The largest indigenous group of people in the northern Caucasus, numbering 957,000 (1989). Most (715,000) live in Chechnya and the remainder in other areas of the former USSR. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Chechens have lived in the region for at least 8,000 thousand years. Traditionally, the lowland Chechens grew grain which they traded for wool and eggs with the highland Chechens, who raised sheep. The Chechens are Sunni Muslims, having converted to Islam in the late 17th to early 19th centuries. Islam and honour are deeply entrenched components of their culture and ethnic identity.
The Chechens call themselves Nokhchi (singular Nokhcho) and their language, which is closely related to the neighbouring Ingush, belongs to the Nakh branch of the Nakh-Daghestanian, or northeast Caucasian, language family. The term Chechen is Russian and taken from the name of a lowland Chechen village. Chechen social structure rests on the principles of family and clan honour, respect for and deference to one's elders, hospitality, and formal relations between families and clans. There are no social classes and no differences of rank apart from those of age, kinship, and earned social honour. Kinship and clan structure are patriarchal, but women have full social and professional equality and prospects for financial independence are equivalent to those of men.
In 1783 Russia mounted an unsuccessful military campaign to conquer and occupy the northern Caucasus. From 1785 until his capture in 1791 resistance was led by a Chechen named Sheikh Mansur. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia continued the campaign in order to create a buffer zone against the Muslim world to the south. Resistance was led from 1824 until 1859, when Chechnya was incorporated into Russia by Imam Shamil, now a folk hero in the region.
After conquering the area, the Russian government employed Cossack forces to expel the Chechens from the region and in the 1860s an estimated 400,000 Chechens were killed and about a million driven into exile in the Ottoman Empire. Many Chechens still live in Turkey and Jordan and other successor states of the empire. Intermittent outbreaks of armed resistance to Russian imperial rule continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In May 1918, seizing the opportunity offered by the Russian Revolution, the Chechens, along with other peoples of the northern Caucasus, formed a North Caucasian Republic and declared their independence. A fierce struggle for control of the Caucasus was then waged until January 1921 when the Soviet Socialist Autonomous Mountain Republic (including the Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Kabardians, Balkars, and Karachai) was established. In November 1922 Chechnya was detached from the Mountain Republic and given the status of an Autonomous Oblast of the Russian Federation which was formally incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1924. In 1934 the Chechen and Ingush Autonomous Oblasts were merged, and in 1936 the Checheno-Ingushetia Autonomous Republic was created.
In 1944 nearly 80% of the Chechens, along with other ethnic groups in the Caucasus, were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia for allegedly collaborating with the Germans during World War II. An estimated quarter to half of the population died during transport or within the first year of detention. They were allowed to return in 1957. For subsequent history see Chechnya.
Before Russian conquest, Chechen society lacked formal political organization. They lived in autonomous villages with mutual defense obligations with other villages in times of war. Clans were also autonomous and had mutual support relations that linked them into larger federations. Each clan was headed by a respected elder. The ancient clan structure still persists as do blood feuds and other traditional customs. The Chechens have always, from the Russian point of view, been a troublesome element; fiercely independent and warlike, the Russians have been unable to assimilate them fully. In recent years the Russian media has depicted the Chechens as thugs and bandits responsible for organized crime and street violence.
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