LOCATION: Chechnya territory between Russia and Georgia
The Caucasus Mountains stretch along a line 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) long between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, and the region includes the southwestern corner of the Russian Federation. The Caucasus region has a long history of conflict and bloodshed among its peoples. The ethnic complexity of the Caucasus is unequalled in Eurasia, and there are nearly sixty distinct peoples living in the area, and fifty languages originate from the region. Many of these groups are quite small in population, yet they have been able to retain their distinct languages and cultures. The Caucasus is the most politically unstable region of the former Soviet Union. Since 1989, the region has been the site of five wars, including two within the territory of the Russian Federation: the North Ossetian–Ingush war (1992) and the Chechen–Russian war (1994–96).
The Chechens live in a small territory called Chechnya that lies within the Russian Federation along the border with Georgia. The Caucasus Mountains protect them not only from enemies but from outside influences in general. The Chechens therefore have retained many traditional customs and practices.
The Chechens were threatened throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially by Russian domination. In the 1920s (the early years of Soviet government), the Chechens were allowed to express and develop their national culture. This period of relaxation ended by the late 1920s, and during the 1930s many Chechen political and cultural leaders were arrested, exiled, or executed.
Soviet suspicion of the Chechens led to the brutal deportation of the entire Chechen population in the spring of 1944. In the course of a few days, the people of Chechnya were rounded up by the Soviet army and secret police, loaded into boxcars, and transported to remote regions of Kazakstan, Central Asia, and Siberia. Many died on the way, and many more died in their harsh new living conditions. Survivors were denounced as traitors and suffered severe discrimination.
In 1956, the Chechens were permitted to return to their homeland. Although they had spent over a decade in exile, most Chechens returned to their native territory. Upon return, many discovered that ethnic Russians had taken over their land. Clashes and hatred between Chechens and Russians living within Chechen territories have persisted to the present. The bitterness between the two groups made the long-standing Chechen resentment of Russia even worse.
Chechen nationalism gained strength from the 1960s to the early 1980s. During the mid-to late 1980s, the Soviet government became more tolerant. However, this relatively free political climate provided the Chechens with opportunities to discuss the possibility of splitting from the Soviet Union. By August 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet system and rise of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, ideas of national independence gained widespread support in Chechnya.
In November 1991, the Chechens formed a government under leader Dzhokhar Dudaev and declared Chechnya an independent state. Yeltsin immediately challenged the declaration and refused to negotiate with Dudaev. Tensions between Russia and Chechnya increased, and in November 1994 Russia launched an air attack on Chechnya. Although severely outnumbered, the Chechens managed to prevent Russia from gaining control in Chechnya. The war lasted for nearly two years, with massive casualties on both the Chechen and Russian sides. Much of Chechnya was destroyed.
In 1996, a ceasefire treaty between the two sides put a stop to the fighting. However, the treaty did not resolve the issue of Chechnya's independence. Instead, the treaty postponed the issue until 2000, when a vote by Chechen citizens will be held on the question of independence from Russia. Chechnya still considers itself an independent state, while Russia continues to treat Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation.
Chechnya is located inside the Russian Federation, along the border with Georgia. The mountainous terrain has long been strategically important for Chechnya, and it also supports sheep farming, the traditional Chechen occupation. The flatter territories of Chechnya accommodate other industries.
It is difficult to know how many Chechens now live in Chechnya. During the war, many fled as refugees to other areas of the Caucasus, especially Ingushetia.
The Chechen language is unique to the Caucasus region, and not related to any languages outside of this region. Until 1991, Chechnya had two official languages, Chechen and Russian. After 1991, Chechen nationalism and rising anti-Russian sentiment resulted in movements to rid the Chechen language of Russian words. A new school curriculum to increase the teaching of the Chechen language was developed, and Chechens tried to increase the number of publications and media broadcasting in the native language.
Because the Chechens did not develop a widely used written language until the early twentieth century, folklore was passed on orally from generation to generation. Traditional folktales are similar to those found throughout the Caucasus. Such tales feature stories of heroism, hardship, and sacrifice, reinforcing values of bravery and personal or family honor. The Chechens used these folktales to present historical events.
Islam is the traditional Chechen religion. Despite efforts of the atheistic Soviet government to get rid of Islam, the Chechens continued to adhere strongly to their religion throughout the years of Soviet power. However, because the practice of Islam was not permitted during these years, many observances (such as public prayers) were not maintained.
Islam remained a strong force among Chechens. The religious freedoms granted during the late 1980s intensified the public expression of religion.
