Laudaev, “The Chechen Tribe,” Part VIII, The Public Life of the Chechens


The Public life of the Chechens


The public life of the Chechens has always presented a mournful spectacle.  It was not secure in any sense. Even if they tried [to establish]  beneficial relations with well-meaning [other] people (for example, neighbors) there were no means to bring them to a [successful] conclusion. Being formed from different elements, the Chechens strived only for the advantage of their own particular clan, not troubled with [the wellbeing of] their homeland more broadly. Until their conquest by the Russians, they had only one law, the law of arms. The strong clans injured the weak. The latter, taking their revenge on them [both] secretly and openly, only increased the disorder and caused new crimes.[1] Theft, as amongst all half-wild peoples, was strongly entrenched amongst them. Land disputes were turned into fights and blood feuds. And the Chechen custom of abducting a wife for oneself against the parents’ will  still further strengthened the chaos in the country.

The Chechens had no princes and all were equal amongst themselves. If it happened that a foreigner who was of high estate settled amongst them, he lost his high position and became equal with the Chechens. The Chechens call themselves uzden (ozdi or uzden). This word has a different meaning amongst them than it does amongst their neighbors. Amongst the latter uzden-ness is categorized by rank. Among the Chechens themselves all the people form one rank of uzden-ness, differentiated amongst themselves only by [personal] qualities: wisdom, wealth, generosity, bravery and, not rarely, evil actions: theft, banditry and so forth. The word uzden- borrowed by them from [their] neighbors- means to the Chechens a person free, unrestricted, independent, or, as they themselves put it, free like a wolf (borz-senna). Their neighbors lived in princely lands, acquired by right or force. Amongst the Chechens the land was territory held in common. If it happened that they settled in princely lands on the condition that they pay tax, as they grew stronger, they would stop paying it and possess the land. To them it was shameful to pay tax on land that God had given to all equally. Their fellow-tribesmen in the mountains taunted and reproached those who payed yasak, calling them lai, i.e. slaves. According to [their] understanding of uzden-ness, a Chechen could not subordinate another person to themselves because then uzden-ness would lose its significance. It’s apparent that this is why they didn’t suffer any kind of power amongst themselves and didn’t choose a leader from amongst themselves. Furthermore, public offices such as aul elder, foreman (turgak) and others, didn’t exist in the old Chechen auls. If it happened that  general disorder forced the people to choose a leading figure, his power was at a minimum and he was listened to only by his clan and relatives. In order to more sharply express their equality, the Chechens call themselves heroes or warriors, konakhi in Chechen. In order to depict the bravery or generosity of such a person, they say im diki konakhi vu, i.e. he is a fine warrior. This word is impossible to correlate to either the Russian molodets[2] or the Kumyk igit (djigit).[3]

This warlike people resolved issues amongst themselves by force of arms, [after a fight] the busted up contestants would separate, make peace and resolve the business in a domestic manner. But similar arbitration could only be done between fellow clansmen. In the earliest times of [the Chechens’] pastoral mode of life, the elder of the kindred was revered by his clan. He resolved domestic disagreements and arguments and he was like a father of the clan, a teacher and a leader. In cases of an argument of two clans, the elders of the kindreds deliberated in order to resolve the business, passed their judgment and nobody contradicted them. But, having multiplied, the people began to have lawsuits both over land, theft, abduction of women and so forth. At that time the judgment of the elder of the clan soon became insufficient. At that time, the elders of all the neighboring clans began to gather together to deliberate regarding the ending of disorder in the country. They resolved on the kind of retribution that was needed for various crimes. The elders would return home, orally declared their resolutions to the clans and forced them to make a religious vow to comply with them. The Chechens call these resolutions edil or adil, i.e. custom.  This same idea is expressed by the word adat, which was taken from the Tatars (from which [fact] it is possible to conclude that the features of the Chechens’ adat was burrowed from [their] neighbors). But the court of the elders was not sufficient for the unrestrained Chechen people because nobody ensured that their decrees were carried out. The powerful clans denied its competency and thus it was recognized only amongst the weak and for weak clans.  They also looked to maslagat, or precedent. The litigants reconciled by means of requests, rewards and compromises. But maslagat couldn’t satisfy the entire country or all lawsuits and in a few cases caused further harm. [But] gradually it developed in the judicial tradition as adat. People were chosen, who were known for [their] wisdom, integrity, disinterestedness and impartiality and entrusted with the obligation of the due process of a case and its resolution. Similar people were called kanoi, i.e. elders or judges, and the people were obligated to comply with their judgments. Simultaneously, [the Chechens] began to develop court procedures. For example, up to this time, the litigants had gone to the home of the judge for due process. Finding this inconvenient, and to ensure that the judges were impartial, [the people] chose places where the elder-judges, at the assembly of the people, could conduct a proper court and pass decrees.  Places for such gatherings were modestly called khattam, i.e. the questioning, from the word khattam which means inquiry. The judges heard out the case and then declared the judgment and then went home. It was up to the litigants to submit to the judgment. As the Chechens gradually exited the mountains out onto the plains the khattam was set up in the same form as originally in the mountains. The inhabitants of the old Argun okrug held theirs in Maast and Nashakh. The Ichkerians gathered on a kurgan near the aul of Tsontari and the flatland Chechens gathered in the Khankal gorge and in Kachkalyk. Until the time of Shamil, these gatherings were still called makhkama. This name has now passed on to the current national court.  We know that the aul of Maast was distinguished based on [its] adat.[4]

