Chechen society and mentality
PhDr. Emil Souleimanov, special to Prague Watchdog
Origin of the Chechen people
The Chechens are one of the oldest indigenous ethnic groups of the Caucasus. They belong to the Caucasian-Balkan type of the Europeoid race. Their language is Chechen, which together with the related language of the neighbouring Ingush people forms the so-called Vaynakh branch of the Ibero-Caucasian language group.
Chechens refer to themselves as “Nokhcho”; besides Chechnya they live also in the Khasavyurt district in the western part of Dagestan, in Ingushetia, and in the Akhmet district of northern Georgia.
The earliest preserved references to the ancestors of today’s Chechens come from the 7th century A.D. Armenian Geography. Georgian chronicles from the 13th – 14th centuries A.D. also refer to Dzurdzuks, which was the common name for all Vaynakh tribes in medieval Georgia.
Society and mountain democracy
Living in the mountains had a fundamental influence on the formation of the ethnic mentality of the peoples of the Caucasus. Primarily it had an impact on economic relations. The mountain people engaged in an agricultural and cattle farming economy that was not adapted to any form of forced labour. The mountains provided Chechens with pastures for cattle grazing, while the plains were used for the cultivation of agricultural crops. Both these types of farming had to be skilfully combined during the course of the year. (Cf. works of Yan Chesnov).
Due to the threat posed by northern neighbouring Turko-Tatar tribes, whose perennial lightning raids were aimed at stealing cattle and kidnapping people for the purpose of extorting ransom, the mountain people had to be constantly on guard.
By mere numbers and weaponry these tribes were often no better off than the Chechens. However, the mountain people had to join forces in order to be able to fend off the attackers efficiently. In case the attackers were objectively stronger, the Chechens would move in an organized way from the lowlands to the inaccessible mountains at the south (i.e., to the region called “Ichkeria”, from the Turkic expression “ichker” or “icher” meaning “inner” (land)), from where they would launch guerrilla attacks against the invaders.
Hence the Chechens as well as other people of the Caucasus have always generally considered the mountains as a shelter, a refuge where they may feel truly safe. The Chechens themselves gradually adopted the tactics of Turko-Tatar forays – launching an unexpected lightning attack and an equally fast retreat into the safety of the mountains rather than into the northern steppes.
Village defence – auls
Mountain people of the Caucasus gradually started uniting into permanent defence groups and their mountain villages – “auls” – were well armed and fortified. Each clan of the Vaynakhs erected within their aul a so-called clan bastion – a tower in which clan members could find shelter from raids of local or foreign attackers and put up resistance during a siege for several weeks at a time. Thus the life and mentality of the mountain people became substantially militarised in the day-to-day struggle for survival, against the rough natural conditions of the mountains as well as facing unexpected malicious attackers.
Auls tended to join together into larger villages in order to improve their defence capabilities. The main objective of these so-called free mountain communities, inhabited by “uzdens” – residents with equal rights and responsibilities, was to defend the land, property, and lives of community members. As any single sabre could play a decisive role in a battle, right from their birth all boys were considered to be future soldiers (“jiggits”, from the Turkic expressions “jiğit”, “žiğit”, “iğit”, or “džiğit” – meaning “bold”), defenders of their clan and village. From the very beginning they were brought up in due Spartan manner.
Tamerlane’s invasions and its influence on the formation of society
Throughout their history Chechens had neither a state nor a king. The only historically recorded attempt of Vaynakh tribes to establish statehood ended tragically. The 14th century Simsir kingdom was crushed in a bloodshed by the armies of the Turko-Tatar conqueror Timur Lenk (Tamerlane) at the end of the century. Many Chechens refused to respect foreign rule and moved to the inaccessible mountains, from where they continued their fight against Tamerlane. In retaliation Tamerlane conducted a number of military expeditions, during which he literally drowned Chechen auls in blood.
Tamerlane’s invasion had a crucial impact on the development of Chechen society, just as Ghenghis Khan’s had earlier, in the 13th century. As a result of epidemics and massacres the number of residents of Chechnya dropped as much as threefold according to certain estimates. The majority of the Vaynakh population relocated to the mountains, where they could effectively pursue only animal husbandry. The ravaged lowlands were subsequently gradually colonised by Turko-Tatar nomads.
While in neighbouring Dagestan, Ossetia, Kabardinsk, Georgian lands, and Azerbaijani khanates during the 16th – 18th centuries khans and princes consolidated their power, the development of the Chechen society took an altogether different course. The plains lifestyle of certain North-Caucasian ethnic groups contributed to an intensive development of agriculture, which led to the reinforcement of feudal structures and the state, in the usual sense of the word. The society of these ethnic groups gradually became more and more differentiated.
