Who Are The Chechens ?
The Chechens and their western neighbors
the Ingush are distinct ethnic groups with distinct languages, but so
closely related and so similar that it is convenient to describe them
The term "Chechen" is a Russian ethnonym
taken from the name of a lowlands Chechen village; "Chechnya" is derived
from that. (Both words are accented on the last syllable in
Russian.) This term evidently entered Russian from a Turkic
language, probably Kumyk (spoken in the northern and eastern Caucasian
plain). The Chechens call themselves Nokhchi (singular Nokhchuo).
Similarly, "Ingush" is not the self-designation but a Russian ethnonym
based on a village name; the Ingush call themselves Ghalghay.
Demography. 1989 census figures: 956,879 Chechen; 237,438
Ingush. The Chechens are the largest North Caucasian group and the
second largest Caucasian group (after the Georgians).
Location, settlement. The Chechen and Ingush lands lie just to the
east of the principal road crossing the central Caucasus (via the Darial
Pass), extending from the foothills and plains into alpine highlands.
The lowlands enjoy fertile soil, ample rainfall, a long growing season,
and a small oilfield. Neighbors to the east are the various
peoples of Daghestan (many of them speaking languages related to Chechen);
in the plains to the north, the Turkic-speaking Kumyk and (as of the last
three centuries) Russians; to the west the Ingush and to their west the
Ossetians, who speak a language of the Iranian branch of Indo-European; to
the south (across the central Caucasus range) the southern Ossetians and
There are two true cities in Chechen and
Ingush territory: Grozny (pop. about 400,000 until 1995), the
modern Chechen capital founded as a Russian fort during the Russian
conquest of the Caucasus; and Vladikavkaz (pop. about 300,000; known as
Ordzhonikidze in Soviet times) in the Ingush highlands at the
Ingush-Ossetic territorial boundary, also originally a Russian military
fort and founded to control the Darial pass. Nazran in the Ingush
lowlands was traditionally and is now a large and important market town.
The cities had substantial Russian and other non-Chechen-Ingush
population; Vladikavkaz was mixed Ingush and Ossetic with significant
numbers of Russians and Georgians. (Groznyj has now been destroyed
and mostly depopulated by Russian bombing. Vladikavkaz and the
adjacent Ingush lands were ethnically cleansed of Ingush in late 1992.)
All Russian governments -- czars, Soviets, post-Soviet Russia -- have used
various means to remove Chechen and Ingush population from economically
important areas and to encourage settlement there by Russians and Russian
Cossacks; hence the mixed population of the cities and lowlands.
Language. The Caucasus has been famed since antiquity for
the sheer number and diversity of its languages and for the exotic
grammatical structures of the language families indigenous there.
This diversity testifies to millennia of generally peaceable relations
Chechen and Ingush, together with Batsbi
or Tsova-Tush (a moribund minority language of Georgia) make up the Nakh
branch of the Nakh-Daghestanian, or Northeast Caucasian, language family.
There are over 30 languages in the Northeast Caucasian family, most of
them spoken in Daghestan just to the east of Chechnya. The split of
the Nakh branch from the rest of the family took place about 5000-6000
years ago (thus the Nakh-Daghestanian family is comparable in age to
Indo-European, the language family ancestral to English, French, Russian,
Greek, Hindi, etc.),
though the split of Chechen from Ingush probably dates back only to the
middle ages. The entire family is indigenous to the Caucasus
mountains and has no demonstrable relations to any language group either
in or out of the Caucasus.
Like most indigenous Caucasian languages
Chechen has a wealth of consonants, including uvular and pharyngeal sounds
like those of Arabic and glottalized or ejective consonants like those of
many native American languages; and a large vowel system somewhat
resembling that of Swedish or German. Like its sister languages
Chechen has extensive inflectional morphology including a dozen nominal
cases and several gender classes, and forms long and complex sentences by
chaining participial clauses together. The case system is ergative,
i.e. the subject of a transitive verb appears in an oblique case and the
direct object is in the nominative, as is the subject of an intransitive
verb (as in Basque); verbs take no person agreement, but some of them
agree in gender with the direct object or intransitive subject.
97% or more of the Chechens claim Chechen
as their first language, though most also speak Russian, generally quite
fluently. Chechen and Ingush are so close to each other that with
some practice a speaker of one has fair comprehension of the other, and
where the two languages are in contact they are used together: a
Chechen addresses an Ingush in Chechen, the Ingush replies in Ingush, and
communication proceeds more or less smoothly.
Chechen was not traditionally a written
language. An orthography using the Russian alphabet was created in
the 1930's and is used for various kinds of publication, although for most
Chechens the chief vehicle of literacy is Russian. Traditionally, as
in most North Caucasian societies, many individuals were bilingual or
multilingual, using an important lowlands language (e.g. Kumyk, spoken in
market towns and prestigious as its speakers were early converts to Islam)
for inter-ethnic communication; any literacy was in Arabic. Russian
has now displaced both Kumyk and Arabic in these functions.
