Chechens (//; Chechen: Нохчий Noxçiy; Old Chechen: Нахчой Naxçoy) are a Northeast Caucasian ethnic group of the Nakh peoples originating in the North Caucasus region of Eastern Europe. They refer to themselves as Vainakhs (which means our people in Chechen) or Nokhchiy (pronounced [no̞xtʃʼiː]; singular Nokhchi, Nakhchuo or Nakhtche). Chechen and Ingush peoples are collectively known as the Vainakh. The majority of Chechens today live in the Chechen Republic, a subdivision of the Russian Federation.
The isolated terrain of the Caucasus mountains and the strategic value outsiders have placed on the areas settled by Chechens has contributed much to the Chechen community ethos and helped shape its fiercely independent national character. Chechen society has traditionally been egalitarian and organized around many autonomous local clans, called teips.
Origins of the word Chechen
The term "Chechen" first occurs in Arabic sources from the 8th century. According to popular tradition, the Russian term "Chechen" comes from the name of the village of Chechen-Aul. The word "Chechen", however, occurs in Russian sources as early as 1692 and the Russians probably derived it from the Kabardian "Shashan".
Geography and diaspora
Outside Russia, countries with significant diaspora populations are Kazakhstan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Arab states (especially Jordan and Iraq, where they are mainly descendants of people who had to leave Chechnya during the Caucasian War, which led to the annexation of Chechnya by the Russian Empire around 1850) and the 1944 Stalinist deportation in the case of Kazakhstan. Tens of thousands of Chechen refugees settled in the European Union and elsewhere as the result of the recent Chechen Wars, especially in the wave of emigration to the West after 2002.
The Chechens are one of the Nakh peoples, who have lived in the highlands of the North Caucasus region since prehistory. There is archeological evidence of historical continuity dating back since 3000 B.C. as well as evidence proving their migration from the Fertile Crescent c. 10,000–8000 B.C.
In the Middle Ages, the lowland of Chechnya was dominated by the Khazars and then the Alans. Local culture was also subject to Byzantine and Georgian influence and some Chechens converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Gradually, Islam prevailed, although the Chechens' own pagan religion was still strong until the 19th century. Society was organised along feudal lines. Chechnya was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and those of Tamerlane in the 14th. The Vainakh bear the distinction of being one of the few peoples to successfully resist the Mongols and defend themselves against their invasions; not once, but twice, though this came at great cost to them, as their state was utterly destroyed. These events were key in the shaping of the Chechen nationhood and their martial-oriented and clan-based society.
In the late Middle Ages, the Little Ice Age forced the Chechens down from the hills into the lowlands, where they came into conflict with the Terek and Greben Cossacks who had also begun to move into the region. The Caucasus was also a major competing area for two neighbouring rival empires: the Ottoman and Persian Empires (Safavids, Afsharids, Qajars). Starting from 1555 and decisely from 1639 through the first half of the 19th century, the Caucasus was divided by these two powers, with the Ottomans prevailing in Western Georgia, while Persia kept the bulk of the Caucasus, namely Eastern Georgia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The Chechens, however, never really fell under the rule of either empire. As Russia expanded slowly southwards as early as the 16th century, clashes between Chechens and the Russians became more frequent, and it became three empires competing for the region. As Russia set off to increase its political influence in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea at the expense of Safavid Persia, Peter I launched the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723), in which Russia succeeded in taking much of the Caucasian territories for several years. Notable in Chechen history, this particular Russo-Persian War marked the first military encounter between Imperial Russia and the Vainakh. Sheikh Mansur led a major Chechen resistance movement in the late 18th century.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Russia embarked on full-scale conquest of the North Caucasus in the Caucasian War. Much of the campaign was led by General Yermolov who particularly disliked the Chechens, describing them as "a bold and dangerous people". Angered by Chechen raids, Yermolov resorted to a brutal policy of "scorched earth" and deportations; he also founded the fort of Grozny (now the capital of Chechnya) in 1818. Chechen resistance to Russian rule reached its peak under the leadership of the Dagestani leader Imam Shamil. The Chechens were finally defeated in 1861 after a bloody war that lasted for decades, during which they lost most of their entire population. In the aftermath, large numbers of refugees also emigrated or were forcibly deported to the Ottoman Empire.