All that said, prudent, active people, who loved their homeland, could not be credited to the Chechens. Powerful families ran amok, not complying with the dictates of adat. Theft among them passed as glory and valor. They killed and slaughtered each other for almost no reason and, in the end, committed unprecedented crimes, taking their cue from the Adigei. They began to abduct or carry off forcibly defenseless people- their own countrymen- into slavery and sell them into slavery in far off countries.[5]

They stopped respecting the customs of the fathers and didn’t comply with the rules of adat. In Chechniya there ruled only one law- the law of force. Such chaos was largely due to the following reasons. The Ichkerians, who were under the power of the Avar khans, rejected their power and possessed the land. The Little Chechens grew stronger and the Kabards dropped their pretenses over their freedom and land. The Russians no longer had any influence over the lowland Chechens. Not having any ruler over them, the wild and warlike spirit of the Chechens answered to nobody for their actions. At this time, there passed among the people proverbial toasts, which are now repeated only on festive occasions, but at that time were used for everything. “Our world, who else but us is in the world” (dune vain detsi)!  With this toast, they characterized the contemporary condition of their country, i.e. there was no accounting for actions, no retaliation for crimes. These disorders forced the prudent Chechens to see themselves to the pacifying of the country. For this reason, in various auls, they invited princes to come reign (alolu dan), pledging to continue to pay them yasak. The Ichkerians and part of the Shatoevians invited the Melardoevian princes, who derived from a collateral branch of the Avar khans. [These Melardoevians] ruled in Gumbet. Gumbet is called Melardy in Chechen. The inhabitants of Greater Chechniya invited the Kumyk, and [those] of Lesser [Chechniya], the Kabard princes. But this measure didn’t help. When the princes, according to their obligations, began to assert their power, the Chechens, not used to it, didn’t comply with the rules of the princes. Clans interceded on behalf of guilty members and the princes had no means to force them to obey. So they went back where they came from. Only the Terek Cossacks, settled on the right bank of the Terek, obeyed the princes and that was due more to the fear of the Russians, instead of the princes themselves. For the Russians, their political interest consisted of keeping people in obedience to the princes. By this means they could protect their borders from predatory raids from inside Chechniya. These princes made good use of their positions, understanding their significance. It was obvious to them that both the Russians and the Chechens needed them, and they constituted mediators between these peoples.  The Chechens feared the princes and obeyed them, knowing that the Russians protected them. The Russians themselves, knowing the respect of the people for the princes, flattered them. Only superficially dependent on the Russians, they held the lands of the right bank of the Terek. However, the princes didn’t exercise despotic pretenses over the inhabitants, which distinguished them from the princes of the tribes that neighbored Chechniya; indeed, it was impossible to impinge on the freedom of the Chechens because they would at once retreat deep into Chechniya from where it would be easy [for the Chechens] to take revenge on [the princes] for [real or perceived] injustices. For this reason the Terek auls were for the most part composed [only] of the princely retainers, the emchek (nurses, care-takers of the princes’ children) and their relatives. While the disorder in Chechniya grew and reached to the limits of the province, the patience of the victims stopped at the borders. The people searched for salvation from wherever it would appear. In the end they decided on the following means- to accept the Mohammedan faith, in the hope that shariah would bring peace to the province, which their Muslim neighbors already enjoyed. And [so] the Chechens accepted Islam.

[1]        [Laudaev Extended Comment 26]    In the event of a killing, the entire clan (or taipa) hurries to some[one’s] place of residence. Blood passes from one clan to another as long as the descendants of the slain man aren’t satiated with the blood of the descendants of the killer.  At first, a blood-debt fell on entire clan. With the increase of family members, [however], blood-debt fell on the gaara and on a single family in the end. Usually, they try to kill the killer or his brother and father. It has happened that the killer, having paid money, cleared himself of the blood-debt. It was considered more praise-worthy if the killer was forgiven without [any] retribution. In such situations he was considered the son of the slain man’s mother. To do this, the killer didn’t cut the hair on his head and didn’t cut his fingernails. And having embraced [his] new mother, fastened on her breast like an infant. Then a son or relative shaved his head, trimmed his nails, and he became a member of the family. Cases occurred in which the adopted son remained with the new family forever.


