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ETHNONYMS: Chechen: Nokhchiy (sing., Nokhchuo); Ingush: Ghalghay


Identification. The Chechens and Ingush are the most numerous northern Caucasian group and territorially one of the largest. In view of their numbers, the strategic location of their territory, and the strong leading role of the Chechens in the resistance to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, they figure with particular prominence in Russian artistic literature depicting the northern Caucasus. Although Chechen and Ingush are distinct languages and are not mutually intelligible, in areas of population overlap communication is achieved through passive bilingualism. Learning to communicate smoothly in an unfamiliar dialect area may require several days' time. There are Chechen communities in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, formed when many Chechens and Ingush emigrated to Muslim countries after the Caucasus Wars in the mid-nineteenth century. These émigré communities retain the language (basically Chechen dialects, although some of the émigrés are of Ingush descent) and much of the culture. The language is especially well retained in Jordan, where children still learn it as their first language.

The Chechens and Ingush are relatively tall, with fair skin and hair color ranging from black to blond, with reddish shades being common. Stereotypically, in their own view, the Chechens and Ingush are thin and long-limbed, with thick hair and little male baldness. The two groups see themselves as physically identical to each other and physically distinct from their neighbors.

This article is based on available published sourceswhich are neither extensive, recent, nor of even qualityand on some elicitation and extremely limited field observation. The past tense is used for patterns reported of traditional life (some of which may still be observed) and the present tense for those reported or observed now (most of them traditional). The word "apparently" marks inferences.

Location. The traditional territory lies on and to the east of the principal road crossing the central Caucasus (leading to the Darial Pass and the Georgian Military Highway) and extends from just north of the Terek River in the southern part of the north Caucasian plains to the snow line; a few villages, speaking the distinctive Kisti dialect, are found to the south of the Caucasian crest, in eastem Georgia. At its greatest extent this territory reaches from about 42° to 44° N and about 45° to 46° E. The land ranges from plains and rolling foothills in the north to alpine terrain in the south. The northern lowlands enjoy rich soil, ample precipitation, and a long growing season; the mountain valleys also offer fertile soil and adequate-to-ample precipitation, with increasingly alpine conditions at higher elevations. The climate is continental, with hot and often humid summers and cold (though not harsh) winters. Much of the land is heavily forested. Lowland settlements are in natural plains; in mountain valleys there has been some clearing (presumably extensive in some areas).

Demography. The population in 1989 was 1,194,317 (956,879 Chechens and 237,438 Ingush); in 1979 it was 941,980 (755,782 Chechens and 186,198 Ingush); in 1926 it was 392,619 (318,522 Chechens and 74,097 Ingush). The birthrate isand apparently always washigh.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chechen and Ingush, together with closely related Batsbi (or Ts'ova-Tush; spoken in Georgia), form the Nakh, or North-Central Caucasian, Branch of Northeast Caucasian (Nakh-Daghestanian), a stock not demonstrably related to any other (although connections to Hurrian-Urartian and to Northwest Caucasian have been sought). Typologically, Chechen and Ingush are verb-final, agglutinating, ergative, and case-marking languages, with six to eight nominal genders and with fixed initial stress, numerous vowels (phonemic length, diphthongs, sometimes nasalization), numerous consonants (three manners of articulation, including ejectives; eight points, including c, ch, uvulars, pharyngeals, glottals), but a simple root and syllable canon with geminate consonants and few clusters. Ingush has little or no internal dialect differentiation. Chechen comprises a number of dialects; a central lowlands dialect now serves as the official literary language and is the basis for the orthography. Chechen and Ingush were not traditionally written; prior to the Revolution, writing was in Arabic. Chechen and Ingush are now separate written languages. Latin orthographies were created in 1923 and replaced by Cyrillic in 1938. Both Latin and Cyrillic orthographies grossly underdifferentiate the vowel phonemes but render consonants well and economically. At present there is fairly extensive publication of textbooks, newspapers, and literature (as well as radio and television broadcasts and theater performances) in Chechen and Ingush, but almost no technical or scientific publication. Much of the population (especially among the Ingush) is fluent in Russian, and some (especially those who received primary or secondary education in Central Asia during the period of exile, 1945-1956) are bilingual and Russian-dominant.