Since then, there have been various Chechen rebellions against Russian/Soviet power (including during the Russian Civil War and World War II), as well as nonviolent resistance to Russification and the Soviet Union's collectivization and anti-religion campaigns. In 1944, all Chechens, together with several other peoples of the Caucasus, were ordered by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to be ruthlessly deported en masse to the Kazakh and Kirghiz SSRs; and their republic and nation were abolished. At least one-quarter—and perhaps half—of the entire Chechen population perished in the process, and a severe blow was made to their culture and historical records. Though "rehabilitated" in 1956 and allowed to return the next year, the survivors lost economic resources and civil rights and, under both Soviet and post-Soviet governments, they have been the objects of both official and unofficial discrimination and discriminatory public discourse. Chechen attempts to regain independence in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union have led to the first and the second war with the new Russian state, starting in 1994.
The main language of the Chechen people is Chechen. Chechen belongs to the family of Nakh languages (Northeast Caucasian languages). Literary Chechen is based on the central lowland dialect. Other related languages include Ingush, which has speakers in the neighbouring Ingushetia, and Batsbi, which is the language of the people in the adjoining part of Georgia. At various times in their history, Chechens used Georgian, Arabic and Latin alphabets; as of 2008, the official one is now the Cyrillic script of Russia.
Most Chechens living in their homeland can understand Ingush with ease. The two languages are not truly mutually intelligible, but it is easy for Chechens to learn how to understand the Ingush language and vice-versa over time after hearing it for a while.
In 1989, 73.4% spoke Russian, though this figure has declined due to the wars for a large number of reasons (including the lack of proper education, the refusal to learn the language, and the mass dispersal of the Chechen diaspora due to the war). Chechens in the diaspora often speak the language of the country they live in (German, Arabic, Polish, Georgian, etc.).
Chechens are a Nakh people, and discussion of their origins is intertwined with the discussion of the mysterious origins of Nakh peoples as a whole. The only two surviving (and fairly numerous) Nakh peoples are Chechens and Ingush, but they are thought by some scholars to be the remnants of what was once a larger family of peoples.
The Nakh languages are a subgroup of Northeast Caucasian, and as such are related to Nakho-Dagestanian family, including the languages of the Avars, Dargins, Lezghins, Laks, etc. However, this relationship is not a close one: the Nakho-Dagestani family is of comparable or greater time-depth than Indo-European, meaning Chechens are only as linguistically related to Avars or Dargins as the French are to the Russians or Iranians.
Nakh peoples such as Chechens are thought to either be descended from original settlers of the Caucasus (North and/or South) or supposedly Nakh-speaking ethnic minorities in the north-eastern regions of the ancient state of Urartu (whose people also spoke a language that was possibly related to the Nakh languages). The two theories are not mutually incompatible, and there has been much evidence that seems to link both of the two together (either by dual origins or the "return" theory, in which the Nakh peoples originally lived in the Caucasus and then returned). Chechen genetics show a high level of genetic diversity (see section below).
In particular, the Chechens are descended from the Durdzuks, a group well known in the Georgian chronicles (Dourts in the Armenian version). Other groups linked Amjad Jaimoukha traces the name Durdzuk to an ancient city north of Lake Urmia, near Nakhichevan (Nakhichevan is thought to be a Nakh placename by some). Other groups attributed to being the ancestors of the Chechens and Ingush include the Kists (in the Georgian chronicles), Gargareans (from the Nakh root gergara; reported by Strabo to have "returned" from the South Caucasus to the North Caucasus, fleeing the wars in the south) and the Nakhchmateans (Armenian chronicles).
