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Chechen Values Survive Despite War, Violence

(Washington, DC--August 3, 2004) Chechen ethnographer Zalpa Bersanova told an RFE/RL audience last week that the values of Chechen society endure despite a decade of warfare and violence. These values have, however, been rearranged in their "hierarchy of priorities," as the people of Chechnya have struggled for survival.

Bersanova, whose current work is funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, said that she undertook the survey research because Chechens, along with other minorities in the former Soviet Union, had not been able to study and research their traditions -- termed "relics of the past" by Soviet rulers. As an academic, Bersanova believes it is her duty to counter the "negative images" of Chechens promoted by the mass media in Russia. The "TV covers them in mud," she said, and fails to explain that the Chechens have a moral code and values that orient their society.

In the early 1990's before the first war, Chechens ranked what might be roughly translated as "decent behavior" [i.e., moral behavior] as their highest value, but they prized "courage... patience and self-restraint" the most after that war ended in 1996. During her most recent opinion survey, Bersanova found that Chechens now cite "justice" or "fairness" as their most important value. Although 24 percent of her respondents said they had lost an immediate family member in the current war, Bersanova said she found no correlation between those personal losses and the expression of resentment towards Russians. Rather, Bersanova said, respondents "saw the Russian people as victims of their government, too."

Living with the war has also caused a reorganization of values which affects the Chechens' practice of Islam, Bersanova said. Chechen traditions of hospitality and respect for women have now become more important, according to Bersanova.

Bersanova explained that women have more authority today in Chechen society as a result of their evolving roles. They "are the primary breadwinners when it is dangerous for men to leave home," and they are "the only ones allowed to rescue their sons and brothers from the hands of soldiers." Additionally, women raise orphaned children whose parents have died or disappeared in the war.

The hospitality shown to refugees can even supercede religious rites, Bersanova said, citing the case of an old man who invited several war refugees into his home although his son had just died. According to Islamic law, Bersanova said, the son's body should have been buried by sunset -- but the man considered the Chechen tradition of hospitality to be more sacred than Islam.

Bersanova summed up her findings by noting that "in spite of all the catastrophes the Chechens have endured over the past decade, my fieldwork has led me to the conclusion that Chechens have fundamentally remained loyal to their traditions."

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service broadcasts 2 hours of programming a day in the Avar, Chechen and Circassian languages to the North Caucasus region, produced in Prague and transmitted to listeners via satellite and shortwave signals provided by local affiliate stations. North Caucasus Service programming is also available via the Internet, at

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