LOCATION: Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Georgia (Ossetian territory)
POPULATION: 680,000 (2001)
LANGUAGES: Ossetian; Russian; Georgian
RELIGION: Orthodox Christian; Muslim
The Ossetians, who live in the Caucasus Mountains between the Russian and Georgian Republics, are the descendents of an ancient people, the Alans, who occupied this territory as early as the 5th century ad. This ancient people spoke a language belonging to the Iranian branch of Indo-European and were distantly related to today's Iranians and Afghans. Even during the 20th century, Ossetians have defended their right to live in the territories of Ossetia by tracing their roots in the region back to the ancient Alans. In the 1990s, to honor these origins Moscow renamed North Ossetia as North Ossetia-Alania.
Throughout the 20th century, the Ossetian nation has suffered from interference with its territorial boundaries. In 1918, following the collapse of the tsarist Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet regime, the Ossetian territory was divided into North and South Ossetia. North Ossetia was defined as part of the Russian state, while South Ossetia was considered to be part of the Georgian Republic. Ossetians still protest the division of their territory, preferring a single, united Ossetia. Some consider the division of Ossetia to have been an attempt on the part of the Soviet government to weaken the culture and national identity of Ossetians.
In 1989, the government of the Georgian Republic dissolved the separate territory of South Ossetia and declared the citizens of South Ossetia to be merely "settlers." The Georgian government urged Ossetians to leave South Ossetia and settle in the North. The Ossetians resisted the Georgian attempts to destroy South Ossetia. The resulting conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia lasted for almost four years, and erupted into war from 1991-92. North Ossetia assisted the South Ossetians in their struggle. During the war, more than 80,000 Ossetians were forced to flee South Ossetia and live as refugees in North Ossetia. Many young men from North Ossetia volunteered to fight on the Ossetian side in South Ossetia. Although the war ended formally in 1992 with a series of peace agreements, relations between South Ossetians and neighboring Georgians remain tense. Occasional armed clashes continue to break out.
North Ossetia had its own territorial difficulties. In 1944, the North Ossetian state was expanded, receiving territories that had formerly belonged to the Ingush, a neighboring people to the east. The Soviet regime had suspected the Ingush of betrayal during World War II. In the spring of 1944, the entire Ingush population was forcibly deported to areas of Central Asia and Siberia. North Ossetia was granted a portion of territory formerly occupied by the Ingush. When the Ingush were permitted to return in 1956, they received most of their former territories. However, a portion of the territories remained within North Ossetia, in the Prigorodnyi region. Thus, some Ingush families who returned to the Prigorodnyi region sometimes found that the land they had occupied prior to the deportation was now settled by Ossetians, who refused to leave.
The conflict between North Ossetians and neighboring In-gush was relatively quiet until the early 1990s. With the collapse of Soviet power, the Ingush became more vocal in their demands for the restoration of their former territories. The Ossetians continued to resist these demands. The dispute escalated into armed conflict in October-November 1992. Russia attempted to resolve the conflict, and the two sides reached an agreement in 1994. However, feelings of mutual hostility between the Ingush and Ossetians remain and occasional fighting continues to occur.
Historically, Ossetia's relationship with Russia has been peaceful. The South Ossetian government has declared its wish to leave the Georgian Republic and join North Ossetia in Russia. However, in 1994 the North Ossetian government threatened to separate from Russia because of Russian interference in the conflict between North Ossetians and the Ingush. North Ossetia also demanded greater autonomy in economic affairs. In 1995 Russia granted North Ossetia considerable autonomy, and the conflict between Russia and North Ossetia appears to be resolved.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Ossetian territory is located between the Black and Caspian Seas, in the Caucasus Mountains. The mountains have helped to isolate Ossetians from contact with others. Therefore, despite the small size of the population, the Ossetian language and culture have been very well-preserved. The mountainous terrain and alpine meadows help to support sheep raising, the most common rural occupation. Most of the territory is mountainous, but the plains in the North of the Ossetian territory allow for farming of vegetable and fruit crops.
Although North and South Ossetia share a border, North Ossetia-Alania is a state within the Russian Republic, and South Ossetia lies within Georgia. In 1989, 164,000 Ossetians lived within the Georgian territory and approximately 400,000 in North Ossetia. As of 2007, there are 445,000 Ossetians in North Ossetia-Alania and perhaps 45,000 remaining in South Ossetia, the changes being due in part to refugees who have moved north.
