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Chechnya and Chechens


The Chechens, who call themselves noxchii (singular noxchi or noxchuo ) and their land Noxchiin moxk ("Chechen land"), are the largest indigenous nationality of the North Caucasus. They speak a language of the Nakh-Daghestanian, or East Caucasian language family that is native to the Caucasus, and have lived in or near their present locations for millennia.

demography and customs

Chechnya is a small territory of about 5,000 sq. mi. (13,000 sq. km.) corresponding to about 85 percent of the historical Chechen lands (the rest is in today's Daghestan), with some non-Chechen steppe land added in the north. The lower North Caucasus foothills and adjacent plain including the capital city of Grozny (Soelzha-ghaala "Sunzha City" in Chechen, a name still much in use despite its official renaming to Djohar in 1996) are the most densely populated part of Chechnya. The Chechens numbered just over a million in mid-2000 according to a Danish Refugee Council census. Somewhat over half of the world's Chechens live in Chechnya; most of the others are scattered throughout Russia, several tens of thousands live in Kazakhstan and nearby, and a few tens of thousands in Jordan, Turkey, and Syria.

The ethnonymn noxchii is the self-designation of all speakers of Chechen on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains but not of the Chechenspeaking Kisti on the south slope in Georgia. Though the Chechens and the neighboring Ingush have separate languages, national identities, and ethnonyms, they recognize an overarching ethnic unity (which also includes the Kisti) that they call vai naax, or "our people." Chechen and Ingush are distinct languages and not mutually intelligible, but because of widespread passive bilingualism the two languages make up a single speech community in which each person speaks his or her own language and understands the other. Chechens recognize a larger supranational ethnic and political identity of laamanxoi ("mountain people") that includes all the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus.

In the nineteenth century, Chechen society consisted of about 130 patrilineal exogamous clans (Chechen taipa ), most of which fell into one or another of nine clan confederations or tribes (Chechen tuqam ), each of which had its own dialect. The Noxchmaxkxoi (or Ichkerians) of the central and eastern foothills were the largest and most powerful. The confederations had some mutual economic and defense obligations, and as Chechen resistance to Russian conquest solidified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the other confederations began to take on the ethnonym noxchi on which the name of the Noxchmaxkxoi is based. The charismatic resistance leaders were Muslims, and one result of the war was solidification of a Chechen national consciousness with Sufi-based Sunni Islam as one of its components. The social and religious functions of clans are by now diminished, although the great majority of Chechens still observe clan exogamy. Islam was actively practiced throughout the Soviet period.

Prior to the Russian conquest, Chechen society was prosperous and egalitarian, with no social distinctions other than earned wealth and earned honor. There was no government, though the society was ruled by a strong and uniform code of law. Penalties were set by respected elders, and fines were collected or death penalties carried out by the victim or the offended family. (The misnomers "blood feud," "vendetta," and "vengeance" are commonly used of this decentralized system.) Traditional justice has served the Chechens through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods whenever civil justice has failed to function.

Chechen social interaction is based on principles of honor, chivalry, hospitality, and respect, and on formality between certain individuals and families. Relations within the family are close and warm, but in public or when guests are present younger brothers are formal in the presence of older brothers and all are formal in the presence of their father. Behavior of men toward women, whether formal or not, is always chivalrous. Unlike some Muslim societies, Chechen women are and always have been free to associate with men in public, hold positions of responsibility in all lines of work, supervise men at work, and so on, but chivalry is strictly observed and creates social distance between men and women. An individual's social standing depends largely on how well he or she shows respect and extends hospitality to others.

From the middle ages to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, Chechen families of means built five-story defense towers and two-story dwelling compounds of stone in highland villages, usually one tower per village. Today, each tower is associated with a clan that traces its origin to that village, and each highland village is (or was until deportations in the Soviet era) inhabited by one clan that owns communal fields and pastures, a cemetery, and (prior to the conversion to Islam) one or more shrines. The majority of Chechen clans have such highland roots; a few lowland clans do not, and these are generally assimilated clans originally of other nationalities.