During the years of Soviet power, the celebration of religious or national Chechen holidays was discouraged. Soviet holidays such as the Day of the Revolution (October 7) and the Day of International Socialism (May 1), were officially recognized. New Year's Day, another holiday acceptable to Soviet power, was widely celebrated.
After the collapse of Soviet power and the Chechen declaration of independence in 1991, the Chechen government tried to create new holidays. In particular, November 9 was declared a national holiday in celebration of Chechen independence. Muslim religious holidays have regained popularity.
Even in modern Chechen society, the birth of a boy is viewed as an especially important occasion. Family and friends hold celebrations welcoming the new son. The festivities surrounding the birth of a daughter are much more modest.
In modern society, a child's first day of school, which begins in the first grade at the age of seven, is viewed as an important step toward greater maturity. Most young people spend some time in high school, and many go on to university, enabling them to enjoy some years of relative freedom before assuming adult roles. Even today, many young men are married by age twenty, and many girls marry at age seventeen or eighteen. Most young couples have children soon after marriage.
Rituals surrounding death are generally religious, although deaths are always registered with local authorities. The family of the deceased generally holds a large feast for mourners.
Chechen men greet one another with handshakes. Women are expected to behave modestly in the company of men, keeping their eyes lowered. When a man enters the room, women stand in respect. At most social gatherings, men and women gather separately. Children remain with the women most of the time. Segregation by gender is not strictly observed in the workplace, although there is a tendency for men and women to spend most of their time in the company of their own gender.
In a Chechen home, guests can expect to receive the best food and the most pleasant accommodations that the hosts can afford. The younger generation today tends to have a much more casual and relaxed attitude toward the treatment of guests, which tends to irritate the older generation. Visiting is an important part of Chechen social life, and guests are expected to return invitations and extend hospitality to those who have entertained them in the past.
Dating is not usually part of Chechen social life. Marriages are sometimes arranged by families, as each family is seeking to marry into another family of at least equal, if not superior, wealth and social standing. Many young people choose whom they will marry, although they may ask for parental approval. Chechen parents exert considerable pressure on their children to marry other Chechens. This is particularly true for women, as married women are considered to belong to the culture of their husbands.
Chechens are among the few peoples of the Caucasus who still observe avoidance customs in everyday life. Avoidance customs limit the contact that an individual may have with his or her in-laws. For example, a son-in-law is not allowed to speak to, or even see, his mother-in-law. Similarly, relations between daughters-in-law and fathers-in-law are limited by avoidance customs. Because the daughter-in-law often lives with her husband's parents, she cannot always avoid her father-in-law. However, the two will often limit their contact and may speak to one another only indirectly through a third person.
Many Chechens, particularly the younger ones, have chosen to move to towns and cities. Most urban residents live in apartments. Chechen towns and cities also have a large number of small houses, set behind walls with their own small courtyards. Even in cities, people may keep some small livestock, such as chickens. Many towns, cities, and rural areas were destroyed during the 1994–96 war, and thousands of people were forced to flee their homes.
Food was always difficult to get in the former Soviet Union and, in Chechnya, food selection and variety were often poor. This problem was particularly bad for city dwellers, while people in the country were able to produce and store food more easily. Chechen farmland and reserves of food were destroyed during the war. Other basic essentials, such as medical supplies, became difficult to obtain after the war.
Many rural families still live in large family units. The additional labor provided by many family members helps increase the economic welfare of the whole family. In urban areas, few families live in the traditional, extended family groups. Married couples rarely live with the wife's family.
The youngest wife in the household is considered the lowest person in the family hierarchy. Therefore, she usually does the bulk of the work and unpleasant tasks. Many families (especially those in more isolated rural regions) continue to use dowries and bride prices to negotiate the marriage of their children, although these were declared illegal under Soviet law.
Polygyny (the practice of a man having multiple wives) was traditionally practiced among Chechens. According to Islamic restrictions, a man can have no more than four wives and he must provide equally for each. During the years of Soviet power, this practice was outlawed and it stopped. However, since the fall of Soviet power and the rise in Islamic tradition, interest in the practice has grown. Although polygyny is not widely practiced, some Chechen men take a second wife. A second wife is not only a means of bringing more children into the family, but also of displaying prestige and wealth.
The traditional role of women is to maintain the household and raise children. In earlier times, few women attended school or pursued careers. Today, women are obtaining higher education and have challenging careers. Chechen society remains quite traditional, placing a high value on a women's domestic duties.