[2]Translator’s note: fine fellow, good guy. Also means something like the English expressions “way to go!” or “good job”

[3]Translator’s note: This originally Turkic word is used commonly in the Caucasus to mean a fine fellow, a dandy. In Central Asia it also has this meaning, but can further mean something like “a brave”, as in a young warrior or even a man, roughly aged 20-early 30’s.

[4]    [Laudaev Extended Comment 27]   We know that the customary laws of the aul of Maast were esteemed amongst the Chechens higher than [those of] the [other] auls of their society and thus suits, which could not be resolved in other places, were heard in Maast. There is the following story. Along the twisty, steep bank of a river, there passed a man on foot, with staff in hand. A shepherd from a nearby village was herding his flock and was sitting thoughtfully, letting his legs hand hang down over the edge of the [river’s] gorge.  It happened that the pedestrian, not noticed by the shepherd, [but] being almost next to him, lost his staff.  The shepherd started at the sudden sound and fell over the edge and died. The relatives of the shepherd declared the pedestrian a blood enemy. [But] that one, not feeling guilty, took the case along with them to be decided in Maast. The judgment was that the entire blood-debt was reckoned at 40 cows and was divided into 3 parts. One third fell on the pedestrian for carelessness with the staff. One third fell on the staff itself, from which came the sound. And one third fell on the timid soul of the shepherd. Paying one third of the fine and giving the staff to the relatives, the pedestrian cleared himself of the blood-debt.

A maiden loved a young fellow, but he was cold-hearted towards her. Coming from the river, she met him and began screaming for no reason. Apparently he had molested her. There were no witnesses and the case was decided in Maast thus: if on Friday, after prayers in the Mosque, the girl came to a gathering of the djaamata (community), clad in a single blouse, without a head scarf or sharovars, and climbed up on the roof of the mosque to affirm her testimony, then the fellow would be expected to marry her. If this didn’t happen, the fellow would be considered innocent. The girl decided not to carry out the instructions, the sense of shame had overcome [her] passion. And the honor of the wise men of Maast was celebrated among the people.

Along with migrating to different places, above all the Chechens aimed for establishing due process amongst themselves.  Having occupied Ichkeria, they suffered mightily from discord and disagreements. To restore peace, the Ichkerians assembled on a kurgan near the aul of Tsontar, choosing from among themselves 100 intelligent men to form a court for the establishment of peace in the country. The one hundred elected [men] made a vow not to disperse from that place for as long as they hadn’t pacified the country. They, remaining for ten months, not dispersing from the height, codified the preexisting customary laws and rights in Ichkeria. In memory of such a fortunate event, this kurgan is still honored by the people and called ketish-korma, i.e. assembly hill. The flatlands Chechens had already tried doing this [sort of meeting] and gathered in the Khankal gorge on a kurgan with the name khan-galai-barz, i.e. lookout kurgan. The Russians call it Ermolov [kurgan]. The Kachkalyks have their own similar [sort of] place. The Kumyks also go there for court cases. They call that place emu-gachalak, i.e. “seven Kachkalyks” or seven villages, comprised of Kachkalyks.

[5]     Strictly speaking, there was no slave class among the Chechens. Slaves appeared among them recently and among other peoples, who are their neighbors. In the beginning, they acquired knowledge of this class and its acquisition from the Adigei. They secretly kidnapped or increased their power over weak people of neighboring tribes or their own countrymen and sold them for money or bartered them into slavery. The unfortunate victims were arbitrarily called yassir, i.e. slaves.  There were still other reasons for, and types of slaves. Frequent crop failures at that time forced some to sell off or barter for bread a family member to avoid starvation for the entire family, to save the rest of the family from death.  It often happened that having been sold in such a manner the person was never bought out and forever remained a slave. The same was also done in cases of a bankrupt debtor. Recently, during the war, people taken captive were made slaves. The slavery of Chechen serfs was of a different type than that amongst other mountain tribes. Amongst these [tribes], serfs or slaves constituted a lower class of the people. The Chechens themselves, who always tended towards equality,  didn’t see them as serfs. While serfs formed a special class of persons among the other mountain people, among Chechens they were incorporated as lesser members of the family. Slaveholders of the other tribes settled their serfs in habitations around themselves. The serfs, [although] providing for their own family, still had to bear the burden of being a slave. Among the Chechens, they lived in the houses of their masters and made use of their food and clothes. Almost always the master and serf worked together. In relations with outsiders, the slaves were almost equal to the people. Only the appellation lai (slave) distinguished them from the other inhabitants. At the same time, the freemen of the other tribes, ashamed to be occupied with lowly work, put it on the slaves, [and thus] aimed in all ways to acquire them. [Therefore] this class was numerous amongst them.


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