The largest city in Ossetia is Vladikavkaz, in the North. Since the 19th century, Vladikavkaz has been an important administrative center for the entire North Caucasus region. Administrators and politicians from the central government in Moscow have been sent to Vladikavkaz. Therefore, most Ossetian residents of Vladikavkaz have a fluent command of Russian. A southern suburb of the capital has been reassigned its ancient Ossetian name of Dzaudzhikau.
The capital of South Ossetia is Tskhinvali, and most residents speak both Ossetian and Georgian. The war with Georgia has resulted in the devastation of Tskhinvali. Many buildings remain destroyed, and many people fled to claim refugee status in North Ossetia. However, since the conflict has lessened, the former residents of Tskhinvali are returning to help rebuild the city.
The Ossetian language is in the Iranian family of languages, although Ossetian and Iranian (Farsi or Persian) are not mutually comprehensible. There are three main dialects of Ossetian: Digor, Iron, and Tual. The Digor speakers live mainly in North Ossetia, the Tual in the South, and the Iron in both North and South Ossetia. The Iron is the largest dialect group, and many Digor and Tual speakers can also speak the Iron dialect.
In North Ossetia-Alania, the two official languages are Ossetian and Russian. Most North Ossetians can speak Russian competently, although often with a distinct accent. The two official languages of South Ossetia are Ossetian and Georgian. Both official languages are taught in school, as are Ossetian and Russian in North Ossetia. However, many South Ossetians also have a command of Russian.
Perhaps the most popular name for Ossetian males is Alan. This name honors the Alans, the ancient ancestors of the Ossetians. The name Ossetian itself reflects that of the ancient As, a group even older than the Alans.
For hundreds of years, Ossetians have told a series of epic folk-tales called Narty. The stories tell of the exploits of the giant heroes (the Narts) and also feature magical animals with mysterious powers. To this day, the Narty are popular and well-known among Ossetians. The Narty tales have been published in Ossetian and Russian editions for folklore specialists, in collections for interested adults, and also in illustrated children's versions.
Prior to the adoption of Christianity or Islam, Ossetians celebrated an active and ancient pagan faith. Khitsau, the God of Gods, can be traced back to the ancient Alan people. One of the most important gods, whose name is used even in the late 20th century, is Wastyrji. He is considered the patron of men and warriors. Aside from these gods, who were acknowledged throughout Ossetia, many families had totem animals, such as deer or wolf. Families would try to protect their totem animal and celebrate yearly feasts in the animal's honor. Ravens were significant animals for some families, and snakes were the totem animal of others. To this day, some rural families remember their totem animal and avoid killing such animals. Most of the totem animals also play roles in the Nart folk tales.
Contemporary religion was adopted by Ossetians relatively recently, in the mid-19th century. Most Ossetians adopted the Orthodox Christian faith. However, a significant minority, between 15% and 20%, adopted Islam, the faith of many neighboring ethnic groups. While both Christians and Muslims celebrate the major holidays of their religions, many pagan customs have remained part of the religious practices of both groups. Thus, Ossetian Christians and Muslims have similar, uniquely Ossetian celebrations surrounding the events of death and marriage.
Both Christians and Muslims celebrate St. George's Day on November 10. However, the Ossetians call St. George by the name of Wastyrji, the pagan god of men and warriors. Th us, the Ossetian religious culture transforms St. George into Wastyrji, a uniquely Ossetian figure who can be recognized by both Muslims and Christians. Roadside shrines, dedicated to the saint and bearing his picture, are found along the highways of North and South Ossetia. A large pile of stones marks the shrine, and the picture of Wastyrji is housed in a small lean-to or shack. Traditionally, passing motorists would stop at the shrine, throw a stone on the pile, remove their hats, pray for a successful journey, and leave some silver or money as a dedication to Wastyrji. It is considered bad luck to pass a shrine without stopping, and many Ossetians still pay their respects at the shrines. Sometimes, families will slaughter a lamb or sheep at the shrine in honor of Wastyrji. Most villages have similar shrines.
