August 12, 2008

The Ossetians

One of the endless problems of nationalism is finding low friction borders for nations. Oceans clearly work the best, but what else can be used?

At first glance, rivers look like they'd make good borders because they are line-shaped and they are moderately defensible in case of war. In reality, though, navigable rivers typically run through the heart of a nation (the Nile, the Mississippi, the Thames, the Volga, the Yellow, the Ganges, etc.). Indeed, nations are most likely to rise up along both banks of a mighty river.

Mountain ranges, such as the Pyrenees dividing France and Spain, seem more promising. They are military defensible and they reduce cultural and economic interchange, so the people living in the flat lands on either side of a big range tend to see themselves as different peoples.

The problem tends to be, however, that few mountain ranges are uninhabited. The mountaineers generally are often ornery folk who don't like being shoved around by flatlanders, and they live on both sides of the border. The Pashtuns who live on both sides of the Khyber Pass are the classic example. What could be a more logical place to draw the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan than the rugged mountains pierced by the famously narrow Khyber Pass? Yet, that logical border seems nonsensical to the millions of Pashtuns who live in the region and pay no attention to that line.

Similarly, the ridgeline of the Greater Caucasus mountains makes a perfectly sensible border between Russia and Georgia, except to the Ossetian-speaking peoples who live in those mountains, both north and south of the border.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

what's the over-under on world war 3??

Anonymous said...

Interesting point. Reminded me that for all the troubles on the British Isles, they still have a certain geographic thing going on.

Garland said...

Walls! Huge, skyscraper high walls!

I'm serious. We have the technology today, we can do this. It'd be like making our own mountain ranges except no ornery hill people can live on them.

And they could have huge murals on them for aesthetic reinforcement. Perhaps the murals could depict oceans or mountains.

Anonymous said...

garland, don't we also have conventional bombs that can easily blow up high walls? I thought cannons won the arms race against walls about 500-600 years ago.

But the general idea of building a suitable barrier seems to be sound, since natural boundaries don't cut it.

How about minefields instead? Or maybe something like the Maginot Line, except complete the damned thing so the enemy can't just go around it? Moats with sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads?

Theodore Breehn said...

"Walls! Huge, skyscraper high walls! "

Robert Frost said it all,
'Good fences make good neighbors'.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, Stalin was of Ossetian ancestry from his father side (although they were assimilated into Georgian culture).

Anonymous said...

Your idea with mountains is spot on. The Swiss basically live on top of the Alpine plateau. That's why nobody bothered invading. On top they have a huge fortress system and their access roads have automated built-in tank traps. From what I've heard their entire air force has underground hangers. In addition they are pacifists so their military, which is not so bad, is purely for self-defence. Sounds neat to me.

Usually mountains ranges are not that compact so that living on top of mountains becomes unfeasible, such as Chile. Lesotho in South Africa is also a country perched on top of a mountain range; it used to be known as the loneliest outpost in the British Empire. Apart from a few diamond pipes, however they are dirt poor. Another one would be Tibet. It’s only nowadays with the train route that China is really beginning to invade that place. But if the Tibetans were to blow the train link, I guess they were isolated again.

Anonymous said...

I'd say we go back to moated castles again. Every time I play the medieval strategy games I pine to live in one of those with all the soldiers around. Maybe we can have titan walls with lots of lead to keep the radiation fallout of a nuclear blast out. Then we can have an anti-missile system on the roof to blow away all those Iranian and North Korean missiles we keep hearing about. And have one of those Swiss guards to check that no Al-Qaeda miscreants come in and disrupt our latest roasted boar-feast. Ah, the good old days…

Anonymous said...

Time can help. I read a Linguistics book years ago that said that the sharpest dialect difference to coincide with a national boundary in Western Europe was Scotland/England - far more severe, linguistically, than, for example, France/Italy, France/Spain, Netherlands/Germany, and so on. That was, the author said, because Scotland/England was much the oldest surviving border in Western Europe. (I've lost track of the book; if any reader here should happen to know it, please shout.)

Anonymous said...

I think in the future "nations" will be more fluid concepts. They will follow their people, and geography will become increasingly a private domain as the nation-states dissolve through fiscal overreach and corruption. In their place will arise private entities that, over time, will evolve into hereditary institutions, probably headquartered in various city-states that will take on the character of their rulers: white and Christian, black and Christian, white and secular, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc.

These entities will be like medieval fees, with people purchasing membership in them and in exchange, the fee heads will provide administrative, judicial and defense services, including the negotiation of sojourner's rights for their members in other locales.

In other words, the anarchists and multiculturalists will finally get their border-free world, but they are going to be in for a real shock when it turns out that "civil rights" must be contracted for and purchased.

--Senor Doug

Anonymous said...

A couple of Canadian takes: includes the rather important points:
(The Caucasus contains a myriad of peoples, most of whom demand their own nation-states. ... the Ossetians are distinct from Georgians, speaking a language that is related to Afghanistan's Pashto.)

Rather interesting that the Ossetians are "near relatives" of the Pashtuns of Afganistan-Pakistan.

