There was laughing and singing at North Ossetia State University (NOSU) in Vladikavkaz on January 25.
It was Student Day, a Russian holiday, and would-be scholars put down the books to party. Amid the festive frenzy on campus, two young people emerged from the crowd and began to dance in a sexually suggestive way.
Their grinding moves were filmed by someone in the crowd and uploaded to social media, triggering a torrent of rage and threats against the dancing duo in the predominantly Muslim and socially conservative Russian North Caucasus region of North Ossetia.
Terrified, the two -- an African student at NOSU, and a young Russian woman studying at a local textile institute -- quickly took to social media that same day to issue separate video apologies, admitting their raunchy dance was out of step with local mores. That, however, didn't satisfy some. Three thugs confronted the young woman outside her home in Vladikavkaz the next day and demanded she apologize again, this time with them filming it, which she did.
On January 27, local police said they were looking into online threats that followed the publication of the dance clip.
Some have likened the treatment the two have faced to the persecution usually witnessed in neighboring Chechnya, where allegations of immoral behavior -- particularly involving gay people -- can be cause for cruel treatment under the regime of local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
"I didn't like the terrified look in the eyes of the girl afterward," Batraz Kuchiyev, chairman of Iudzinad, a local NGO that promotes and supports North Ossetian culture. "We blindly follow the actions of the head of the neighboring region," Kuchiyev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on January 28, referring to Kadyrov.
Some have come to the defense of the two, especially the young woman, who has not been named in media reports. A local artist called for a flash mob under the hashtag, I'm not an ideal dancer -- #я_не_идеальный_танцор -- to dance in defense of the two.
Video Goes Viral
In the video, which was uploaded to YouTube, the two can be seen twerking, as a group of mainly young males encircles them. Judging by the video, there wasn't much condemnation from the crowd. In fact, hooting and howls of approval can be heard as the young couple grooved.
However, threats and outrage followed once the video was uploaded on social media.
Later the same day, January 25, the African student issued a video apology that was ultimately uploaded on the Facebook page of Novosti Ossetii.
"I want to apologize to the Ossetian people for my indecent behavior," he said in halting Russian. "I arrived recently in Ossetia and didn't know that I can't act that way. I promise that nothing similar will ever happen again."
The young woman followed suit, issuing her own mea culpa.
"I'd like to apologize for my dance," she said in a video that also appeared on the local news outlet's Facebook page. "If someone had stopped us, all this wouldn't have happened. Next time, I ask everyone who sees something like this to not remain indifferent and to intervene to prevent all of this. True, we only thought about this after it was already too late."
However, the message was apparently not seen as sufficient for some. The woman was confronted by three young males on the street near her house in Vladikavkaz on January 26 and told to apologize again on camera, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reported. She said they warned her she would face bigger problems if she didn't do as they said.
"I ask for forgiveness from the entire Ossetian nation for what happened. It was not proper, not polite. And something like that, honestly, will not happen again," the woman, visibly shaken, said in the second video, which was uploaded to Telegram and in which she was made to reveal her first name.
A group took their grievances to the deputy director of NOSU, Batradz Gudiyev, who said the school was trying to find out who filmed the dance.
Those who confronted him, many attired in tracksuits, asked if police had been present at the Student Day festival, and, if so, why they had not interceded once the couple began grinding.
Police did get involved after the event. On January 27, the regional Interior Ministry said it was probing the threats the girl received.
"The dance by the young people at the festival, filmed on video that sparked a negative reaction on social-media networks, has a moral element and is the responsibility of the organizers of the event. A check is being carried out regarding threats and harassment directed at the participants in the video," the Interior Ministry press service told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.
The university was not pleased by the unflattering spotlight the incident shined on the institution.
"The university is not a place for vulgarity. This incident highlights that we still have some work to do. However, the desire to point out only the negative disturbs us," the NOSU press service said.
Kuchiyev downplayed the incident and put down the "mistake" to youthfulness.
"I don't think it was a tragedy. Yes, it doesn't completely conform to our outlook [mentality], our traditions, but they began to film them and didn't say anything," Kuchiyev explained. "These are young people. Young people make mistakes."
Anna Kabisova, an artist from Vladikazkaz, called for flashmobs to dance in support of the condemned couple and to upload videos of the protests to social media.
According to a January 29 news posting on the Caucasian Knot website, the girl said the number of threats she's received had subsided.
Public Apologies Common In Caucasus
People being forced to apologize on camera is not uncommon in the North Caucasus, although in most cases it's not left to the mob but local rulers.
In 2017, two men in Daghestan were beaten and forced to apologize after they publicly insulted the Russian region's leader, Ramazan Abdulatipov.
In 2019, a tearful, terrified, Chechen teen was forced to apologize on camera for criticizing the authorities.
In Chechnya, forced apologies are not limited to locals.
In 2019, a video blogger from England who visited Chechnya, apologized on video for using the phrase "Chechen chick."
Such treatment pales in comparison, however, to what activists have called a "purge" of people believed to be gay or lesbian in Chechnya.
A campaign of abuses -- including abduction, torture, and murder -- against gay men in Chechnya was first reported in April 2017 by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, triggering a global outcry. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other media outlets subsequently published personal accounts from others who said they were victims of the abuse. Only a few have spoken on the record, citing security concerns.
Human Rights Watch later said it had confirmed that police in Chechnya rounded up, tortured, and humiliated dozens of gay or bisexual men during the spring of 2017 in "an apparent effort to purge them from Chechen society."
Findings of a four-year study released in 2019 showed that attitudes in the North Caucasus are changing quickly with the authority of elders and clans declining, and gender roles changing. But the impact of Islamization also means conservatism on these issues, especially among men, is intensifying, according to the report.