The Chechens refer to themselves as “Nokhchii” (sing. ‘Nokhchi’ or ‘Nokhcho’), or “Nokhchiin qam” (‘The Chechen People‘), and call their country “Nokhchichoe” (literally: ‘The Chechen Home‘), “Nokhchiin mokhk” (‘The Chechen Country‘), or “Daimokhk” (‘Fatherland‘). A number of these names derive from the ethnonym and toponym of a large Chechen tribe, the Nokhchmekhkakhoi, and its domicile in southeast Chechnya, which is also called “Ichkeria”. First mention of this “proto” community, as “Nakhchmateans”, is found in the medieval Georgian and Armenian Chronicles.
Arabic sources in Georgia referred to “Chechens” as far back as the eighth century AD using a term thought to be an adoption from the Iranian name for the Nokhchii. Russian sources started to use the terms “Chechen” and “Chechnya” in the seventeenth century AD, presumably from Kabardian “Shashan” (stress on second syllable). Tradition has it that it was after a historic skirmish in 1732 in which the Nokhchii defeated a Russian army contingent at Chechen-Aul on the Argun that the term came into use. However, the term “Chechen” was used as early as 1692 in Russian sources and “Chechnya” was shown on a map of the North Caucasus that goes back to 1719, which puts paid to the traditional spin (N.G.Volkova 1973). According to A. P.Bergé (1991 [1859; 140]), the term “Chechen” first appeared in a 1708 treaty between the Russians and the Kalmyks. Modern Russian appellations for the Chechens are “Checheni” or “Chechentsi”, and for their country “Chechnya”, which has become the prevalent term in the English language, albeit Chechen intellectuals and nationalists prefer (the more regular and “neutral”) “Chechenia”, or even “Chechenya”. The Georgians refer to Chechens as “Chechnebi” (sing. “Checheni”) (and to both Chechens and Ingush as “Kistebi”, sing. “Kisti”), the Circassians: “Shashan”, the Ossetians: “Tsatsan”, the Avars: “Burtichi” or “Burtiyaw”, the Lezgins: “Chachan”, the Kumyks: “Michikish” or “Michigish”, which name (“Mischxish”) is also used by the Circassians, but only to refer to the Ingush.
Nakh, Vainakh and Chechens
The term “Nakh” (‘People‘) refers to the Chechens, Ingush, Kist and Tsova-Tush (Bats), all of whom speak languages of the Nakh branch of Northeast (NE) Caucasian and share common descent and culture. In this work, the Malkhi, considered in some sources as a separate Nakh ethnos, is considered one of the (divergent) Chechen tribes. “Nakh” also denotes the ancient ancestors of the Chechens from the purported separation of the Nakh from the other Northeast Caucasians, but more concretely from the middle of the first millennium BC, when they were first mentioned as “Nachos” in historical annals, to the early Middle Ages, when the North Caucasian Vainakh emerge as a distinct nation. “Vainakh” refers to present-day Chechens and the related Ingush and Kist, considered as a collective, and to the Chechens in the Middle Ages down to the time of their differentiation into a nation distinct from the Ingush.
One proposal was that the separation of the Ingush from the rest of the Chechen nation began in the seventeenth century AD and was completed in the first part of the nineteenth. Chechen historian Ya.Akhmadov (2002) suggested the first part of the eighteenth century as the time when the Ingush swarmed off the Vainakh collective. A third proposition has a separate Ingush nationality taking shape in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. The first two hypotheses seem to be more in tune with the fact that the Ingush made a collective decision to remain neutral during the Russian-Caucasian War, which accentuated their distinctiveness. Also, two of the earliest references on the Ingush in Russian sources were in the works of I.Shtelina and I.Georgi in 1770 and 1776, respectively.
Nevertheless, ethnic designations had remained fuzzy right through the early years of the twentieth century. In most Russian eighteenth-century documents, the ethnonym “Chechens” was used for both Chechens and Ingush. In 1870, the Ingush writer Chakh Akhriev entitled a work on Ingush epic tales From Chechen Legends. The 1897 Russian census listed the Ingush as one of the Chechen tribes. Many attempts were made by Chechen and Ingush intellectuals to restore national unity, the last being at the beginning of the 1920s—but to no avail. Although the generic ‘”Vainakh” was used in the 1930s, paradoxically a time of emphasis of Ingush separate identity, the nominal separation was institutionalized, resulting in further differentiation between the two “nations”. At present, it may be legitimate to talk about two nationalities in the modern sense, with the proviso that the final chapter on their relationship has not been written yet.
There is also a perceivable differentiation, mainly in some cultural aspects and with respect to attitude towards Russia, between the plains and mountain Chechens, but it is not pronounced, and is mostly the result of a certain Machiavellian maxim.
The Chechens are accustomed to democratic ways, their social structure being firmly based on pluralism and deference to individuality. Until the Russian conquest, they had formed an independent nation with its own language and definite territory, and peculiar, albeit stable, social and political structures based on autonomous clans with mutual support relations that linked them into larger tribal confederations (which generally coincided with dialects). Each clan was headed by a respected elder and decisions were taken by elected councils or plebiscites. By the beginning of the Russian encroachment, feudal classes had disappeared and social distinction had to be earned the hard way—by performance of extraordinary feats of valour.
Nationalism as conceived by the Chechens and other North Caucasian peoples, at least at the outbreak of the war with Russia, does not completely coincide with the Western concept thereof, as both developed in different circumstances. Therefore, Western researchers should take this into consideration when applying the tools for gauging North Caucasian nationalism. The Vainakh had developed a unique brand of national consolidation a very long time ago, the most conspicuous evidence being the complex warning system of watchtowers extending from the foothills to the remotest Vainakh mountainous settlements. The social structure was such that at the perception of an external danger all the super-tribes (tukhums) would unite in a seamless manner in face of the threat. The relationship among these tukhums was finely balanced between detachment in times of peace (to minimize the number of spanners that could be thrown in the works) and perfect synchronicity and meshing when the need arose. Thus, there was an awareness of an over-arching ethnic identity encompassing all tribal formations. An outsider would most probably miss this dimension when looking at the micro-level and overlook mechanisms that would be set in motion by emotive stimuli.
A Chechen is caught in a web of supra-national, ethnic, national and a plethora of subnational identities: Caucasian, Mountaineer, North Caucasian, Northeast Caucasian, Nakh, Vainakh, Nokhcho (Chechen), member of tukhum, teip, aul, vaer, gar, neqe and dooezal. Religion adds another identity complex: Muslim, Sunni, Shafii, Sufi, tariqat adept, vird follower.