, and as a result began to gather an archive of biographies of those repressed for their faith. In addition to documents about their careers, we were even able to compile a list of schools where this or that priest taught, and a list of fraternity members with whom he cooperated. Two problems immediately surfaced, however. It turned out very difficult to establish who in 1922, along with the ruling bishop of the Vladikavkaz Diocese, Bishop Makary (Pavlov), did not turn to Renewal. And the second - according to Father Evgeny, the FSB archives do not always readily provide information of interest to the commission. But the staff of the State Archive responded, which in complicated cases helps to use their resources.
- Once again I was convinced of the truth of the words "knock and it will be opened to you" when some information came to us as if by chance, which we never expected to find, - said Father Eugene smiling.
The photo of the executed priest Joseph Batagov was brought to him by a driver who once took the chairman of the Commission on the Canonization of Saints to a conference on new martyrs. The guy turned out to be a neighbor of the Batagov family, whose relative was Father Joseph, rector of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Mazdok. Another time, Yuri Anatolievich (now deceased), grandson of priest Alexander Rainov, who is buried at Ilyinsky cemetery, stopped by the church. So the destiny of this Ryazan priest, who before Revolution worked much in the field of education and even had imperial awards, became known. Before being sent to camp in Kazakhstan Father Alexander had time to be deprived of, and the defeated in his rights, and to experience on himself all burdens of persecutions of the Soviet authority. After his exile, at the end of the war, the priest came to his son in Vladikavkaz and took a job as a watchman in a store. One winter, he was fixing a broken lock and was helped by a random passerby, who turned out to be the rector of the Ilyinskaya Church of Vladikavkaz, priest Grigory Goncharov. So priest Alexander became a clergyman of the church. But in 1948 he was tragically killed: a car ran over him, the license plate number and the identity of the driver could not be established. October 3, 1991 Alexander Rainov was rehabilitated by definition of the Lipetsk regional prosecutor's office. Such priests as Father Alexander, according to Archpriest Evgeny Popovich, are worthy of canonization as confessors.
Among those whom the commission is preparing today for glorification are the names of the murdered Theophylact Vodolazsky, Sergiy Lukyanov, Joseph Batagov, Khariton Bagayev and others. A separate area of the commission's work is gathering information about Staretsa Anastasia of Vladikavkaz. The problem is that despite her veneration by the Ossetian people, no documentary evidence of her life has survived. Fortunately, thanks to the work of the Club of Antiquity Lovers an article was found in the archives of a local newspaper from 1932 where the funeral of Matushka Anastasia was described in detail.
- Great resonance surrounded her death, - says Father Eugene. - The article proves that St. Anastasia is a real historical person and she was not in the Renewal. The exact date of her death is December 24, 1932. And although there is information in social networks that her surname is Andreeva, it is still not documented. And the veneration was and remains such that in the 1990s, a chapel was built over the grave of St. Anastasia of Vladikavkaz at the Ilyinsky cemetery.
The history of martyrdom and suffering in North Ossetia did not end with the end of the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was destined to repeat itself at the very beginning of the 21st century, when on September 1, 2004, more than a thousand people - schoolchildren, their parents, relatives and teachers - were taken hostage by terrorists in Beslan School No. 1.
"The Place of the Living."
Every September 3, Aneta Gadieva, Margarita Sedakova, Marina Pak and other parents of children killed in the terrorist attack rush to the Divine Liturgy in the school gymnasium turned into a memorial. A bow cross stands in its center and photographs of the dead, charred ceiling boards, a smorgasbord, peeling walls scrawled with messages of condolence, a sea of toys and fresh flowers bear witness to the tragic events of 18 years ago.
Marina Pak's daughter died in a terrorist takeover; Sveta was 12 years old. "She always prayed in the morning," Marina recalled, "but usually standing up. But that day, September 1, she knelt down for some reason. And her prayer lasted much longer than usual." Svetlana left the house, but after a while she came back and knocked on the door. Her mother opened the door, her daughter silently crossed her and left.