History and Cultural Relations

According to both archaeological and linguistic evidence, Northeast Caucasian speakers have inhabited the northeastern Caucasus since about 6000 b.c. The Nakh languages exhibit a few words of early Indo-European provenance, testifying to relations with the Bronze Age steppe populations. There is surprisingly little lexical evidence of interaction with the Iron Age Iranian-speaking steppe tribes. The Nakh languages have numerous loanwords from adjacent Ossetic (Iranian) and Kumyk (Turkic). Native vocabulary suggests ancient connections with the high mountain languages of southern Daghestan, later (but still early) interaction with the Lak of the northeastern lowlands, and relatively recent interaction with the adjacent Avar. Present Chechen-Ingush territory largely coincides with the entry route along which steppe peoples and cultures penetrated the mountains and from which mountain culture periodically spread to the steppe. Inferable prehistory, with its fluctuation between mountain and steppe influences, is consistent with this picture. After the weakening of the Golden Horde in the sixteenth century, a substantial descent to the lowlands began, including the abandonment of some high mountain villages, a process that must have been periodically repeated throughout prehistory and continues to the present day. History can be traced to the seventeenth century and the first recorded interaction with Cossacks, and it begins in earnest with the Russian invasion of the Caucasus, of which there are extensive Russian recordsliterary, historical, military, and ethnographic. With the introduction of literacy after the Revolution, an intelligentsia, a written literature, and a remarkably strong scholarly tradition of descriptive philology were quick to form, but these developments were gutted in the purges of the 1930s. Ingushetia and Chechnia were separate autonomous regions (autonomous oblasts) until 1934, when they were joined and eventually made an autonomous republic (ASSR). During World War II the front extended to Chechen-Ingush territory. From 1944 to 1956 the Chechens and Ingush were exiled to Central Asia (with considerable loss of life), ostensibly for having collaborated with the Nazis but in all likelihood to clear Muslims and possible sympathizers with Turkey from major routes of military movement in the event of an invasion of Turkey. During this period their republic did not exist and the languages were removed from the status of literary languages. Upon "rehabilitation" most survivors returned to the Caucasus; many settled in cities instead of their ancestral villages, and most high mountain villages were not resettled. In 1991 the Chechens declared their independence and their secession from the then-USSR; the Ingush supported their right to self-rule, and demanded for themselves the status of a republic in Russia with the return of territory (on the right bank of the upper Terek, including suburban Vladikavkaz) that had been removed to North Ossetia during the exile.

The Chechens and Ingush had close and generally peaceable relations with their neighbors to the west (Ossetes and, in the lowlands, Kabardians), south (Georgians), and east (Avars, speakers of Andi-Didoic languages; in the lowlands, Kumyks). Available sources depict warfare as occasioned only by attacks by steppe tribes; in high mountain areas, land shortages and population pressure led to tension between clans and between Chechen-Ingush and other ethnicities. In recent decades there has been some local tension between Ingush and Ossetes, the result of dual claims to territory that was Ingush until the deportation and has been Ossetic since. Major literary influence has come from Ossetic (epic verse), Kumyk or other Turkic languages (lyric songs), and, presumably via Georgian, Persian (lyric songs). The culture is solidly North Caucasian overall. Most Chechen-Ingush speakers today live in the Chechen and Ingush Republic; outside of it are Vladikavkaz (Soviet Orjonikidze) in North Ossetia, the Kisti villages in eastern Georgia, and outlying villages in northwestern Daghestan.