Chechen men and women wear Western-style clothing, although some men, particularly those in rural regions, continue to wear the traditional tall leather boots and loose-fitting trousers. Women almost always wear skirts or dresses that fall below the knee, and rarely dress in trousers or short skirts. Women in the cities wear jewelry and use cosmetics. Chechen men and women wear headcoverings. Older women often wear wool headscarves, usually in grey or black. The headcovering of younger women is often purely symbolic, usually consisting of a silk scarf, folded and wrapped around the head to resemble a thick headband. Men, especially middle-aged or elderly men, still wear traditional lambswool hats.
As Chechen nationalism has become a widespread and powerful force, more men have adopted the traditional headcovering. Sometimes, a colored band of cloth is sewn around the hats, most commonly green, the Chechen national color. With increasing awareness of their Islamic identity, some Chechens, especially young people, have adopted very conservative Islamic dress.
Lamb and mutton are staples of the Chechen diet. Like all Muslims, Chechens do not eat pork or pork products. Tomatoes, red or green peppers, or eggplants are often stuffed with a ground lamb mixture and baked. Milk products, such as butter and cheese, are also an important part of the diet. Fruits, fresh in summer and dried in winter, are the most common dessert.
Traditionally, Chechen men and women dined separately. The men ate together in the dining room as the women cooked and served the food. Then the women and children ate in the kitchen. Larger, more traditional families, where many generations are dining together, often observe this segregation today. However, younger, more modern families tend to eat together rather than separately.
Children continue to attend school until tenth grade. Universities and trade institutes offer further career training to high school graduates. Many high school graduates, particularly boys from cities and towns, choose to continue their education. Girls sometimes do not take advantage of higher education opportunities, choosing instead to marry and raise a family. People in rural areas often remain at home and work in the family farming business. During the recent war, most schools were not able to remain open, and many educational buildings and supplies were destroyed.
Chechens express great pride in their culture and began in the late 1990s to publish collections of Chechen memoirs and folklore. Traditional music is very percussive and energetic, with drums and the accordion as the main instruments. European and North American classical and rock music are available in Chechnya, but Chechen music is still very popular, even among young people.
Traditionally, Chechens were sheep farmers, with men living a seminomadic life accompanying the herds through mountain pastures. In the twentieth century, opportunities for education and urban employment have grown, and many people chose to leave farming, obtain higher education, and work in the towns or cities. Oil refining has been an important part of the Chechen economy, drawing many workers. The process of urbanization was interrupted during the Soviet period by the deportations. In addition, many Chechens became unwilling to remain in agriculture.
After the collapse of Soviet power, the change from a government-driven to a market-based economy was difficult for some, who were unable to find new areas of employment. For others, the changes opened up new fields of work, such as the import/export field. Because many Chechens have links with other countries, particularly Muslim countries such as Turkey, import/export is a popular career choice. For the most part, Chechens have made a smooth transition to new economic conditions. Extended families are often involved in a single family business.
As the Chechen economy was beginning to develop, the war with Russia broke out. Much of the area's basic transportation and communication structure was destroyed, including oil refineries and pipelines. Because of closed borders, the import/export business became difficult. However, the current reconstruction of the country is underway, with great likelihood of economic recovery.
A popular traditional Chechen sport is horseback riding. Riding has always been part of the job of sheepherding, but is also enjoyed as a recreational sport. Recreational riding features daring tricks on horseback, and is common among young people in the countryside.
Wrestling is another popular sport. Boys start to wrestle at a young age and, as they get older, are often encouraged to pursue the sport seriously. During the Soviet years, many coaches and wrestlers on the Soviet national team were from Chechnya.
In Chechnya, entertainment centers around the family and the home. There are few cafes, restaurants, or theaters. Most people entertain at home. Guests are treated to elaborate and lengthy meals, and are expected to entertain their hosts in their own homes at a later date.
Some socializing also takes place at work or school. Often, people will invite the families of friends and coworkers to their homes. Young people, who may wish to get out of the family environment from time to time, may get together in groups and go for walks, especially in the early evenings.
Most Chechen homes have televisions, radios, and stereos, and watching television and listening to music are popular pastimes.
Weaving and knitting are traditional folk arts among Chechens. Even in the 1990s, rural Chechen women continue to weave and knit, producing fine garments. Children may have opportunities to learn music and visual arts in school.
The most urgent social problems in Chechnya today are consequences of the 1994–96 war with Russia. Many people spent almost two years as refugees in neighboring territories, returning to disrupted lives and destroyed homes in their native region. Education was disrupted and opportunities for a normal social life and secure living environment have been delayed for young people of the late 1990s. Many youths were exposed to and involved in great violence. Many were orphaned, and some were badly injured.
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