The Chechen highlands, though the center of clan and pre-Muslim religious identity, supported a limited population and therefore traditional Chechen society was vertically distributed, with highlanders (herders) and lowlanders (grain farmers) economically dependent on each other. In cold periods such as the Little Ice Age (middle ages to mid-nineteenth century), highland farming became marginal and downhill movement increased. The

late middle ages were a time of intensification in the forested foothills of Chechnya, when foothill towns were founded, ethnic identity as noxchi began to spread through the foothills, and the lowlands became the wealthier and culturally prestigious part of the society. The peak of the Little Ice Age coincided with the beginning of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Chechen economy was destroyed as the lowlanders were expelled, their lands seized, and at least half of the lowland population slaughtered or deported to the Ottoman Empire (the Chechens of Jordan, Turkey, and Syria are descendants of these and postwar deportees).

history, treaties, external relations

In 1859 Imam Shamil, leader of the fierce Dagestani-Chechen resistance to Russian conquest, surrendered to the Russian forces. No nation or government surrendered, and in particular the Chechens did not surrender (and indeed had no government that

could have surrendered) and have essentially never considered themselves legitimately part of Russia. Their best land was seized and given to Cossack or Russian settlers, and perhaps half of their surviving population was deported or coerced or deceived into emigrating to the Ottoman Empire. A large Chechen uprising in 187778 was put down by Russian military force. A North Caucasus state, the Mountain Republic, including Chechnya, formed in 1917 and declared its independence in 1918. Individual North Caucasian groups, including the Chechens, fought against the Whites in the Russian civil war. In 1920 the Red Army occupied the North Caucasus lowlands but then oppressed the population and a yearlong war in Chechnya and Daghestan ensued. A Soviet Mountain Republic (the North Caucasus minus Daghestan) in 1921 recognized the Soviet government on the latter's promise (via nationalities commissar Josef Stalin) of religious and internal-political autonomy. But in 1922 the Bolsheviks attacked Chechnya (to "pacify" it), removed it from the Mountain Republic, and in 1924 "liquidated" the rest of the Republic. In 1925 there was another bloody "pacification" of Chechnya. In a 1929 Chechen rebellion against collectivization, the leaders created a provisional government and presented formal demands to the Soviet government, which officially promised Chechen autonomy but attacked again soon after. Probably at least thirty thousand Chechens were killed in purges connected with collectivization. In 1936 Chechnya was merged with Ingushetia into a hybrid Chechen-Ingush ASSR. In 1944 the entire Chechen and Ingush population was deported and the ASSR "liquidated." They were "rehabilitated" in 1956 and the ASSR reinstituted in 1957. In 1991 Chechnya declared independence and Ingushetia separated off. The 19941996 Russian-Chechen War was initiated in part to prevent Chechnya's secession. The 1997 Khasavyurt treaty after the war promised Russian withdrawal from and noninterference in Chechnya, a decision on independence after five years, and Russian aid in rebuilding the devastated country. (The wording implies Chechen independence; e.g. "The agreement on the fundamentals of relations between Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic being determined in accordance with generally recognized norms of international law shall be reached prior to December 31, 2001.") This is the first treaty the Chechens have made as a nation. They honored it; Russia did not, but diverted aid funds, supported radical Islamists and militants, began planning to invade Chechnya in early 1999, and did so on a pretext in late 1999, initiating a destructive war designed to solidify political power in Moscow but otherwise still incompletely understood.

The Chechen demographic losses of the twentieth century are: 19201921 Red Army invasion, nearly 2 percent of the population killed; collectivization in 1931, more than 8 percent; 1937 purges, more than 8 percent; mass deportation in 1944, 22 percent killed in the deportation process and another 24 percent dead of starvation and cold in the first two or three years afterward; 19941996 Russian-Chechen War, between 2 percent and 10 percent (figures vary), mostly civilians; a similar figure for the second Russian-Chechen War, begun in 1999; conservative total well over 60 percent. In the early twenty-first century many Chechens are war refugees or otherwise displaced. The overarching cause has probably been Russian official hate dating back to the nineteenth century when the Chechens were the largest and most visible of the groups resisting Russian conquest, fueled by continued Chechen nonassimilation and resistance. Besides many civilian deaths and refugees the two wars have brought numerous violations of Chechen human rights by Russian forces, destruction of the economy and infrastructure of Chechnya, open prejudice and violence against southern peoples across Russia, and a small but conspicuous radical Islamist movement in Chechnya.

See also: caucasian war; caucasus; deportations; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


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Johanna Nichols

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