A typical lowland village consists of single-story wood or brick houses on rectangular fenced lots in a compact and generally rectangular arrangement. Modern brick now replaces adobewhich traditionally was tempered with straw and manure, sun-dried, and, once in place, covered with stuccoalthough the adobe (said to be of Ukrainian origin, brought to the Caucasus by the Cossacks) is probably superior to all other materials in preserving an even, comfortable temperature. A fence or wall encloses the house, outbuildings, work space, and the household's garden and fruit trees. In high mountain villages the layout is less regular. Mountain houses were traditionally multistory structures of hewn and fitted stone interspersed with similar stone defense towers up to five stories in height; they were owned and maintained by clans. Both houses and defense towers were inhabited. The stone buildings are no longer inhabited, and many were destroyed during the period of deportation. Village populations range from a few hundred in the mountains to a few thousand or (in a few cases) a few tens of thousands in the lowlands. There are two true cities, both with sizable Russian populations and both originally Russian military forts: Groznyï in the Chechen lowlands and Vladikavkaz in the Ingush and Ossetic highlands. In villages, but not in cities, settlement is kin-based, with members of the same clan occupying the same street or neighborhood.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Raising livestock, especially sheepherding, was the traditional economic mainstay in the highlands; grain agriculture was the mainstay in the lowlands. High mountain villages were not self-sufficient in grain because of the short alpine growing season and the scarcity of arable land, so they traded livestock and eggs for grain in lowland bazaars. Where this trading did not suffice, some horse thievery and other robbery (especially from Georgian nobility, to judge from folklore) rounded out the economy. There was, and is, a renowned bazaar in Nazran' in the Ingush lowlands and a lesser but still sizable one in Vladikavkaz. The lowlands were more than self-sufficient in grain, which was exported to the highlands. The staple grain since approximately the seventeenth century has been maize. There apparently was no traditional production of manufactured items for trade. In the modern economy, some 40 percent of the population remains rural and primarily agricultural. Nearby oil fields have made Groznyï a center of industry and urban employment.

The traditional diet relied on grains and dairy products. Traditional ethnic foods include unleavened corn bread (siskal ); meat in dough casings boiled in stock (khingal; the dish and a term resembling this one are also found among other peoples of the Caucasus) ; pancakelike, unleavened-wheat pan bread stuffed with cheese, squash, or other dairy or vegetable products and brushed with melted butter (ch'ä:pigish ); cheese, curds, sour cream, yogurt, butter; fruits (including apples, pears, plums; medlars were harvested from wild trees); nuts; and meat, typically mutton. The proportion of fat, especially dairy fat, was high by modern urban standards.

Division of Labor. Men were responsible for livestock, fieldwork, construction, and defense; they sometimes took salaried work in lowland villages. Women were responsible for poultry and gardens, as well as for cooking, weaving, sewing, preserving, and caring for young children. In the modern urban household the woman generally remains in full and exclusive control of the kitchen, whereas the man makes purchases and does all heavy work and most household repair.

Land Tenure. Lots, gardens, and orchards were privately owned by households. Fields were communally owned by clans or villages (except that cleared land belonged to the household or head of household that had cleared it). Pastureland, at least for cattle, was communally owned by villages. Livestock was privately owned by households. Virgin land was not owned and was open to use by anyone (subject to strict cultural controls, for example on what species of tree could be cut). Roads and paths apparently were not owned. Food, once harvested and prepared, or livestock, once slaughtered, were to some extent subject to distribution by the owner to guests, neighbors, kin, people held in deference, and to fellow clan or subclan members with whom the owner had mutual obligations of support and hospitality. In high mountain villages where land was scarce, there was a strict limit on the number of livestock a household could own. When a herd exceeded this limit, the entire herd was confiscated and redistributed. (The Kisti and Batsbi settlements in Georgia are said to have received some of their population from highland people emigrating to avoid confiscation.) Land was not in short supply in the northern lowlands, but periodic incursions of steppe tribes are thought to have made expansion dangerous.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent, in the form of clan membership, was reckoned through the male line. Clans (taip ) were grouped into tribes that generally corresponded to dialects; tribes were not considered kin groups, though they were traced to mythic ancestors. Clan fission could occur if a feud or other serious disagreement led a family to adopt a different name or if a family needed to hide its identity from the authorities (as happened in czarist times), but in general clans strove to become as large as possible. Modern family names are said to derive generally from the clan name among the Ingush but from the first name of a paternal ancestor (the paternal grandfather, when family names were fixed, and by now a more distant ancestor) among the Chechens.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship system is minimally classificatory: basic terms (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, wife, husband) are combined to yield transparent phrases such as "mother's father," "father's father's sister," etc. The only simplex classificatory terms appear to be nuskal ("daughter-in-law"the element nus- is pan-Caucasian and an evident Indo-Europeanism), shicha ("first cousin," male or female), and meakhcha ("second cousin," male or female); the latter two have the Turkic suffix *chi.