The Chechens belong to the Western Eurasian or "Caucasoid" race, specifically the Caucasus type. Chechens are black-, brown-, red- or fair-haired (with darker hair predominating) and eyes can be brown, blue or green, while skin is usually light. George Anchabadze notes that the physical traits of Chechens, which includes being taller than average, are typical of the "Caucasian type" which many other peoples of the Caucasus exhibit.
Genetic tests on Chechens, though sparse and not sufficiently thorough so far, have shown roots mostly in the Caucasus as well as slight connections to and influences from the Middle East as well as Europe. As is the case with many other Caucasian peoples, Chechens are broadly connected with Europe on the Y-DNA (the paternal side) from all European regions, but narrowly closer to Western Europe in terms of mitochondrial DNA (the maternal side).
The most recent study on Chechens, by Balanovsky et al. in 2011 sampled a total of 330 Chechens from three sample locations (one in Malgobek, one in Achkhoy-Martan, and one from two sites in Dagestan) and found the following frequencies: A weak majority of Chechens belong to Haplogroup J2 (56.7%), which is associated with Mediterranean, South Caucasian and Fertile Crescent populations, with its peaks at 87.4% in Ingushetia and 72% in Georgia's Kazbegi Municipality. In the North Caucasus, the largest frequencies are those of Nakh peoples (Chechens (56.7%) and Ingush (88.8%)). Other notable values were found among North Caucasian Turkic peoples (Kumyks (25%) and Balkars (24%)). It is notable that J2 suddenly collapses as one enters the territory of non-Nakh Northeast Caucasian peoples, dropping to very low values among Dagestani peoples. The overwhelming bulk of Chechen J2 is of the subclade J2a4b* (J2-M67), of which the highest frequencies by far are found among Nakh peoples: Chechens were 55.2% according to the Balanovsky study, while Ingush were 87.4%. Other notable haplogroups that appeared consistently appeared at high frequencies included J1 (20.9%), L (7.0%), G2 (5.5%), R1a (3.9%), Q-M242 (3%) and R1b-M269 (1.8%, but much higher in Chechnya itself as opposed to Dagestani or Ingushetian Chechens). Overall, tests have shown consistently that Chechens are most closely related to Ingush, Circassians and Georgians, occasionally showing a kinship to other peoples in some tests. Balanovsky's study showed the Ingush to be the Chechens' closest relatives by far.
A 2004 study of the mtDNA showed Chechens to be extremely diverse in the mitochondrial genome, with 18 different haplogroups out of only 23 samples. Chechens clustered closest to Azeris, Georgians and Kabardins. They clustered closer to European populations than Middle Eastern populations this time, but were closer to Western European populations (Basques and Britons) than to Eastern European populations (Russians and other Slavs, as well as Estonians), despite living in the East. They actually clustered about as close to Basques as they did to Ingush (Chechens also cluster closer to many other populations than Ingush, such as Abazins), but the Chechens were the closer to the Ingush than any other population, the imbalance probably largely being due to the uniqueness of the Ingush on the mitochondrial DNA among those tested.
Prior to the adoption of Islam, the Chechens practiced a unique blend of religious traditions and beliefs. They partook in numerous rites and rituals, many of them pertaining to farming; these included rain rites, a celebration that occurred on the first day of plowing, as well as the Day of the Thunderer Sela and the Day of the Goddess Tusholi. In addition to sparse written record from the Middle Ages, Chechens traditionally remember history through the illesh, a collection of epic poems and stories.