Sacred groves remain important. The trees therein are decorated with ribbons tied around their trunks.
A traditional festival honoring Wastyrji takes place in July, at the site of a shrine. Because Wastyrji is the patron of men, women do not attend this celebration for fear of offending the saint. The men-Christians and Muslims alike-drink beer, which is the traditional celebratory drink of the Ossetians. They sing songs, dance around the shrine, and dine together. Although the women are prohibited from celebrating the holiday, they cook the food for the celebration and bring the food to the shrine. Although some Ossetians, especially those living in the city, have ceased to observe this holiday, the celebration is still held in many rural areas.
In the spring two clans, the Alægætæ and the Borætæ, stage a mock battle. The significance of this ritual warfare has been forgotten, but the ritual itself seems to be very ancient, since the first name reflects a form of the name Alan, while the second is the same name as used in the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, or Bharata.
During the years of Soviet power, the major national holidays were the Day of the Revolution on October 7 and the Day of International Socialism on May 1. Since the collapse of Soviet power in 1991, the Ossetian governments have tried to create new holidays, with significance for Ossetians, to replace the Soviet holidays.
New Year's Day is celebrated throughout Ossetia, and most people receive a few days off from work and school at this time. Like North Americans, Ossetians have summer holidays, and schools are closed. Children may attend summer camp, vacation with their families, or work on the farm. Most adults, except for those working on their own farms, are able to take some weeks of vacation in the summer.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Many of the traditional Ossetian rites of passage are pagan in origin and were later incorporated into the Christian and Muslim faiths. When a child is born, families and friends will celebrate the baby's first time in the cradle and first haircut. Males are particularly valued, and special celebrations attend the birth of a boy. For instance, a celebration is held on the day that the boy's name is chosen, and another takes place on his first birthday. At one time, the entire village would have attended these celebrations. Many families still celebrate these occasions, but the festivities are more private and modest.
Males remain the focus of many rites of passage. A boy's initiation into adult male society was celebrated when he first went out to work in the pastures. More recently, the occasion of choosing a career is celebrated as an initiation.
In traditional Ossetian society, children moved quickly into adulthood without an interim teenage stage. As soon as children were old enough to work, they were initiated into adult responsibilities. Traditionally, girls were expected to marry at age 13 or 14, and boys at age 15 or 16. Now, because of mandatory high school education, young people have several years in their teens before they are expected to assume adult roles. Entry into adulthood is celebrated as the young person graduates and takes up a career, or when he or she marries.
Death is marked with a funeral rite and a series of wakes. Although funerals are conducted according to Christian or Muslim rites, some pagan practices are included in the funeral service. In mountain regions, Ossetians still celebrate the ritual of dedicating a horse to the deceased. In ancient times, the horse was sacrificed and buried with the dead man. In a contemporary version, the horse is decorated with a fancy bridle and saddle and led three times around the grave. Finally, a small cut is made on the horse's ear and the horse is led away. In the towns and cities, this custom is not practiced. However, it is common to bury some favorite personal belongings with the deceased.
A wake is held on the two days following the funeral. The family of the deceased holds a large feast. According to folklore, the food does not strengthen those who eat it, but the strength is transferred to the spirit of the dead person. Another wake is held a year later. This wake usually includes the lighting of a fire (either a candle or a bonfire), at the home of the deceased, as fire is associated with renewal and rebirth.
Male friends and acquaintances greet one another with handshakes. Traditionally, women were expected to behave modestly and deferentially in the company of men, keeping their eyes lowered. They did not shake hands, either with each other or with men. In contemporary life, however, women will shake hands with co-workers in a professional setting and interact with men in a direct, professional manner.
Ossetians take pride in their customs of hospitality to guests. A guest in an Ossetian home can expect to receive good meals, friendly company, and comfortable accommodation. Ossetians frequently visit one another, and guests are expected to return invitations.
Dating became a traditional part of Ossetian social life. Marriages between young men and women were customarily arranged by the families, usually when the couple was quite young. In contemporary times, this has changed. Most young people choose whom they will marry, although many ask for parental approval. By North American standards, dating among Ossetians is very restrained and conservative. Young men and women will get to know each other in public settings, such as school or with friends, and may go out with groups of friends. Taking walks together is the most common dating scenario, and young couples have little opportunity for privacy. Premarital sexual relations are discouraged.
