June 29th 2009 · Prague Watchdog / Usam Baysayev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Russia's "highland customs"

Russia's "highland customs"

By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog

Samashki, Chechen Republic

The events in Ingushetia have once again raised a stir around the subject of highland customs – in this case, Chechen-Ingush ones. While among those who have been drawn into the discussion there are all kinds of would-be political analysts with only a superficial knowledge of the subject, the initiators of the debate have, of course, been the “natives” themselves. All week we have heard them talk about the need to combat the anti-government groupings which display these ritual behaviours. Although little attention has been focused on this, I can only assume that among the “customs” referred to they include the practice, now common in Chechnya, of burning the homes of insurgents, taking relatives hostage, compelling fathers and mothers publicly to repudiate their children, and when those children are killed, conducting a fanatical dance around their corpses, showing it all on television for greater effect – often for the eyes of the whole world. In addition to the horror of the events (of all kinds of conflict, civil war is the most senseless and ruthless) there is something else that grates on me: the consolidation of the Vainakhs’ reputation as savages who don’t deserve too be treated any other way. 

I don’t know about you, but I have never been a savage, and do not intend to become one. Nor is there anything savage about the people I habitually see around me. Their observance of Vainakh traditions does not make them the antithesis of civilization. Indeed, a distinguishing feature of our traditions is their universal character. They embrace the whole of human life. In my hands I have a book by the Chechen ethnographer Khozh-Akhmed Bersanov called Gillakkhiyn khazna – irsan nekash ( “A Treasury of Wisdom – The Path to Happiness”). In it the author has classified the Chechen traditions and their associated norms of behaviour in various life situations. There are chapters on how to talk to those older and younger than oneself, and how to stand and sit with them. There are separate chapters on marriage for men and women. Another chapter deals with learning, ability and experience. Courage, bravery and endurance are also discussed, of course. Where would we be without those? There are sections on leaders, and how they should behave with subordinates. And the author has not neglected to describe the rules that were established in the complex, sometimes bloody, confrontation with other peoples, calling for respect and tolerance towards them. I count a total of thirty-five chapters, and the book contains 220 pages. It is unlikely that the “analysts” referred to earlier are familiar with anything of this kind....

Although the book was published in Soviet times, before our hubristic dash for independence and the long retreat from there, it doesn’t follow any particular party line, but merely shows that the norms of behaviour, the customs and traditions which were developed by the Chechens over the centuries and are still in use today have democratic roots and are aimed at inculcating a respect for human rights and the dignity of the individual.

One important marker is the blood feud, which in the Soviet Union was overcome in the process of the establishment of a non-kinship-based system of law. In Chechnya, however, the blood feud still exists, and there are several reasons for this. The first and most important one is the fact of our existence in a state whose system of values is founded on different criteria. In it, a man’s life can be evaluated in terms of five, ten or fifteen years in prison. If the man who is killed is a member of a non-titular nation, the perpetrator may well be acquitted. Chechens believe that the price of a human life has not been set correctly...

The blood feud comes into effect only if the killing was pre-planned and brutal. In other cases it may not be so difficult to achieve reconciliation – “blood forgiveness”.  If the killing was unpremeditated it is all quite simple – the perpetrator is forced to pay a maximum of compensation.

There are restrictions which prevent the blood feud escalating into mere butchery. Women and children may not be touched (and this includes the taking of hostages in order to force the offender to give himself up), and homes are also protected. And there are special provisions for the treatment of the slain enemy: a funeral prayer must be said over him, he must be given a posture suitable for burial, placed on the funeral stretcher and taken to his family home to be consigned to the ground. Blowing up corpses, dragging them around villages, tying them to cars, cutting off parts of them, and so on – all this is forbidden. In other words, it is not permissible to mock the slain man. On the basis of this alone it can be confirmed that the methods that are used to combat the insurgents and claimed to be “local traditions” are neither Chechen nor local.

Of course, the book discusses a historical period that is now remote – the early twentieth century. But more recent history has seen no development of gentler manners. The Red Terror also ruthlessly executed hostages, created concentration camps like the Akmolinsk ALZhIR (for wives of “traitors to the Motherland”) in Siberia, and terrorized the families of the insurgents in Western Ukraine and the Baltic States.

If in what is happening in the republic today (and it seems that there are also plans to export it elsewhere) there is some kind of tradition, it is certainly not a local one. It is a Russian tradition, continued with minor modifications from Imperial times through the Soviet period to the present day. The Chechens are not its bearers but its victims – even those Chechens who in public state the opposite. They would do well to read Khozh-Akhmed Bersanov’s book. .



(Translation by DM)




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