On one hand the wealth and privileges of the aristocracy flourished, while on the other the dependence of peasants on feudal land deepened. Feudal disputes over land issues became ever more common. They concerned a relatively narrow class of professional soldiers from the feudalists’ units. The peasants, being the class constituting the core of these ethnic groups, were less and less willing to be involved in these clashes and to sacrifice their lives for other peoples’ (feudalists’) land.
Collapse of feudal society and beginning of mountain democracy
During the 15th – 18th centuries an opposite process of transformation of originally feudal societies into democratic societies was underway among those Chechens who moved from the plains to the mountains in the 13th – 14th centuries. Some have referred to it as the victory of the “peasant revolution”. The conditions in the mountains were not suitable for feudal economy. Instead, animal husbandry became widespread. Hence, prerequisites for the establishment and development of feudal relations and a feudal state were lacking there. Free mountain communities had the leading role in the lives of Chechens. This so-called “mountain democracy” was primarily based on families and clans.
In this context Yan Chesnov, a current Russian historian and ethnologist, writes that mountain democracy was strengthened after the expulsion of local or foreign (e.g., Kabardin, Kumyk, Ossetian, Avar – author’s note) aristocrats; in workers it reinforced a sense of human dignity, which later formed the basis of a distinctive Caucasian mentality. Thus we find with common peasants and herdsmen standards of behaviour similar to the etiquette of aristocrats. This “peasant aristocratism” lies at the core of the commonly known terms “Caucasian” and “Caucasian-ness”.
Tukhums and teips
The mountainous nature of the landscape of the Caucasus brought about significant isolation of the sites settled by Chechens. In the course of history a number of independent mountain communities have been formed with minimum mutual connections. It is specific to Chechnya that the society became differentiated not by class, as is the case nearly anywhere else in the world, but rather by region into “tukhums” (such as the Urus-Martan or Shatoy tukhums, there were 13 altogether), and by the family / clan principle into so-called “teips”.
The entire Chechen population is divided into teips, formed by individual families. The number of members of a given teip generally depends on its antiquity – within the oldest teips, which are usually more respected, the degree of relationship is rather formal due to constant migration processes. On the other hand, younger teips are often constituted by people from a single village who are mutually related.
Teips are further subdivided into smaller “gars” (branches), and gars into “nekye” (patronymic families). From time to time some gars or nekye have declared themselves as teips, in order to boost their own status. In this way the number of teips has risen from 30 to 150 since the mid 19th century.
Chechen teips are in essence nations within a nation. Teip members support each other. The notion of teip honour has a special significance. The teip is the protector of Chechen psyche, as evidenced by the traditional Chechen proverb: “The teip is the fortress of adat (custom or customary law)”.
Council of elders
Each clan has its own supreme body – the council of elders. The council generally consists of the oldest and most respected teip members (“aksakkals” – literally “the white-bearded” in Turkic). It usually deals with important issues concerning the entire clan, such as the declaration of war, deciding about the sowing time, etc.
Competition for teip status
There has been a constant spirit of competition between individual teips, causing significant tension, which has been and still is being utilised by foreign powers. Through military forays teip members would demonstrate their courage to their own clan members as well as members of other teips. This provides an explanation for various fluctuations of social status of many clans.
For example, within the Endi aul the Avar tukhum Unsurilal was considered to be foreign, that means a new tukhum that had not proven itself yet. Nevertheless, in time it became one of the most respected ones, because “its members according to family tradition had a reputation of fearless heroes; such a person could not be born or live among them, who would have the slightest room for even the slightest sense of fear in his heart”. As a result of recurrent daring raids on neighbouring tribes by members of this tukhum the authority of the entire clan grew.
The status of the older and once fearless tukhum Vagmaadul was degraded to “descendants of losers” and “former kafirs (barbarians)”, because their onetime leader had been defeated by Tamerlane’s troops four centuries earlier and had been later forced to convert to Islam.
Remnants of the cult of ancestors
To a certain extent some elements of the pagan cult of ancestors have been preserved up to the present time among the peoples of the Caucasus. Chechens know at least eight generations of their ancestors and near relatives, although among Moslems and even less among pagans it has never been a custom to record the births and deaths in mosques.
A mountain dweller may take offence if you recall some not particularly respectable deed of his great grandfather. Such situations may often lead to a conflict. Similarly, he might pride himself on some recorded bravery or wisdom of his ancestor while extolling his deeds in front of his acquaintances. In this way he nurtures a sense of pride in his children.