Until recently, part of Ossetians lived in isolated mountain villages. They built large, three-story stone houses to accommodate large extended-family groups. In the North, on the plains, the villages were larger, people lived with fewer family members and, therefore, built smaller, single-story wooden dwellings. According to the last census data 225,500 Ossetians live in the villages and 454,500 live in cities. In particular, the populations of the larger cities, such as Vladikavkaz and Tskhinvali, have risen sharply since the mid-20th century. Most city dwellers live in small bungalows or apartment buildings.
Living conditions in Ossetian homes can be challenging, as they lack many of the conveniences that North Americans take for granted. Some rural dwellings do not have indoor plumbing. In the cities, the supply of hot water is not always guaranteed, and some homes may have hot water for only a few hours each day. Dryers and dishwashers are very rare. However, most homes have refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and DVD players, and many people have cars. Fresh meat and vegetables are common at any time of a year.
Because of the war with Georgia, living conditions in South Ossetia have been extremely harsh. The dangers of war forced many people to flee to North Ossetia. Some South Ossetian refugees were able to live with friends or relatives, but others were housed in army barracks and summer-camp facilities. The destruction of much of South Ossetia meant that shelter was inadequate, and consumer goods were in short supply. Water, heat, and electricity were cut off in many areas. After 1992, the Ossetians began to repair the devastation of the war. However, the reconstruction process remains incomplete, as the economy is unable to support an efficient, large-scale effort and tensions with Georgia remain high.
In the mountainous regions, Ossetian families traditionally lived in large, extended family units. The sons, and their wives and families would often live with the parents in a single large home. The farming activities of a mountain family required much labor. If a family was not large enough to provide its own labor, it would be forced to hire workers. Thus, an Ossetian proverb states: "To live alone is to live poorly."
Since the mid-20th century, few families have lived in the traditional, large family groups. Sons are still encouraged to start their own families in their father's house, moving out only after several years of marriage or after the birth of the first child. One son, usually the youngest, is expected to remain at home and raise his family in the house of his parents. A couple will rarely live with the wife's family. Even now, Ossetian men consider living under the roof of the wife's father to be dishonorable.
According to traditional custom, marriages were arranged by extended families. Women were expected to provide a dowry, and men paid a bride price, of similar value to the dowry, to the bride's family. If two young people wished to marry but could not obtain parental consent, they would arrange with the friends of the groom to stage a mock "kidnapping" of the bride. The couple would be whisked off to be married. Sometimes, if a man wished to marry a woman, he would arrange tokidnap her without her consent. If the man was of lower wealth or social standing than the woman, these marriages could result in a feud between his and her relatives.
In contemporary society, arranged marriages are rare, although most couples will obtain parental permission before marrying. If the parents will not give consent, a couple may resort to the traditional mock kidnapping. A couple who has married without parental consent will often choose to live in a different town or city for a few years until the parents accept the marriage.
In earlier times, relations between family members and in-laws were governed by "avoidance customs," taboos that restricted contact between various family members. Avoidance customs were practiced as soon as a couple announced their engagement. Once engaged, a couple was not permitted to appear together publicly and was discouraged from meeting prior to the wedding. During the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom were separated. The bride would sit quietly in a corner, surrounded by other women. The groom would not be present for much of the festivity. On the wedding night, the groom would sneak into the bride's bedroom. The next morning, the couple was considered officially married and was permitted to appear together. In contemporary conditions, couples rarely observe avoidance customs, although displays of intimacy prior to marriage are discouraged.
Other avoidance customs limited the relations of a son-inlaw with his mother-in-law. A son-in-law was not allowed to speak to, or even see, his mother-in-law. Although this custom is no longer strictly observed, sons-in-law are not expected to have close relationships with their mothers-in-law. Similar customs restricted contact between a daughter-in-law and her father-in-law. Traditionally, a new wife, who would be living with her in-laws, was expected to veil her face and did not speak directly to her father-in-law. These restrictions were lifted after an unveiling ceremony. Although these customs are no longer observed, a woman is expected to behave respectfully and deferentially toward her father-in-law.