- I still can't understand why she did it," said Marina. - It was Sveta who led me to God, I was baptized thanks to her. - And says that when she brought the two-year-old Sveta baptized in the church, the priest said he would not baptize her daughter until Marina herself was baptized. And then she didn't ask God for anything else in her prayers, but only, "Lord, take my child under Your wing. - I wanted Him to protect and help my little girl. And when everything happened, and I found out that Sveta was dead, I was so offended at God that I couldn't go into church for half a year. The only question in my head was, "God, why did this happen to me?"
- When I found myself in the occupied gym with my children, it seemed to me that this was a dream and we were about to wake up," recalls Aneta Gadieva. - I was amazed at how firmly our children behaved, how they helped each other and the adults. No one panicked; if they cried, they did it silently. I remember my daughter Alana (she was 9 years old) asking me, "Mom, whose life do you value more - yours or your mother's?" - "My mom's." - "And your life is dearer to me."
The whole world responded to the Beslan tragedy. Governments of many countries and international organizations provided unprecedented assistance. People wrote letters of support, made phone calls, came to personally express their condolences, and donated funds. But with particular warmth, these women speak of the care and attention they received from Metropolitan Theophan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz (Ashurkov; † 2020).
- He toured all the hospitals, visiting the victims, and did not leave us alone for a minute. He organized trips to holy places, constantly telling us that we all needed to stick together. He took us to the Holy Land. Thanks to Bishop, many of us were baptized in the Jordan. He encouraged us to have children or adopt. And when he became Archbishop of Kazan, he repeatedly invited us to visit him, offering to show us all the holy places of the Kazan land," recalls Marina Pak.
Metropolitan Theophan also warmly supported the initiative, with the assistance of the Berlin and German Diocese of the Russian Church Abroad and the Children's Aid Foundation (Germany), to create a Rehabilitation Center for children and adults who suffered in the terrorist attack at the newly created Alania Convent of the Epiphany, which became a second home for them.
Women who lost children in the Beslan tragedy confessed that it was only there that some new awareness of these events came to them. "I got a lot of help at the monastery. I realized that if there is no God, everything is meaningless. My life became a service to the memory of our lost children," says Aneta Gadieva. And Margarita Sedakova, whose daughter died, believes that only prayer gives her the strength to go on living.
- What did you do, how did you manage to muffle the emotional pain, how did you process the inner protest against God, which the parents of the dead children experienced? - I asked Nonna (Bagaeva), the abbess of the nunnery of the Epiphany nunnery.
- Nothing had to be done - just listen, pity, tolerate and accept them as they are," she answers. - Nothing works like the desire to love and share someone else's pain, as if it had become yours. It's impossible to bring back the children and the peace of mind that was there. But we can take on at least some of that pain.
In 2006, at the initiative of Zalina Tauchelova, a mother who lost two children in a terrorist attack, a memorial cross was erected and consecrated in the former gymnasium. It’s appearance was the first step to the realization of the idea of building a church. The project of the church was made by Elena Tokaeva and Nina Gazzaeva. Construction began on May 15, 2012. The church was built entirely on private donations. When you enter it (it is assumed that it will be consecrated in honor of the Resurrection), the morass that has enmeshed the heart in the gym dissipates. There is a lot of light here, and the paintings, dominated by purple, ochre, and malachite, fill the soul with peace and tranquility. The famous icon painter Alexander Soldatov worked on the church's painting project.
- The main idea was to reflect not the tragedy, but the joy of the Resurrection," says the iconographer Samson Marzoyev, who painted the icon "The place of the living" dedicated to the victims of the tragedy. And the idea that the church must have the faces of children was first suggested by Stavropol Metropolitan Theophan. Samson admits that the icon was not easy: "When I finished the face of the Savior and was about to paint the children, I literally physically could not work further. Then I took a camera and photographed portraits of all the victims in the gym, looked closely at each face, recognized the history of each person, and the work slowly began. As he worked on the icon, he realized that mothers wanted to see their children on it. People who constantly looked into the church were also talking about it. By some miracle, Samson succeeded in painting the faces of children in such a way that each parent finds the features of his or her lost child among them.
