Subsistence and Commercial Activities. For centuries dairy farming and cattle breeding have been the most developed economic activities. Ossetic butter, kefir, and cheese ( tsykht ) from the milk of cow and sheep are famous throughout the Caucasus. Because of the harsh geological and climatic conditions in the mountains, agriculture did not play an important role there. The only species of grain that could be cultivated in the higher regions was barley, but it was constantly in danger of perishing from the cold. The other cereals with which the Ossetes were already familiar were millet and wheat, but their cultivation, as that of fruits and vegetables, was limited. The general situation changed for the better when Ossetia became a part of Russia and many peasants settled down in the fertile plains. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, maize, rye, and buckwheat have also been brought under cultivation. Today, agriculture and the raising of cattle and sheep are the most profitable economic activities. In keeping with the economy, traditional Ossetic cooking is relatively simple, with a restricted variety of ingredients and dishes. Some Ossetic dishes are fyjjyn (a cake with meat), wælîbækh (a cake with cheese), churek (a kind of maize-bread), various milk products, and fîzonæg (shashlik). The brewing of beer ( bæegæny ) has been an Ossetic specialty for hundreds of years.
Modern North Ossetia is a center of metallurgy; deposits of mineral resources have enriched several areas, as has scientific metallurgy. The numerous rivers in the Ossetic mountains have made it possible to develop a profitable hydroelectric industry. The forest industry has become another important part of the Ossetic economy.
Industrial Arts. The production of wooden utensils and furniture, as well as textile manufacture, have a long tradition in Ossetia; in part they are still practiced as cottage industries. Other handicrafts and applied arts, such as specialized smithery (in particular the production of knives, swords, and special scimitars) were very important in the past, and in several cases can be traced back to the Alanic period.
Trade. Ossetic trade is tied into the framework of Soviet trade. Until recently there were few opportunities for personal initiative. The daily shopping situation is characterized by the same problems that one finds elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Markets and other comparable institutions, such as cooperatives, to the extent that they exist, are normally distinguished by a better and richer assortment of goods than the official shopping centers.
Division of Labor. In the traditional Ossetic family every member had sharply defined duties. The paterfamilias, who normally was the oldest man of the clan, assigned the various tasks to the men of the family and supervised their work; he also received guests and performed some light work, such as repairing tools and equipment. In addition, he was responsible for trade of every kind and represented the family. Each of the younger male family members had to carry out a specific task: for example, one had to care for the cattle, another was engaged in fieldwork, a third had to do temporary work in the nearest town. The profits from the various jobs went to the common fund of the family. The female members of the family had to obey the paterfamilias's wife, who was held in high esteem by the entire clan. Her main responsibility was taking care of the common pantry and supervising the other women. The distribution of female work followed an exact hierarchical order: cooking was always the task of the eldest daughter-in-law and the preparation of cheese and other dairy products that of the other senior daughters-in-law. The younger daughters-in-law had to carry water, heat the fireplace, milk the cows, and clean the house, stable, and courtyard—the most unpleasant housework was always the job of the youngest daughter-in-law. The daughters were in a relatively free position, as they were considered to be only temporary members of the family. Spinning, weaving, and sewing were the common tasks of all women.
Today, under urban living conditions and with smaller families, many details have changed. The situation of the housewife has not become much easier, however, since much work that was formerly done by many women now has to be done by one woman. Moreover, most Ossetic women, like women everywhere in the former Soviet Union, hold an outside job.
Land Tenure. In the past almost all landed property was in the hands of a few feudal families, whereas the farmers had the status of leaseholders. Since the Revolution of 1917, privately held land has in most cases been turned into state property in Ossetia as elsewhere in the USSR.