Adat (customary) law and blood feud
In the mountainous Caucasus there have been no states in the traditional sense of the word. State authorities often had merely nominal significance, as their power usually extended only to the seat of the ruler and did not apply to the hardly accessible mountainous areas. An absence of the state implied an absence of state law or state power. Islam and Christianity have spread only to a certain extent if at all, due to the difficult terrain hindering any contact with the outside world. Although Chechnya was formally a Muslim country, the standards of Islamic law (sharia) were not in force either.
Code of standards and rules – adats
The only law that defined the framework of mutual relations within the society was the so-called “adat” (customary) law. Its observance was supervised by the free mountain communities and individual clans. This situation constitutes an interesting phenomenon: in defiance of Hobbes’ theory of state and state power, the societies of the Caucasus mountains were able to form – without laws or the executive in their traditional sense – a clearly defined code of standards and rules that prevented chaos in relations between individual community members.
There were laws of self-help within a teip or village, but foremost was the necessity to gain and maintain respect and honour in the eyes of the general public. Although the blood feud principle was harsh, within the given conditions of de facto anarchy it was a necessary mechanism preventing chaos and despotism.
The concept of honour
Freedom and honour have traditionally been the highest values among the mountain people of the Caucasus. The concept of “honour” was perceived in a very broad sense: a man was expected to keep his word, support his family materially so that its members may lead a dignified life, but honour involved also independence, faithful friendship, nearly irrational courage or rather ostentatious fearlessness, tremendous hospitality, honesty and truthfulness, “purity” of girls and women, etc.
In the Caucasus where it is hardly possible to astonish anyone by courage, thanks to their upbringing the Chechens have always been considered the boldest. They may be essentially characterised as having a substantially diminished self-preservation instinct, due to their deeply developed sense for human dignity. According to a characteristic Chechen proverb “it is hard to be a Chechen.”
For the people of the Caucasus hospitality is sacred. In adat law it was regarded as one of the highest principles. During the Chechen uprising in 1877 Russian units under General Smekalov besieged the rebellious Chechen aul of Makhkety. General Smekalov gave the council of elders an ultimatum with a request to surrender one of the organisers of the uprising named Umma, who was hiding in the aul. In case they failed to do so he threatened he would destroy the entire village with all its fields and property, and either wipe out all the inhabitants or deport them to Turkey.
The elders wrote in response: “General! You can ask from the people anything that is possible. You surely know how hard it would be for us to part with the graves of our fathers and our native soil. Nevertheless, we cannot surrender Umma to you. Umma is our guest.” (Khronika chechenskovo vosstaniya 1877, Terskiy sbornik, 1st edition, Vladikavkaz 1890, pp. 65-66). Thus the village was burnt down and most of its inhabitants were slaughtered.
Chechens had no historical experience with serfdom, they never had a king, they had feudalists only rarely, and their society has not undergone differentiation into classes. They were never subject to any authority (of power) except the voluntarily recognised authority of respected teip elders, voluntarily elected village or town councils and generally binding standards of adat law.
Fear of shame
Mountain people were not driven by the fear of corporal punishment from the poorly functioning or entirely non-existent “central” authority, but rather by the fear of “dishonouring” of their family and teip in case in the eyes of the community they transgressed strict adats, as well as by the fear of potential negative responses from other teips. Beybulat Taymiyev, the Chechen who accompanied Pushkin on his journey to Erzurum, was an extraordinarily brave man. Still he would confess to the poet his constant fears – whether his guest will be satisfied, whether he will not behave improperly, offending his “kunak” (guest, friend), or whether he will be able to keep his promise. “I am afraid of shame, that’s why I am always on guard. No, I am not bold.”
“Pledge of honour”
In some cases shame fell not only upon a certain person but also on his entire family. In case the shame was of a serious nature it often failed to be “washed off” for entire decades. In such instances the life of the offender was unbearable. His own teip would excommunicate him landing him beyond law, his daughter could never get married, his son would live in humiliation, and his parents would lie down in their graves with a sense of shame.
Moreover, life in the mountains outside the developed system of mutual help within the community was practically impossible. Many mountain people therefore kept a so-called “pledge of honour”, even though they knew in advance it might cost their life. If they were confronted with a choice of either shame for their family and clan or death, they would usually choose the latter.
Any clan that had been offended in a certain way considered it a matter of clan honour to avenge the offence in a due manner. In case it involved the honour of the family or any of its members, if necessary some more powerful clans were capable of mobilising even more fighters than princes’ units had.
In northern mountainous Azerbaijan and in Dagestan people still recall how the members of the “offended” clan of a common herdsman or peasant, whose daughter was treated not quite delicately by the ruler (i.e., not in line with the adats), literally exterminated the khan’s entire cohort and family. As Bronyevsky aptly put it at the beginning of the 19th century: “There are many small tyrants in the Caucasus, but there is no apparent autocracy.” (S.M. Bronyevsky (1763-1830), the author of "Noveyshiye geograficheskiye i istoricheskiye izvestiya o Kavkaze).