A ball of tangled thread
The baton of social work, started in Vladikavkaz Diocese with the establishment of the Rehabilitation Center in the Epiphany Convent, was picked up by the Department of Social Ministry and Charity under the leadership of Archpriest Leonid Boltenkov, a clergyman of St. Nicholas Church, and his right hand Olga Anatolievna Ivanova.
Maria N., a single mother, turned to the social department of the diocese when her four-year-old twins were diagnosed with a serious problem. Understanding the problem, the deputy director of the department, Olga Ivanova, offered to help find a clinic that would take the babies for treatment. Doctors at a medical center in Nizhny Novgorod agreed. Everything would have been fine, but Maria went to Nizhny Novgorod without warm clothes and the children caught a cold. Then Olga made an arrangement with the social department of the Nizhny Novgorod diocese, and Maria and her children were given clothes, shoes, and help with everything they needed. When the children were treated for their main illness, their condition improved considerably, but they still needed rehabilitation. To do this, Maria had to go to the northern capital. The social department of the Saint Petersburg diocese also helped the young mother there.
Maria's situation with her children is one of the problems Olga Ivanova and her helper Albina Nayfonova have to address. Most of their charges are families with many children, single parent families or with children with disabilities, as well as pregnant women in crisis and single elderly people. "Food, material, clothing, medical care, and consultations by volunteers - lawyers, psychologists, and social workers" - that's what it says in the dry lines of the reports. But the main thing is hidden between the lines: people are not just helped, they talk to them, find out the reasons for their disadvantages. The most complex cases are taken by the department of social support, were each family is prescribed in detail an algorithm of ways to get out of the crisis. Today there are more than thirty such families. Olga admits that the most difficult part of her work is working with the parents of disabled children. She is helped here not only by her education as a teacher and social worker, but also by her life and spiritual experience.
- Our goal is to make people solve problems independently even if at first with our help. I usually say that I don't have a magic wand in my desk drawer, but I can tell you the direction in which to move in order to improve your life," says Olga. - Being in a crisis, many people stop believing in their own strength and do not see the resources available to them. Our task as specialists is to find people's inner reserves and help them cope with troubles. Every time they come to us as if with a ball of tangled thread, which we together begin to untangle. It is always a great comfort and happiness when our families as a result of this work come to faith and realize that with God's help anything is possible.
One of the new areas of work of the social department is helping refugees from Donbass after the start of the special military operation in Ukraine. Most of them were placed in three sanatoriums in Ossetia. Olga Anatolievna went to each, finding out what needs people have there. It became clear that in addition to household items and humanitarian aid, many need psychological and spiritual support.
- At every step we are asked questions: "How do we go on living?", "Why are we being bombed?", "Why did we lose our homes, why are we suffering, why are we being shot at?" And there's no answer from anyone.
Archpriest Leonid Boltenkov in such cases tries to move the conversation to the spiritual plane, citing the example of Christ, who innocently suffered for the sins of others. The sufferings that we experience in this life are allowed to one person as atonement for personal sins and to another as a prepared martyr's crown. "In either case, the main thing is to reassure, to give hope to live on, so that the person feels that everything is not so bad, depending on what to compare it to," the priest says.
In recent years, the crossing between North Ossetia and Georgia has become increasingly jammed with heavy vehicles laden with several kilometers of traffic from Russia. The priests call long-distance truckers from Russia, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Belarus and other countries stuck at the border "kamazists" (from the word "KAMAZ"). This winter the social department together with employees of the Ministry of Emergency Situations organized hot meals for the "kamazists" in the snowy Daryal Gorge for two months.
"Father, why do you feed them for free, these truckers – these people are not poor," sometimes hears Father Leonid, to which he replies: "Yes, you are right, but they are in trouble, they are confused, some are even in despair. Turks, Kazakhs, Turkmens are coming - what memory will they have of Russia? We want to share our warmth with them, just to talk to them, to support them as human beings so that they will begin to think that God's help will come to them in this difficult situation".