What is South Ossetia?

Pre-history of the conflict

Ethnic makeup of the area

Chronology of the conflict

Maps of the area

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By Andrew Andersen



South Ossetia also known in Georgia as Shida Kartli and Samchoblo, is an inalienable part of Georgia that was granted administrative autonomy after the Soviet conquest of Georgia in 1921. As of today, there are several myths developed by Russian imperial propaganda and occasionally repeated by various media due to the fact that there is a limited number of people both in the west and in the east who had a chance to learn the detailed history of the region.



Myth Nr. 1:  There was once a united Ossetia partitioned by the Bolsheviks after 1917between Russian Federation and Georgia.


That statement is simply not true. There was, in fact, no “South Ossetia” at all until the second half the 19th century when it appeared as a pure ethnographical but in no way political term. Even if one looks at the geographical map of the area one will notice that “the two Ossetias” are isolated from one another by the Main Caucasus mountain range, the natural border between Russia and Georgia. Until the construction of the strategically important Roki tunnel in 1985, the Main Caucasus range had only two narrow passes between the “two Ossetias” completely blocked by snow and thus impassable during most of the year, except the summer months.


If you take a detailed look into the regional history you will find out that modern South Ossetia never ever existed as a separate political entity but always was a part of eastern Georgian provinces or eastern Georgian states even during the periods of fragmentation. After the incorporation of Georgian states into the Russian Empire in the first half of the 19th century, the territory of modern South Ossetia existed in the form of several districts and cantons of the Tiflis province (former East Georgian Kingdom) and a canton of the Kutais province (former Kingdom of Imereti).


It is difficult to say for sure when exactly did the Ossetians settle in Georgia, but there is some evidence that it did not happen until the 19th century. According to Russian historian Nikolai Dubrovin (1837-1894) “... it was the shortage of arable land that was the reason for the resettlement of some Ossetians across the Main Caucasus Range and voluntarily accepted the bondage imposed on them by georgian landlords. After having settled the gorges of Big Liakhvi, Small Liakhvi, rekhula and Ksani rivers, they became the serfs of the princely families of Eristavi and Machabellli. Those settlers are now called ‘the south Ossetians’ further subdivided into various tribal groups named after the gorges they reside. Those groups include the Ksanians, Liakhvians, Gudushaurians, Magran-Dvaletians, Jamurians, etc. Many Ossetians also settled in Khevi and Mtiuli gorges”[i]


An indirect proof of the hypotesis od Dubrovin is the fact that the majority of South Ossetians used and still use to have Russian or russified last names while the last names of the majority of traditional inhabitants of Georgia no matter what their ethnic backgrounds was, were either Georgian or Georgianized.



Myth Nr. 2:  It was Joseph Stalin who granted South Ossetia to Georgia.


That is as far away from the truth as the previous myth. Independed Georgia re-created in 1918, included the territory of modern South Ossetia and afther the Soviet conquest of 1921was incorporaed into the USSR having South Ossetia as an autonomous province.


Let us add to the above that there is no single map or atlas published in Russia, the USSR or in the west until 2008 that would show any “united Ossetia” or South Ossetia not being a part of Georgia.


Please see the prehistory of the conflict and the chronologies as well as the maps for further details.






[i]  N. Dubrovin, The History of the War and Russian Domination in the Caucasus (St. Petersburg, 1871) Vol. 2, p. 187.

   Н. Дубровин, История войны и владычества русских на Кавказе (СПб.,1871) т. 1, с. 187,.