Chechen society is structured around tukhum (unions of clans) and about 130 teip, or clans. The teips are based more on land and one-side lineage than on blood (as exogamy is prevalent and encouraged), and are bonded together to form the Chechen nation. Teips are further subdivided into gar (branches), and gars into nekye (patronymic families). The Chechen social code is called nokhchallah (where Nokhchuo stands for "Chechen") and may be loosely translated as "Chechen character". The Chechen code of honor implies moral and ethical behaviour, generosity and the will to safeguard the honor of women. The traditional Chechen saying goes that the members of Chechen society, like its teips, are (ideally) "free and equal like wolves".
Chechens today have a strong sense of nation, which is enforced by the old clan network and nokhchalla – the obligation to clan, tukhum, etc. This is often combined with old values transmuted into a modern sense. They are mythically descended from the epic hero, Turpalo-Nokhchuo ("Chechen Hero"). There is a strong theme of representing the nation with its national animal, the wolf. Due to their strong dependence on the land, its farms and its forests (and indeed, the national equation with the wolf), Chechens have a strong sense of affection for nature. According to Chechen philosopher Apty Bisultanov, ruining an ant-hill or hunting Caucasian goats during their mating season was considered extremely sinful. It is notable that the glasnost era Chechen independence movement, Bart (unity) in fact originated as a simple environmentalist organization in the republic's capital of Grozny.
Chechen culture puts a strong value on the concept of freedom. This asserts itself in a number of ways. A large majority of the nation's national heroes fought for independence (or otherwise, like the legendary Zelimkhan, robbed from the nation deemed the oppressor in order to feed Chechen children in a Robin Hood-like fashion). A common greeting in the Chechen language, marsha oylla, is literally translated as "enter in freedom". The word for freedom also encompasses notions of peace and prosperity.
Chechens are sometimes referred to as the "French of the Caucasus", for a number of reasons (it is notable that the Circassians are the "English of the Caucasus", and the Georgians are the "Italians of the Caucasus"). This comparison may refer to either political/historical traits, or to personality characteristics. Like the French, who overthrew their age-old monarchy in the French Revolution, the Chechens had a similar revolution a century or two earlier, and like the French, they bore the distinction (for a period) of being the only egalitarian society in an area full of monarchic states. Like the French, the Chechens preferred swift, revolutionary (and often violent) methods to realize the change they wished to see – unlike the Circassians (called the "English of the Caucasus" both for their political and personality characteristics) who preferred more gradualist methods. Chechens were also called "French" by early Russian military officers and the French anthropologist Ernest Chantre who noted their "happy and witty" nature.
Chechnya is predominantly Muslim. Most Chechens belong to the Shafi'i school of thought of Sunni Islam. Some adhere to the mystical Sufi tradition of muridism, while about half of Chechens belong to Sufi brotherhoods, or tariqah. The two Sufi tariqas that spread in the North Caucasus were the Naqshbandiya and the Qadiriya (the Naqshbandiya is particularly strong in Dagestan and eastern Chechnya, whereas the Qadiriya has most of its adherents in the rest of Chechnya and Ingushetia). There are also small Christian and atheist minorities, although their numbers are unknown in Chechnya; in Kazakhstan, they are roughly 3% and 2% of the Chechen population respectively.
A stereotype of an average Chechen being a fundamentalist Muslim is incorrect and misleading. By the late 2000s, however, two new trends have emerged in Chechnya. A radicalized remnant of the armed Chechen separatist movement has become dominated by Salafis (popularly known in Russia as Wahhabis and present in Chechnya in small numbers since the 1990s), mostly abandoning nationalism in favor of Pan-Islamism and merging with several other regional Islamic insurgencies to form the Caucasus Emirate. At the same time, Chechnya under Moscow-backed authoritarian rule of Ramzan Kadyrov has undergone its own controversial counter-campaign of Islamization of the republic, with the local government actively promoting and enforcing their own version of a so-called "traditional Islam", including introducing elements of Sharia that replaced Russian official laws.
- Chechnya portal
- List of Chechen people
- Northeast Caucasian people
- Nakh peoples
- Ingush people
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- Media related to Chechen people at Wikimedia Commons