Marriage and Family

Marriage was obligatorily clan-exogamous and usually tribally endogamous. The socially sanctioned form of marriage was by arrangement, but elopement was probably more common. Elopement outwardly resembled capture but was usually arranged in advance with the knowledge and cooperation of the girl's mother; to judge from folklore sources, the girl took the more active role in choosing her partner and making arrangements for the elopement. In arranged marriages the groom, his family, and the bride's family agreed on the union; the consent of the bride was not traditionally required. There was a bride-price, usually payable in livestock. Marriage by kidnapping to avoid the high bride-price, although it could trigger a feud, is reported in some nineteenth-century sources. Among urban families the bride-price now often takes the form of a negotiated gift, usually paid to the young couple in currency, apparently often with a fund-matching contribution from the bride's parents. Divorce is increasingly common, especially in cities. Divorce settlements are made by clan elders; the bride-price can be returned to the husband's family if the wife is deemed to have been at fault, or it may be retained by the wife if the husband was at fault. A divorced or widowed woman with children can generally hope to remarry only if she leaves the children with the husband's family; if she keeps the children, her chances of remarriage are slim because she would be bringing children of another clan into her new husband's household.

A man avoids contact with his wife's parents and observes the etiquette of deference with her brothers and sisters. A woman at first avoids her husband's parents, but after some timetypically by the time the first child is bornshe can converse with them. She never mentions the names of her husband's parents or siblings, whether in or out of their presence.

There was no formai adoption. Orphaned children were raised by a father's brother or by the nearest relative in the clan. A childless family might raise a son of the husband's brother as its own. In such cases children were raised in their own clan (and never, for instance, in their mother's clan).

The usual household consists of a nuclear family when space and resources permit.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Chechen-Ingush society is highly egalitarian. The only hierarchical relationships are those of age, kinship, and earned social honor. Hierarchical relationships are signaled and maintained by two partly intersecting forms of behavior that can be called "deference" and "formality." Deference is a form of interaction; it includes rising (by men) or standing (by women) in the presence of the deferree, maintaining silence to some extent, and markedly formal behavior; details of deference differ depending on the situation and kin relation between the individuals. A man gives deference to older males in his own clan (including his own father and older brothers) and to all males of his mother's clan (since to all of them he is a nephew and hence counts as younger). A woman similarly gives deference to elders, to members of her mother's clan, and to in-laws. All members of society, even children, offer deference to people who have earned particular respect. Formality is not necessarily a form of interaction; it is triggered by the mere presence of a relevant person. One is formal in the presence of elders (especially deferrees). Formality involves dignified behavior, erect posture, measured speech, and refraining from any form of intimacy (expression of one's personal feelings, displays of affection, etc.). Proper observance of formality and deference are particularly important to the institution of hospitality. Hospitality remains central even in modern urban life. To fail or refuse to give hospitality is unthinkable; to decline to take it (or, more generally, to fail to maximize others' opportunities to offer it) is ill-mannered and offensive. Observance of all aspects of the etiquette of deference and formality is an essential part of ethnic identity. Proper behavior and the code of etiquette are not explicitly taught to children, who are expected to observe for themselves and learn.

Political Organization. Villages were traditionally autonomous (although villages, or perhaps clans, apparently held mutual defense obligations in times of warfare). Clans were also autonomous in their respective spheres. Each clan had a headman, typically a respected elder. Clans had religious and legal responsibilities, which to some extent they still retain, as well as shared economic interests. Clans or subclans had support obligations in vendettas. Clans still have their own traditional cemeteries. In villages, elders held collective adjudicatory responsibilities.

