Stepping from the stuffy Soviet-era train to the snow-dusted platform below, I fill my chest with a welcome breath of mountain air laced with frost and cigarette smoke. The white caps of the Caucasus rise into a dusky gray sky. Swarthy men in fur caps offer their hands to kerchiefed women disembarking from the train. For a moment I imagine myself the heroine of a pre-revolutionary Russian adventure novel, here at the edge of the empire for the first time. “Come on,” Yulia shakes me abruptly out of my reverie, pulling both me and her suitcase toward the station. “We’re going to be late for dinner!”
New Year’s Eve is just a few days away, and Yulia has invited me to accompany her for a weekend of celebratory feasting at her late father’s childhood home in Vladikavkaz, capital of the southwestern Russian province of North Ossetia.1
The region occupies a tiny swatch of rumpled land in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains, which span Russia’s southwestern border from the Black Sea eastward to the Caspian. Just across the border lie the Republic of Georgia and its disputed territory of South Ossetia, which has been occupied by Russian troops since a days-long war in August 2008.
Yulia grew up about three hundred miles northwest of here in a city of about a million people called Krasnodar, located a two-hour drive inland from the Black Sea coast. I met her at the local university there, where I was studying on a fellowship and she was finishing her undergraduate degree in English and German translation. She lives with her Ukrainian-born mother on the outskirts of the city, in a small apartment on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. Years ago, before he died of an illness I never asked much about, her father lived there, too. The rest of his family stayed in Vladikavkaz, and now Yulia travels there from time to time (to “Vladik,” as she calls it affectionately) to visit her Ossetian relatives and to connect with a part of herself and her heritage that she can’t find in Krasnodar.
The mountains over Vladikavkaz provide a magnificent backdrop to what might otherwise be a drab-looking city, with its blocky concrete hallmarks of Soviet officialdom and self-built homes hidden from view by solid metal gates that line the side streets. Yet the name of the town bespeaks a different past: it means “to rule the Caucasus” in Russian, and reflects its founding as the first fortress from which the Imperial army launched raids to subjugate nearby highland peoples under tsarist rule.2