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Russia: War Destroyed Chechnya's Clan Structure (Part 1)

  • Francesca Mereu

With the world's attention largely focused on the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, Russia's two-year-old war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya -- which it defends as a battle against terrorism -- continues unabated. The Russian military said on 3 January that it had killed more than 100 rebels in a special operation that ended a week of fierce fighting. The war -- Chechnya's second such conflict with Russia in a decade -- has claimed thousands of lives and has irreparably altered the traditional bonds of religion and family structure that shape Chechen society. In the first of two stories, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu looks at Chechnya's clan system, which has been an integral part of life and politics.

Moscow, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Chechens of Russia's North Caucasus region are a tight-knit society based on extended families, or clans, guided by a council of elders. These clans, which traditionally lived together in a single village, are called "taips." During Stalin's infamous deportation of Chechens to Central Asia -- and even now, as war and social unrest have forced thousands of Chechens to leave their home villages and scatter throughout the republic or abandon the region altogether -- the links remain strong between members of a single taip.

There are more than 150 taips in Chechnya, each with its own traditions and council of elders. Respect for elders is paramount in Chechnya, where a clan's oldest members traditionally have the final say. But in recent years, the elders' absolute authority has given way to an arrangement of making recommendations to the taip that can be, but are not always, followed.

Sergei Arutyunov is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the head of the Caucasus department at Moscow's Ethnology Institute:

"[A] clan may have more or less informal elders. These elders may form a kind of council -- a clan council -- which may give nonobligatory recommendations. [The elders] have no power to enforce these recommendations. But they may give some valid recommendations, which will probably be more or less followed by the majority of clan members."

Traditionally, taip members can recall the name of their original ancestor from whom the clan originates. They can also recite the names and details about the lives and deaths -- often on the battlefield -- of at least seven generations of male ancestors.

Ian Chesnov is an anthropology professor at Russia's State Humanitarian University in Moscow. He spent several years in Chechnya studying cultural traits. Chesnov says that according to Caucasus tradition, a member of a taip is never abandoned in time of trouble. To the contrary, a taip acts as a kind of family network that makes sure all members have the support they need.

Chesnov describes attending a clan gathering where taip members discussed how to provide a dowry, or "kalim," to a young woman who had been raised an orphan:

"[The families discussed the case of] a young girl without parents, an orphan. The girl was of marriageable age and, according to the Caucasus tradition, she needed a dowry -- called a kalim -- a certain amount of money. When [a woman] gets married, with the money of the kalim, the newlyweds buy things for the house. Then [at the gathering, the clan members] collected money for the [girl's] future life."

The taip forms the core of Chechen society -- and, many Chechens believe, predetermines the characteristics and personalities of its members. The perceived link between clan and character type is so strong that taips are considered a key aspect of the region's political life as well.

Chechen warlord Salman Raduev, who in late December was sentenced to life in prison for terrorism and murder, is a member of the Gordaloy taip. His crimes, including a 1996 raid on the southern Russian town of Kizlyar in which 78 people were killed, dishonored all the members of the taip -- including Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, whose wife is a member of the Gordaloy taip.

Valery Batuev, a reporter on Caucasus issues for the "Vremya MN" Russian daily, says Maskhadov -- who is often criticized for what is seen as an inability to maintain control over rival factions within Chechnya -- was unable to arrest or condemn Raduev, since doing so would have meant conflicts within the taip.

Chechnya's taips fall into nine distinct "tukums," or tribes. Legend holds that all Chechens descend from an original family of nine brothers, a belief represented by the Chechen symbol, which depicts a wolf encircled by nine stars. Batuev describes the tukums' function:

"The taips are organized in nine tukums. A tukum is a political-military union meant to function in cases of [outside] threats or aggression. [The tukums] used to unify all the [Chechen] nation and the taips."

A tukum has no leader and is composed of a loose group of clans who share a common ancestry. Batuev says that if, in the past, tukums were able to organize fighting in case of war, in recent times they have played a role that is more symbolic than military. During Chechnya's two latest military conflicts, the tukums had little influence over events.

Together, Chechnya's two wars with Russia have cut its population by half. Many Chechens have fled their homes to escape the bloody conflict, and many have died -- some 50,000 in the 1994-96 war alone. Before that war, Chechnya's population stood at some 1.2 million. By 1999, estimates had dropped to between 600,000 and 780,000 people. The capital city of Grozny once had 400,000 residents. Now, analysts say, there are fewer than 40,000 people remaining.

Such drastic demographic shifts have inevitably left their mark on Chechnya's tukum and taip structures. According to Arutyunov, the republic is undergoing a severe identity crisis.

Just 10 years ago, he says, Chechnya's younger generations had every reason to expect that their lives would progress much as their parents' had -- with marriage, children, and the building of a career. This meant that young people still turned to their fathers or taip elders for advice, and the clan's older generations helped arrange good marriages and interesting, well-paid jobs for the young. But now, Arutyunov says, Chechen society has changed:

"Now, in most cases, the influence of [older] people is lost, and as a rule -- except for some very rich and influential people -- a father is hardly in a position to arrange a decent and profitable marriage for his son. He is in no position to put him into any good job. And so the authority, the prestige, the influence of this elder generation is destroyed."

Chechnya's younger people, Arutyunov continues, are disoriented, and are now looking for new authority figures -- a search that in many instances leads them to the radical Wahhabi Islamic sect or leaders of criminal rings. The generation gap has gotten so severe, Arutyunov says, that there have been several reported cases of young Chechen men beating their fathers to death. Just a few years ago, this was the strictest taboo in the Chechen social code.