Who are the Chechens?

“The Chechens need liberty because without it they would lose their human dignity and no longer be Chechens…”

Dolkhan Khojaev

111The Chechens are the native inhabitants of the central North-East Caucasus. Their own term for themselves is “nokhchi” (the grandsons of Prophet Nouh). There are early references to them in Ancient Greek, Armenian and Georgian sources, where they are designated variously as Dzurdzuki, Michkizi, Burteli, Shishan, Nakhchmaty, Shibutyani, Aukhs and Kistis. The name Chechnya (or Chechenia) was derived in the 18th century from the village of Chechana 15 kilometres south-east of Grozny.

If we are to believe the tyaptari, the old Chechen chronicles inscribed on parchment rolls that were burnt at Stalin’s behest in 1944, the Nakh tribes arrived here from Sumeria via Urartu/Media. By the first millennium AD they had settled between the Terek, Aksai and Argun rivers as Lamanan-nakh (mountain clans) and between the Terek and Sunzha rivers as Okharan-nakh (valley clans). In the 8th century BC the valley clans merged with the Scythians/Sarmatians, who spoke an Iranian language, and became the Alans, the ancestors of today’s Ossetians. The mountain clans founded an association of clans called Dzurdzuketia, which survived into the early Middle Ages despite incursions by Khazars, Huns, Arabs, Persians, Mongols and others.

When Tamerlane reached the Caucasus in the 14th century the Chechens must have resisted so fiercely that Tamerlane sought to make them his allies and presented them with a precious sabre. According to the saga, he asked his commander: “Is it true that you have subjugated the Chechens, that their widows are weeping and wailing?” – “No, sire,” the officer was compelled to admit. “They are playing on their panduri and dancing!” – “Then you have not vanquished them!”

Where did the Chechens derive this force to resist? It was rooted in the social organisation of the nokhchicha, or clan association, and the personal liberty of every Chechen. The Chechens’ homeland was the only territory in the Caucasus where feudal structures never took hold. They knew neither princes nor kings, neither taxes nor the force of the state. They were free farmers working their own land, and their only duties were to their reputation and that of their family and clan. Every clan lived in a specific area, had its own holy mountain and built its own towers for defence and residential purposes. At each tier – the extended family (dosal), the clan (taip), the tribe (tukkhum) and the country (mehkh) – there was a council of elders to determine social and political affairs (although reputation was the decisive factor in the election of its members, rather than age). The system was founded on the code of common law, the adat, which applied throughout the Caucasus. It required respect for older people, women and children, hospitality and social justice. It also stipulated that nature should be protected, that animals should not be hunted while grazing, and that a community decision was needed to fell a fruit-bearing tree. It was also the basis for jurisdiction, blood feuding and all social matters. The greatest moral virtue to which it subscribed was to defend one’s family, the tombs of the dead, the country and its liberty. Riding and the use of weapons was learned in childhood. All Chechen greetings contain the word “freedom”.

Chechnya is a modern society with independently minded women who study at universities and pursue their own careers. The women in particular resist medieval interpretations of Islam which force them to wear yellow headscarves and seek to confine them to a life as mothers and housewives. The campaign for a democratic state of the Western type is driven primarily by women.