(... is former New York lawyer Saakashvili, who was elected president after leading a bloodless coup five years ago and who also remains remarkably popular. While Saakashvili is treated as a democrat in the West (mainly because he speaks English), he – like Putin – doesn't hesitate to use the knout on political foes.) ... God forbid: a former New York lawyer ... 'nuff said!

Also, see:

Anonymous said...

Along the same lines, the cultural congruence between the US and Canada allows the two nations to have "the longest undefended border in the world," or at least that's what I learned in school. Without that kind of parity such a border would be anywhere from more expensive to defend to being completely unworkable.

Anonymous said...

Check out this ethnic map of the Caucasus region. It's a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

Israel seems to have found a solution with its West Bank barrier system.

Anonymous said...

Err, call me crazy, but I don't see why mountains got tossed here. Draw a line around a mountain range, and you've got a geographic/national boundary (within that boundary lives the nationalist mountain people, and on either side live nationalist plains peoples).

Hunsdon said...

Regarding in-between mountain tribes, perhaps we could reason from the macro to the micro---the Great Game in its later stages was quite explicitly about the Afghan Question. On the British side, there were two major schools of thought---the forward school, which advocated taking control over Afghanistan to better meet the Russian menace, and the "masterful inactivity" school, which advocated maintaining the warlike Afghans as a buffer with the Russians.

Unsurprisingly, the forward school won out, and unsurprisingly, I think that is a shame.

My "vote" is, maintain friendly but neutral status with the mountain tribes on your border. When the villainous Hun/Frog/Ivan decides to come pay a visit, he has to roll over and through the hill tribes. This at least buys you some time to mobilize your forces and figger out what to do.

Antioco Dascalon said...

One word:

Anonymous said...

I dont recall the exact age at which I figured out the truth,but for some period I thought those lines on the map were really on the ground,too!

Anonymous said...

There are a handful of great nations in the world and the rest should move out of the way. Starting with the Ossetians and followed by the Georgians. They're all pesky and annoying and have made no contribution to anything or anyone except their bellies.

Anonymous said...

There are a handful of great nations in the world and the rest should move out of the way. Starting with the Ossetians and followed by the Georgians. They're all pesky and annoying and have made no contribution to anything or anyone except their bellies.

Cruel. But funny. And true.

This is about the only valid argument for empire I've ever heard: that it enables tiny ethnic nation-states to enjoy the benefits of trade and protection that larger nations do, and also gives them an avenue of appeal from local corruption in their isolated backwater. In a famous anecdote, Emperor Franz Joseph was asked by Teddy Roosevelt of what relevance a monarch could possibly be in the modern democratic era. He replied, "To protect my peoples from their governments."

--Senor Doug

michael farris said...

"for some period I thought those lines on the map were really on the ground,too"

I had an elementary school teacher who explained the change in borders/state line of Florida as ignrorance on the part of those who set the first lines "because they thought the line was here (old boundary) but it was really here (present boundary). I have no idea if a) she was serious b) she was trying (unsuccessfully) to explain borders in a way that children could understand c) I misunderstood or misheard what she said (possible I was bored and restless a lot of the time in elementary school).

Trying to make sense of this, I assumed that borders corresponded to some sort of natural phenomenon that maybe could be detected with the naked eye but required specialized equipment.

Anonymous said...

Along the same lines, the cultural congruence between the US and Canada allows the two nations to have "the longest undefended border in the world," or at least that's what I learned in school.

Cultural congruence, or economic congruence?

Do you really think that if the PCI of Canada were, say, one-tenth that of the US, that the Canucks wouldn't be coming here daily by the millions?

Assistant Village Idiot said...


The problem with mountain ranges is that their ridges don't tend to be a single defined line except in grade-school drawings.

Argent paladin has the right idea with deserts. Forests work well also, though they can turn out to be rather temporary.

Anonymous said...

Dearime - to be fair to the Scotland/England border its been up and down like a tart's drawers over the centuries.

But yes, more or less stable.

Zach said...

National boundaries are about capturing the "spirit of the land" for it is the "land that makes the people".

pashtun identity is complex; for instance the pathans are the "sanksritised" variant of the pashtun tribe. weirdly enough the afghan/pakistan border, though drawn up by durrand, approximates the dialectical difference between kandhari pashto and peshwari pashto.

remember the biggest difference in the pashtuns is among the pashtuns themselves; the concept of pakthunistan, whilst very strong doesn't hold much water. particularly east of the durrand line where they've been assimilation indo-aryan and dardic language groups for the past few centuries.

i'm a huge believer in coherent nations but when i do see pakistan for instance; it's a nation that while unstable has been able to reconcile it's ethnic groups.

for instance the ethnic intermarriage rates are the highest in the region; higher than in it's neighbouring nations. pakistani sub-national & national groups are assimilating at such a tremendous rate that the entire urdu-speaking population (immigrants from india) in two generations will be so deeply intermarried to sindhis, punjabis and pathans that their agitation may be futile.

Ossetians are related to the Pashtuns for they speak an Eastern Iranian langauge. They are the descendants of the great Scythians and Samartians (from whom we get the myth of the Amazons).

this comment is getting too long so i'm going to turn it into an article and post the link thanks Steve for starting such interesting topics; they remain an inspiration to aspiring students.