Blood feud was generally declared by the men of the involved family, in special cases also by men of the entire clan (usually its young and single members – jiggits). Taking of land, fatal injury, murder or serious insult could serve as causes for declaring a blood feud. In case a woman or girl had been dishonoured, blood feud was usually declared by the entire “dishonoured” clan and it was aimed against all the men of the clan that caused the insult. It was the honour of the clan that was in question.
The blood feud formally extended to all male relatives of the offender, in practice this included only his father, his sons and, mainly, his brothers. Its accomplishment could be extended all the way till the entire elimination of one of the clans. In the Dagestani aul Kadar one such blood feud between two antagonistic clans protracted for nearly 260 years, from the 17th century till the 1860s.
Leontiy Lyulye, an expert on the conditions in the Caucasus, wrote in the mid 19th century: “Among the mountain people the blood feud is not an uncontrollable permanent feeling such as the vendetta is among the Corsicans. It is more like an obligation imposed by the public opinion.” It should suffice to say that in the eyes of the uzdens the “offended” person was not rehabilitated until he managed to carry out the vengeance.
Although the blood feud tradition gradually disappeared among most ethnic groups of the Caucasus due to social developments of the past decades, in the mountainous areas of Dagestan, many northern areas of Georgia and Azerbaijan, a number of republics of the northern Caucasus, and essentially throughout Chechnya and Ingushetia it still persists in one way or another.
Code of conduct – mountain etiquette
In order to efficiently and timely preclude blood feuds, a special complex of rules and standards of behaviour, known as the mountain etiquette, was established in the Caucasus. Not abiding by it could sometimes have fatal consequences. The Chechen version of mountain etiquette is called “nokhchalla” and it differs from similar etiquettes of other Caucasian ethnic groups by its strictness and accuracy. It is based on the principles of self-restraint, sobriety and respect to the individual.
It may be considered a serious insult if for instance on meeting another person one spits on the ground; or if a man suddenly grips the hilt of his “kinjaal” (dagger) during a conversation. Unsheathing the kinjaal during a dispute or handling a Caucasian’s “papakha” (hat) disrespectfully is an equivalent of a slap in the face and is considered a blood offence.
It is also said that it is not advisable to get drunk in the Caucasus. Generally one should carefully weigh one’s words, facial expressions and gestures while talking about another person or his relatives, particularly female relatives but also his ancestors and close friends. Among men more serious swearwords and obscene words are unthinkable.
“Strange” behaviour of Caucasians
Differing concepts of honour, rooted in the mentalities of Caucasian and non-Caucasian peoples, as well as their different temperament have been the cause of many conflict situations within as well as beyond the Caucasus. There are also frequent cases of Caucasians coming to earn money for example to Russia, and instead of finding work “unwittingly” landing in jail.
The vocabulary of common Russians, often containing expletives in conjunction with close relatives of the other person or fairly usual references to taboo parts of the body, is frequently taken by people from the Caucasus too literally and the offence is often instantly “washed off” by blood. On the basis of such negative experiences there are established notions of Caucasians as potential murderers and brutes, unpredictable, aggressive, and conceited loonies with mafioso tendencies and incomprehensible, “strange” behaviour.
Differences between mountain people and townspeople
It is quite interesting that even within the Caucasus there is a fairly obvious difference between the people from mountainous areas, with their traditional way of life and rooted notions of honour and dignity, and the more tolerant “Europeanised” inhabitants of towns and lowlands. Without knowing sufficiently well the mentality of mountain people one might easily hurt such a person inadvertently.
Alternatively, a more conservative person from the mountains may utter an inappropriate comment for instance about the short skirt of a woman from the city or about the “somewhat strange” hairdo of her husband, and a conflict is guaranteed.
Among the mountain people, in case of a conflict a mechanism of collective self-defence, perfected over the centuries, sets off automatically. Tens of relatives and villagers are summoned from the auls. Mountain people are therefore considered to be defiant, stubborn, and dangerous. In lowlands and cities locals prefer to keep their distance from them unless they understand their customs and habits.
During the tsarist era and even more so during the era of Soviet rule, the adats were largely extirpated – the rules of Islam play a more formal role nowadays, the mountain etiquette vanished, even the standards of Soviet law have been up to now frequently neglected in the mountainous areas, while social differences have become starker – especially among younger generations of mountain people. However, the culture of violence still lingers on. One gets to hear fairly frequently the comment that nowadays instead of adat law it is the law of the jungle that rules in the Caucasus.
The author works at the Charles University, Prague.