The traditional costume of Ossetian women was modest but elaborate. Women wore a long dress with a flowing skirt and sleeves. The bodice was tight-fitting and high-necked, with elaborate embroidery. The head, but not the face, was covered with a long veil of fabric or lace. The veil was draped over top of a tall, pillbox-shaped hat. Gold or silver jewelry, with detailed metalwork, was worn for special occasions.
Men wore a jacket, tightly belted at the waist, with a flared hem and a high stand-up collar. The breast of the jacket was decorated with bullets, which were sewn on, and a silver sword was worn at the belt. For ease on horseback, men wore loose trousers tucked into black leather riding boots. The hat, which was made of Persian lambs' wool and dyed black or dark grey, was worn almost all the time.
Contemporary everyday clothes bear little resemblance to the traditional national costume. Men dress in the North American style, wearing suits to office jobs and preferring jeans or work pants for casual occasions. Some old men in the villages continue to wear the woolen hats, and men who work on horseback wear traditional riding boots. Women have also adopted Western clothing, although women almost always wear skirts or dresses, rarely trousers or jeans. Few women wear head coverings, and most women use make-up and wear contemporary Western hairstyles.
The staples of the everyday Ossetian diet are bread, milk products, vegetables (particularly beans and tomatoes), and lamb or mutton. In the winter, pickled vegetables and preserved fruits are common. Dried fruits, especially prunes and apricots, are common throughout the year and are often used to make desserts. The Christian Ossetians have no food taboos. Ossetian Muslims, like all Muslims, do not eat pork or pork products.
Stuffed flatbread (fidjin) is a unique Ossetian dish. The bread may be stuffed with white cheese, cooked beans, or a mixture of lamb, garlic, and onion. Nearly every Ossetian homemaker is a proficient baker of these stuffed breads, and they are sold at most bakeries and cafeterias.
In traditional Ossetian families, men and women dined separately. The men would eat together in the dining room as the women cooked and served the food. Women and children ate in the kitchen. Most families no longer observe this segregation, although older women may refuse to eat in a room with the men.
Beer is the traditional drink of Ossetians. Even Muslims, who are prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages, drink the traditional beer. Ossetians take great pride in their unique brewing methods, which are said to have been passed down from the 5th-century Alans.
Under the Soviet regime, education to grade 10 was mandatory for both boys and girls. Universities and trade institutes throughout Ossetia, and in both Russia and Georgia, offer further career training to high school graduates. Because virtually all Ossetians receive an education, literacy is high. Most Ossetians graduate from high school, and many go on to post-secondary education.
Parental expectations vary according to the occupations of the parents. City dwellers usually want their children to receive the best education possible. Furthermore, most parents encourage their children to improve their career prospects by learning either Russian or Georgian. Rural parents may have entirely different aims for their children, as they will likely encourage at least one child to live and work on the family farm. In South Ossetia, education was interrupted by the war with Georgia. Many children did not attend school on a consistent basis for the four years of the war.
The Ossetians take great pride in the preservation of their culture. The national folk epic, the Nart epic, appears in various editions for both children and adults. During the years of Soviet power, the central government controlled both the educational curriculum and the writing of national histories. Ossetians were forced to teach the history of their nation according to the Soviet government's version of events. Since the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991, Ossetians have developed a new school curriculum with greater instruction in the Ossetian language. History books describe the Ossetian, rather than Moscow's, interpretation of national history.
Traditional Ossetian music and dance are still enjoyed by Ossetians. During dances, couples do not touch. They play outa kind of courtship scene in which the man performs bold, athletic movements to display strength and honor while the woman keeps her eyes modestly lowered and sways gracefully. Occasionally, a street musician, often playing accordion in a city park, will attract a throng of passers-by who dance to the music.
The traditional occupation of Ossetians was farming, particularly sheep farming. In the 20th century, opportunities for urban employment have grown, and many people choose to leave farming, obtain higher education, and work in towns or cities.
After the collapse of Soviet power, many jobs that had formerly been sponsored by the government were no longer funded. The post-Soviet years have been difficult for many, especially the elderly, who have had difficulty fitting into a market economy. However, there are many opportunities for new types of work, especially in business, computer technology, and import/export. Because most North Ossetians are comfortable speaking and working with Russians, they are able to take advantage of economic opportunities with Russia.
