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Chechens (Chechen: Hохчи / Noxçi) constitute the largest native ethnic group originating in the North Caucasus region. They refer to themselves as Nokhchii (singular Nokhchi or Nokhcho), which comes from the name of a large Chechen tribe, the Nokhchmekhkakhoi, and their homeland.

The isolated mountain terrain of the Caucasus and the strategic value outsiders have placed on the areas settled by Chechens has contributed much to the Chechen community ethos and helped shape a unique national character.

Origins of the word Chechen

The term "Chechen" is ultimately believed to derive from the Iranian name for the Nokhchii and it 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, where the Chechens defeated Russian soldiers in 1732. 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

The Chechen people are mainly inhabitants of Chechnyamarker, Russian Federationmarker. There are also significant Chechen populations in other subdivisions of Russia (especially in Dagestanmarker, Ingushetiamarker and Moscowmarker). A smaller numbers of Chechens are widely scattered in Siberiamarker and the Russian Far East.

Outside Russia, countries with significant Chechen diaspora populations are Israelmarker, Turkeymarker, Kazakhstanmarker, Azerbaijanmarker, and the Middle East (especially Jordanmarker, Egyptmarker, Syriamarker and Iraqmarker). These are mainly descendants of people who had to leave Chechnya during the Caucasian War (which led to the annexation of Chechnya by the Russian Empiremarker around 1850) and the 1944 Stalinist deportation in the case of Kazakhstan.

More recently, tens of thousands of Chechen refugees settled in the European Union and elsewhere as the result of the Chechen Wars, especially in the wave of emigration to the West after 2002.


The Chechens are one of the Vainakh peoples, who have lived in the highlands of the North Caucasus region since prehistory (there is archeological evidence of historical continuity dating back since 10,000 B.C.). In the Middle Ages, the Chechens were dominated by the Khazars and then the Alans. Local culture was also subject to Byzantine influence and some Chechens converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Gradually, Islam prevailed, although the Chechens' own pagan religion was still strong until at least the 19th century. Society was organised along feudal lines. The North Caucasus was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and those of Tamerlane in the 14th.

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 the focus for three competing empires: Ottoman Turkey, Persia and Russiamarker. As Russia expanded southwards from the 16th century, clashes between Chechens and the Russians became more frequent. In the late 18th century Sheikh Mansur led a major Chechen resistance movement. In the early 1800s, Russia embarked on full-scale conquest of the North Caucasus in order to protect the route to its new territories in Transcaucasia. 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 policy of "scorched earth" and deportations; he also founded the fort of Groznymarker (now the capital of Chechnya) in 1818. Chechen resistance to Russian rule reached its peak under the leadership of the Dagestanimarker Shamil in the mid-19th century. The Chechens were finally defeated after a long and bloody war. In the aftermath large numbers of muhajir refugees emigrated or were forcibly deported to the Ottoman Empire. Since then there have been various Chechen rebellions against Russian power, as well as nonviolent resistance to Russification and the Soviet Unionmarker's collectivization and antireligious campaigns.

In 1944 Moscow's oppression reached its apogee as all Chechens, together with several other peoples of the Caucasus, were ordered by Joseph Stalin to be deported en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia and at least one-quarter and perhaps half of the entire Chechen nation perished in the process. 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 (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 two devastating wars with the new Russian state since 1994.


The main languages of the Chechen people are Chechen and Russian. Chechen belongs to the family of Nakh languages (North-Central Caucasian languages). Literary Chechen is based on the central lowland dialect. Other related languages include Ingush, which has speakers in the nearby Ingushetia, and Batsi, which is the language of the people in the adjoing 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 alphabet.


Prior to the adoption of Islam, the Chechens practiced a unique blend of religious tradition 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.

Chechen society is structured around tukhum (unions of clans) and about 130 teip, or clans. The teips are based more on land than on blood and have an uneasy relationship in peacetime, but are bonded together during war. Teips are further subdivided into gar (branches), and gars into nekye (patronymic families). The Chechen social code is called nokhchallah (where Nokhcho stands for "Chechen") and may be loosely translated as "Chechen character". The Chechen code of honour implies moral and ethical behaviour, generosity and the will to safeguard the honour of women.


A Chechen man prays in Grozny, January 1995.

Chechnya is predominantly Muslim. Most of the Chechens belong to the Hanafi 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). Some of the modern Chechen rebels are Salafis.

See also



  • Amjad Jaimoukha The Chechens: A Handbook (London, New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • John B. Dunlop Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

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