"All around," he continued, running his left index finger around the outside of the thumb, "are the Muslims. We are alone."
Wrestling. The Ossetians have produced some of the best freestyle wrestlers in the world. That was supposed to be my story. Russia's Greco-Roman wrestlers—most notably two-time heavyweight gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin, who at 6'4" and 297 pounds is probably the most physically imposing athlete coming to Atlanta—also have been perennially successful, but their team has been drawn from the width and breadth of a giant country. The Russian freestyle roster, on the other hand, typically has been nearly half-filled with Ossetians. The number of champions from such a small republic (pop. 690,000) has been amazing.
Wrestling. I tried to concentrate on this success, on the facts of the sport—"So how many gold medals did Ossetians win in Barcelona? Three? Very impressive"—but the uneasy atmosphere in Vladikavkaz made it hard to concentrate. Three gold medals in Seoul? One silver, one bronze? Very nice, but what would happen next around me? Who were those men talking in the dark? Why was that dog barking? Where were those soldiers going? Martial law, in effect almost continuously since 1991, during the civil war to the south in Georgia, had been lifted only in the past year.
"We are good wrestlers here because we are survivors," explained Makharbek Khadartsev, who will be trying for his third gold medal at 198½ pounds. "It is in the blood. We are descendants of the Alani, who were massacred by Genghis Khan. [According to local legend, he ordered that all men in the region taller than a wagon wheel be decapitated.] Our ancestors were the ones who lied into the mountains, who survived. The weak could not survive, only the strong. We Ossetians have always fought for our lives."
The image of the Mongols rolling toward this landscape in the 13th century was replaced more recently by the image of German soldiers being stopped at Vladikavkaz by Ossetian troops during World War II. One of every two Ossetian soldiers was killed. Vladikavkaz was named by the Soviet government as one of the 14 heroic cities in the Soviet Union.
A reminder of the Soviet era, a 30-foot-tall statue of Lenin, still stands in a downtown square. Unlike Chechnya, Ossetia is a place happy to be allied with Mother Russia, even after the fall of Communism. Joseph Stalin, whose father, Visarion, was an Ossetian, remains a local hero. The KGB building—four floors above ground, four below—continues to operate. Survivors always.
"Stalin sent the Ingush to Central Asia," Tedeyev said, explaining one current border problem. "Now, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, they want their lands back."
"Stalin actually saved the Ingush," Khadartsev corrected. "Beria, the head of the KGB, wanted to put them all on ships in the Mediterranean, then blow up the ships. Stalin said, 'No, send them to Asia.' The Ingush should thank Stalin."
Wrestling. Tedeyev was my guide to the sport and the country; he was my genial host. He arranged everything. Need dinner? He would make reservations for us at the Beirut Restaurant. Then he would order—no menu required—and the food would come in waves. Need to know something about the wrestlers? He knew all their histories and their chances for success. Need to know something about the republic? He knew that too.
"You should be here in the summer," he said again and again through an interpreter. "You should see the mountains. Better than Switzerland."