On Grief and Borders
Green patches resembling fields and a grey pin with a cross marking a church are all that Google Maps remembers. But I recall driving uphill in my uncle’s scratched Niva among endless tombstones, one of which bears the face of my sister.
Irinka died of leukemia on February 8th, 1988, at the age of five. She was buried at Zguder cemetery, approximately 350 meters northeast of the Liakhva River and 900 meters north of my family house on Stalin Street in Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia. My parents later moved to Moscow, where I was born.
During the communist era, South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast within Soviet Georgia. The First South Ossetian War broke out in 1991 amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union. South Ossetians demanded increased autonomy in response to the politics of Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who called ethnic minorities in Georgia “guests” and accused them of being close to Russia and disloyal to Georgia. In 1992, Georgia and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement to prevent a wider Georgian-Russian conflict (1). The borders remained open.
It is hard to grasp in a paragraph what happened in South Ossetia on the 8th of August, 2008. The Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia led to the displacement of the majority of the remaining ethnic Georgian civilians from South Ossetia (2). Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent state, but in fact, established a full occupation of the territory. Amidst the turmoil and breathing wounds of the conflict, the barbed wire isolated the region. Russia exercises control over the territory, and the only way in and out is through the Rok Tunnel, connecting the region with North Ossetia, Russia. Consular services of many nations discourage travel to a disputed region in Georgia. The bold “Do Not Travel” warning displayed on the U.S. Department of State website is one of many ramifications of Russian occupation.
According to the 1989 Soviet census, the population of South Ossetia was 98,000, with 65,232 Ossetians and 28,544 Georgians. As of 2015, official records showed that the population of South Ossetia was 53,438, and nearly 4,000 ethnic Georgians primarily resided in the town of Akhalgori (Leningor). Many South Ossetians assert that the dead have outnumbered the living in the region over the last thirty years due to the casualties of war and as a result of the mass exodus. Approximately 192,000 people were displaced from their homes during the Five-Day War and mostly settled in Georgia.
I first visited my sister’s grave with my mother in Zguder in 1999, when I was three years old. As I grew older, Zguder Hill became increasingly significant to me. Every summer my mother and I cleaned the graves at the cemetery. Ossetians believe that if you see an uncared-for grave you should clean it as a gesture of goodwill and reverence towards the deceased in the name of God. We always started at Irinka’s grave. I usually cleaned the ground by the tombstone. My mother did most of the hard work getting rid of weeds while repeating “мæ гыццыл чызг, мæ гыццыл зæрдæ,” which means “my little girl, my little heart” in the Ossetian language. Irinka, who was bilingual, only spoke Ossetian to my parents.
The cemetery in Zguder is divided into four sections—Ossetian, Georgian, Armenian, and Jewish—reflecting the diverse population of Tskhinval in better times. Post-2008, parts of the cemetery have been abandoned.
In the summer of 2021, I had to leave Russia after receiving death threats for my work. Back in Russia, I was a journalist at a media organization designated as a “foreign agent”. My writing was focused on social and political issues and countered the views of the Russian government. Before I fled, I could have visited Tskhinval through Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia using my Russian passport. The only way to enter South Ossetia is through Russia, and flying in is not an option. My mother and I would take a taxi from Vladikavkaz and cross the Russian-South Ossetian border, which took around three hours. Entering South Ossetia through Russia results in a ban from entering Georgia in the future. Even something as simple as bringing flowers to a family member’s grave becomes an unrealistic mission.
Exile fueled my longing for Zguder. The grief I feel towards my sister, whom I have never met, cannot be rationalized. It has permeated every corner of my childhood home and has remained with me ever since. It is a part of my life that I inherited secondhand from my parents. The blue-eyed girl with light brown hair, a round face, and a tiny mole by the right corner of her lips gazed at me from fading photographs in our Moscow apartment, where I lived with my family for half of my life. Irinka’s favorite toy was a plastic blonde doll named Masha, and she also liked to draw with colored pencils and markers, which my mother kept in a white carton box after her death. During the last months of Irinka’s life, my mother would take her for long walks by the hospital department, where Irinka made bouquets with garden flowers. She loved flowers, just like my mother.
I was born during the weeks when the Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Anastasia, leading my mother to christen me with the same name. The name comes from the Greek word ἀνάστασις, which means resurrection. My mother used to tell me that my birth is divine providence following Irinka’s death. When I was growing up, I genuinely believed in a special connection between Irinka and me.
Coordinates on a map are everything that my family and I have left for our grief. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, my mother and brother left Moscow and moved to Tbilisi, where I spent the first months of my exile. The drive from Tbilisi to Zguder cemetery takes one and a half hours. But the borders are closed.
In “Mourning and Melancholia”, Sigmund Freud argues that melancholic persistent attachment to the object of loss is not only a manifestation of a pathological condition but also detrimental to the ego’s well-being and even its very survival. The inability to cross the border, to gather with my family on Irinka’s grave, and sing Ossetian lullabies to her was intensifying my longing. The politics of borders and my exile have created a different kind of distance that has ruptured a special binding element in my family, making me feel nostalgic. Svetlana Boym posits two types of nostalgia: the restorative and the reflective. According to Boym, restorative nostalgia stresses nóstos (home) and is defined by the attempts of “transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home”, while reflective nostalgia thrives in “álgos,” the pain of longing. Nostalgia is more than a yearning for a place; it is rooted in a longing for a different time, the time of our childhood. For me, that time is associated with my sister’s grave.
One of the coping mechanisms I learned from my fellow exiles when I fled Russia was to trace my past through Google Maps. I would gaze at familiar streets in Moscow using the Street View option. Fortunately, Google Maps retains every corner of Moscow precisely as I left it in the summer of 2021.
Last January, my mother brought up Zguder Hill in our phone conversation, right before the anniversary of Irinka’s death. I immediately shielded myself from the pain by typing “Zguderi” into the Google search box. All I found was a green patch, but I remember every inch of that patch, every turn to make, and every stone to stumble on before reaching Irinka’s grave. And as I feel trapped in a cycle of helplessness over my inability to return to my sister’s grave, the politics of borders define the politics of mourning.
De Waal, Thomas 2019. “South Ossetia Today”, Carnegie Europe; available at: https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/06/11/south-ossetia-today-pub-80788
Freedom in the World 2022: South Ossetia. Freedom House; available at: https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-ossetia/freedom-world/2022