The employment situation in South Ossetia is difficult, however. Because of the war with Georgia, the destruction of South Ossetian cities and towns, and on-going tensions, many people can no longer return to their former occupations. South Ossetia has experienced financial problems as a consequence of the war. However, with reconstruction, the economic situation of South Ossetians is slowly improving, though problems persist. South Ossetia seeks unification with North Ossetia-Alania and hopes that this will provide security and better conditions.
Soccer is one of the most popular sports in Ossetia. Children may play with teams organized at school, and teenagers and adults can join amateur teams. Ossetians also enjoy watching televised soccer or attending games.
Wrestling and contests of strength are popular with boys. Such activities are usually informal and incorporated into games. However, some Ossetians undertake rigorous training in sports, such as wrestling and weight-lifting, and Ossetia has produced a number of world-class athletes in these events.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
In towns and cities, cinemas and theatres offer evening entertainment. There are also a lot of cafes and restaurants. Spending time in the cafes in the early evening is a favorite pastime. In the summer, most people will go out for a walk after dinner, to meet friends and socialize.
Most Ossetian homes have television. Ossetians receive programs from their own local stations, as well as from national Russian or Georgian stations. DVDs are very common and a variety of videos, including North American and European movies, are available.
Most people have iPods and CD recorders, and classical, folk, and rock music are widely available. Young people enjoy Russian, European, and North American rock, as well as traditional Ossetian music.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Traditional crafts and folk art include pottery, metalworking, weaving, and knitting. Because fashionable clothing was often difficult to obtain during the Soviet period, many women became proficient at sewing. In school, children have opportunities to learn music and visual arts.
The most pressing social problems in Ossetia have arisen because of Ossetian conflicts with neighboring peoples. Although the war between South Ossetia and Georgia and the clashes between the North Ossetians and the Ingush have subsided, tensions in these areas remain high. Especially for South Ossetians, many of whom lived as refugees in North Ossetia, the war brought instability, loss, and poverty. Lingering conflicts in both North and South Ossetia create difficult conditions for establishing a stable, secure way of life.
The traditional role of women was to maintain the household and raise the children. Few women attended school, and women rarely had their own careers. This has changed, however. The status of women in modern Ossetia is in many ways similar to the overall gender picture in the North Caucasus, but at the same time it has some significant differences, which are determined by objective factors. First, in the past decade Ossetia has experienced two wars: with Georgia for the independence of South Ossetia and with Ingushetia over the land border. The problems of refugees, poverty, unemployment, and depression, were the consequences of this war. Secondly, in Ossetia there is a religious division-83% of the Ossetian population is orthodox Christian, 17% is Sunni Muslim. Ossetian women must find a balance between religion, tradition, and the need to survive in the face of economic instability.
Many laws, that sometimes prescribe a woman to total isolation from public life, now cease to be relevant. Ossetian women have access to higher education and are on equal terms with men. They are officially unlimited in the choice of profession. However, they suffer discrimination in hiring and firing practices and, in general, women receive lower wages than men with the same qualifications. The involvement of women in politics and business remains miserable. In 2008, there was one female minister and two women in parliament.
The women's social activism movement was most evident in connection with the tragedy in Beslan, where hundreds of children became victims in a school seized by terrorists. Ossetian women were united in two human rights organizations: Beslan Mothers and Voice of Beslan. Women, who at the beginning were only trying to investigate the tragedy, soon found themselves in stiff opposition to the regime of the Kremlin. The women from Voice of Beslan may be remembered throughout history of Russia as citizens of the country who sued the ex-president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, for the murder of their children.
Permanent fear of war or terrorist attacks and the feeling of insecurity increased after Beslan. In the years after the tragedy, Ossetia has experienced the lowest number of births. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Health in Ossetia, the idea of having children whom they are powerless to protect from the government or terrorists is frightening to manywomen. This indicates that the overall social depression in the Caucasus is deeply felt by Ossetian women.
Working hard on building a career does not free women in Ossetia from their everyday routines. Even though many women spend as much time at work as do men, women are still expected to run their households and raise children with little help from their husbands.
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—revised by J. Colarusso and F. Tlisova.