Social Control and Conflict. Social control in this egalitarian society was effected by a system in which bringing honor to one's household, clan, and ancestors was highly valued, and bringing dishonor was avoided even at high cost. A man could bring honor to his line by scrupulous lifelong observance of formality and deference, generous hospitality, and economic productivity. He could bring dishonor by failure to observe formality or deference, failure to extend hospitality, and apparently also by failure to receive hospitality (or create opportunities to receive it). Women were credited with maintaining harmony within household and community and with making hospitality possible; thus they indirectly brought honor to their households and ultimately to their husband's clan. A woman could dishonor clan and household by immodest public behavior or by nonchastity (especially nonvirginity at marriage); rape brought dishonor to the woman's household and clan (the man risked retaliation but not dishonor). The system was enforced by feuding: offenses against deference, the rape of a marriageable woman or public questioning of her chastity, the kidnapping of a bride, murder, and perhaps grave offenses against hospitality could all trigger feuds.

Women were, for all practical purposes, owned by the immediate head of household (father or brother, husband) and ultimately by his clan. Their chastity, especially their virginity before marriage, was jealously guarded. Rape made a woman unmarriageable (and since elopement was minimally distinguishable from rape, a change of mind on the man's part in the first days could render the woman permanently unmarriageable). A nonvirgin bride was rejected and left disgraced and unmarriageable (but traditional custom seems to have given young men little experience that would enable them to judge virginity with great accuracy). Nevertheless, especially prior to the conversion to Islam, a certain amount of sexual freedom for married women is suggested in some folklore and historical sources.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. From about the ninth to sixteenth centuries, there is thought to have been missionary activity by the Georgian church (Eastern Orthodox), chiefly among the Ingush. Only traces remain of this traditionultimately Greek names for days of the week and an occasional abandoned medieval church in the high mountains. The indigenous traditional religion was basically animistic, with a number of nature and patron deities (the head of the pantheon was simply Deela, "God"), an ancestor cult (the probable source of patron deities), a hearth cult, and belief in an afterlife where the well-being of one's deceased ancestors was determined by one's behavior on earth. Funerals were held the day after death, a few days later (a feast with contests enabling the deceased to rise from his bed in the afterworld), two years later, and three years later. A widow resumed regular dress and could remarry (usually a brother of the first husband) after the third-year funeral. She was buried with her first husband in his family tomb and belonged to him in the afterworld. There were no funerals for women since they did not pass down the clan name. The lowland Chechens converted to Islam (transmitted by the Kumyks) in the eighteenth century and the Ingush in the early nineteenth century. The conversion is described as originally political in motivation, a move to identify and ally oneself with the Caucasian resistance to the Russians. By now, Islam (specifically, Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school) is devoutly professed as religion by most of the population and is widely considered an essential element of ethnicity. Bennigsen and Wimbush describe a system of conservative Islam that takes the form of clandestine brotherhoods (tariqa ). Islam spread to the Chechen-Ingush via these brotherhoods along clan and subclan lines; the Soviet repression of Islam, including wholesale destruction of mosques during and after the period of deportation, only strengthened the brotherhood organization. Tariqa are described as fulfilling in modern society a number of the functions traditionally performed by clans and subclans (e.g., determination of preferred patterns of marriage, legal and religious responsibilities, etc.). I have not been able to replicate this information, nor the claim of "an absolute confusion between religious, clan, and national loyalties" (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 188).

Arts. Perhaps the most conspicuous art form is architecture, represented by the finely built tall defense towers in the high mountains. None have been built in historical times, and their construction is sometimes attributed to semimythical previous inhabitants. Wood carving, weaving, felt making, leatherwork, and other crafts were traditionally practiced. Music includes instrumental dance music (now mostly played on the accordion, plus drum) similar to that of Daghestan and (to a lesser extent) Georgia. Dance of the Caucasian type is highly developed. There are lyric songs (yish ) primarily for solo voice, occasional polyphonic choral songs suggesting Georgian influence, and long epic song-poems (May); solo music is sung to the accompaniment of a three-stringed strummed instrument (pondar ). Traditional music and dance continue to flourish. Novels and lyric poetry, some of distinct merit, have been published in recent decades. There are theaters of note, both Ingush and Chechen, in Groznyï; they perform both Chechen-Ingush and translated dramas, all in Chechen or Ingush.


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