The assistant to the abbess of the Alania Theophany Convent in the town of Alagir in North Ossetia, Nun Georgia (Bestauty), recalls her very first Pascha, her beloved city of Tskhinvali (South Ossetia), and the difficult post-war years during which she began to go to church.
My first celebration of Pascha in the Church took place in 1998. It was six months after I had returned to Tskhinvali following five years of studies at NOSU (North Ossetian State University), and I was happy, just as those who return home after a difficult period of wanderings are happy. Although those who do return, both now and then, are few and far between. It seems that eight of my ten former classmates who had studied in Russian cities never returned. But those “crazy ones” who did return found everything here. I personally found the brotherhood of the Apollo Club, my city and my church! It was so much and so brilliant that no sorrows could be contained in my soul. No domestic problems (at that time there were constant power outages and interruptions to water supply, and there was no gas at all) could overshadow that first autumn in Tskhinvali after my return. I was at home! But I remember my perplexity: Why hadn’t I been here over the five years of my studies, the most important years in a person’s life? As if I had missed something special, hadn’t endured, and hadn’t suffered with everyone else. That autumn I realized that my home was here and, no matter what might happen, it couldn’t change.
For some reason in my memory a sense of my Motherland, a sense of brotherhood and a sense of the Church all merge. Not because all those who are dear to me were parishioners of the Tskhinvali church. Not at all. Most of my friends didn’t go to church at that time. Maybe this feeling of unity is due to the fact that returning to my homeland and finding new friends coincided with my integration into Church life... But most likely these three dominants do not exist separately, only together. There is no Church and no Motherland without brotherhood, and there is no brotherhood without Motherland and faith.
I was baptized back in 1994 at the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, but the first serious confessions, the first Great Lent and the first Pascha in my life were at the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Tskhinvali. Father Saurmag Bazzaev once remarked to us that the three key churches for Ossetia, those in Vladikavkaz, Tskhinvali and Moscow, to which people came after many years of godlessness, are dedicated to the same event—the Nativity of the Mother of God. All three churches have an amazing history and are still waiting for someone who is sensitive and loving to describe them.
Surprisingly, I hardly remember the Tskhinvali church before the war, although in my childhood we would often walk past it to the big bazaar, and vivid pictures from the life of the Jewish quarter, unique sounds and smells of this oldest part of the city, are imprinted on my memory forever. Pre-war images of the church and the Jewish quarter are best revealed in works of the Ossetian artist Khsar Gassiev (1929–2020). You can endlessly look at houses and faces and thank God for the artist’s genius.
In the Soviet era there was one of the large city household stores with the unusual name, “Farn”, next to the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God. After the war only a concrete shell remained of the store, but the locals used its name as a landmark. As long as there was only one church in Tskhinvali, it was called simply, “Dzuar”, but after other churches had appeared, the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos was called “Farny Dzuar”. The renaming was natural, in the manner of Tskhinvali, but there was a feeling that the Lord had invisibly touched this name...
The first parishioners of the church were wonderful old ladies, descendants of the members of a Christian community, who had apparently fled to Tskhinvali from persecution, presumably in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. They lived nearby, in the houses in the Jewish quarter that had survived the war. There is reason to believe that between the 1930s and the 1950s this community was associated with the Catacomb Church. But that’s another, separate story. So, these old ladies began to worship at our church with Fr. Alexander Pukhate in the early 1990s. One of them was even later tonsured a nun with the name Anna. My coming to the Church was during the second stage of the life of the Tskhinvali church community. In the late 1990s, the younger part of the parish began to be formed, and four of them later became priests, someone a monk, with a dozen acolytes, choir directors and choir singers.
Perhaps of our parish life of that time I remember the great feasts best. Life at the time in South Ossetia was not very joyful, but the feasts were bright and warm. There was seemingly nothing special in the church either: no illumination, no festive gifts. But “the light of Christ enlightens all.” And everyone was drawn to it. Not only parishioners, but also thousands of city residents would come for Christmas and Pascha. They always worshipped at night. The small church did not accommodate even a fifth of the people who would come, and most of them stood in the courtyard and behind the church fence with their candles lit. And there was nothing more beautiful in the whole wide world than these simple and tired faces, lit by their Paschal candles, frozen in anticipation of joy and a miracle. Then the Paschal procession would go around the church fence—it was a wide, bright circle. I remember how beautifully Fr. Alexander sang Paschal stichera, and how boyishly he exclaimed, “Chyrysti raigas!” (“Christ is Risen”). And joy was infinite. It was the joy that Christ is Risen and we were meeting a new Pascha, a new victory over death, that we were together. During those hours and minutes, it was as if all the light of the universe was sanctifying our city, devoid of heating and light.
After the service, tired and happy, we would go home in small groups. The poor and empty streets of Tskhinvali seemed to us more beautiful than any foreign charms. High above Mount Burkhokh, the morning stars were melting in the sky. The mountains were carefully “holding” our small city, like the magical cup of Uatsamong from Ossetian folklore, in their “palms”, fearing to spill the joy of Pascha.