Particularly if the Chechen and Ingush economies continue to be destroyed
and unemployment and mass homelessness continue to undermine the social
structure, there is danger that Chechen and Ingush will be functionally
reduced to household languages and will then yield completely to Russian,
with concomitant loss of much of the cultural heritage.
History. The Chechens have evidently been in or near their present
territory for some 6000 years and perhaps much longer; there is fairly
seamless archeological continuity for the last 8000 years or more in
central Daghestan, suggesting that the Nakh-Daghestanian language family
is long indigenous. The Caucasian highlands were apparently
relatively populous and prosperous in ancient times. From the late
middle ages until the 19th century, a worldwide cooling phase known as the
Little Ice Age caused glacial advances and shortened growing seasons in
the alpine highlands, weakening the highland economies and triggering
migrations to the lowlands and abandonment of some alpine villages.
This period of economic hardship coincided with the Russian conquest of
the Caucasus which lasted from the late 1500's to the mid-1800's.
In all of recorded history and inferable
prehistory the Chechens (and for that matter the Ingush) have never
undertaken battle except in defense. The Russian conquest of the
Caucasus was difficult and bloody, and the Chechens and Ingush with their
extensive lowlands territory and access to the central pass were prime
targets and were among the most tenacious defenders. Russia
destroyed lowlands villages and deported, exiled, or slaughtered civilian
population, forcing capitulation of the highlands. Numerous refugees
migrated or were deported to various Muslim countries of the middle east,
and to this day there are Chechen populations in Jordan and Turkey. Since
then there have been various Chechen rebellions against Russian and Soviet
power, as well as resistance to collectivization, anti-religious
campaigns, and Russification.
In 1944 the Chechens and Ingush, together
with the Karachay-Balkar, Crimean Tatars, and other nationalities were
deported en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia, losing at least one-quarter
and perhaps half of their population in transit. Though
"rehabilitated" in 1956 and allowed to return in 1957, they lost land,
economic resources, and civil rights; since then, under both Soviet and
post-Soviet governments, they have been the objects of (official and
unofficial) discrimination and discriminatory public discourse.
In recent years, Russian media have
depicted the Chechen nation and/or nationality as thugs and bandits
responsible for organized crime and street violence in Russia.
In late 1992 Russian tanks and troops,
sent to the north Caucasus ostensibly as peacekeepers in an ethnic dispute
between Ingush and Ossetians over traditional Ingush lands politically
incorporated into North Ossetia after the 1944 deportation, forcibly
removed the Ingush population from North Ossetia and destroyed the Ingush
villages there; there were many deaths and there are now said to be up to
60,000 refugees in Ingushetia (about one-quarter of the total Ingush
In developments reminiscent of today's
invasion of Chechnya, in the weeks leading up to the action the Ingush
were depicted (inaccurately) in regional media as heavily armed and poised
for a large-scale and organized attack on Ossetians, and the Russian
military once deployed appears to have undertaken ethnic cleansing at
least partly on its own initiative. (My only sources of information
for this paragraph are Russian and western news reports. Helsinki Watch is
preparing a report for publication in early 1995.)
The invasion of Chechnya presently
underway has meant great human suffering for all residents of the Chechen
lowlands, including Russians, but only the Chechens are at risk of ethnic
cleansing, wholesale economic ruin, and loss of linguistic and cultural
Religion. The Chechens and Ingush are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi
school, having converted in the late 17th to early 19th centuries.
Islam is now, as it has been since the conversion, strongly held and a
central component of the culture and the ethnic identity.
Economy, customs. Traditionally, the lowlands Chechen were grain
farmers and the highlanders raised sheep. At the time of Russian
contact the lowlands were wealthy and produced a grain surplus, while the
highlands were not self-sufficient in food and traded wool and eggs for
Chechen social structure and ethnic
identity rest on principles of family and clan honor, respect for and
deference to one's elders, hospitality, formal and dignified relations
between families and clans, and courteous and formal public and private
behavior. Kinship and clan structure are patriarchal, but women have full
social and professional equality and prospects for financial independence
equivalent to those of men.
Academics, writers, artists, and
intellectuals in general are well versed in the cultures of both the
European and the Islamic worlds, and the society as a whole can be said to
regard both of these heritages as their own together with the indigenous
north Caucasian artistic and intellectual
Social organization. Until the Russian conquest the Chechens were an
independent nation with their own language and territory but no formal
political organization. Villages were autonomous, as were clans.
Villages had mutual defense obligations in times of war, and clans had
mutual support relations that linked them into larger clan confederations
(which generally coincided with dialects). Each clan was headed by a
respected elder. There were no social classes and no differences of rank
apart from those of age, kinship, and earned social honor.