The Chechen Identity: between social movement and “identity makers”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 12 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security




I. Collective identity as social product: Chechen tradition
(1) Gemeinwesen, mountain democracy and the “adat law”
(2) Collective identity as discourse: Chechen honour
(3) Gender performativity in Chechen tradition

II. Narration and Discourse: “Identity makers”
(1) Iman Shamil and the North-Caucasian Emirate
(2) Construction of identity from above: a political discourse



The objective of this research paper was to distinguish between two patterns with which Chechen identity has been constructed until now. On the one hand it has shown that identity is constructed by discursive social practice. On the other hand identity is shaped by narrations, which re- arrange hi[stories] in a given time period, and political discourses. The analysis of the latter one has shown that identity “from above” (identity-makers) bears the risk of being exploited as legitimation for specific goals. Finally I have compared the results of this research with Huntington’s famous thesis of “Clash of Civilizations”, with the result that the Chechen conflict cannot be incorporated in a broader conflict, such as “Clash of Civilizations” because of Chechens peculiar cultural composition.


The Chechen conflict is still one of the unresolved problems with which the Russian Federation is confronted. Even if almost 80% (Politkovskayja 2003, p.154) of the Russian population was against the first Chechen war, approximately 50% (ibid) of them feared their separatist ambitions. Many Russians were afraid that their recently affirmed national identity could be damaged by such attempts; i.e. many of them remembered what had happened a few years ago when the Soviet Union had collapsed.

The first Chechen war broke out after the declaration of independence by the new elected Chechen Government under Dudajew. After ongoing struggles between the central government and its opposition, Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, decided to re-establish “law and order”. The war ended in an armistice of five years.

The opposing parties were not able to find an agreement during the declared armistice, so the second Chechen war broke out in 1999; right after certain terrorist attacks had been attributed to Chechen rebels. The radical conduct of war of both sides has intensified this conflict. On the one hand this was due to the exclusion of the media - and as a consequence the incessant propaganda pursued by the Russian government, and on the other hand the radicalisation of certain groups of Chechen rebels and their respective counter-propaganda.

After the terrorist attack of 9/11 in the USA, the Russian government was strived to rearticulate the Chechen question in another context. With the pretence of “War on Terrorism” pursued by the USA, they stressed on the connections of certain rebel units with al Qaida and other Muslim fundamentalists, mainly situated in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which in return had provided these units with weapons and munitions. The war was portrayed “such as the perceived clash of civilizations in the modern world, between the progressive modernity of the civilized world and the terrorists, slave traders, figures with medieval morals and medieval lifestyles and backward Islamic world” (Snetkov 2007 p.1353).

As Anderson argued, “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (Anderson 2003, p.6), therefore this research paper will examine who the Chechens are (part of “backward” Islamic world?) and how their identity has been constructed during the last centuries.

I. Collective identity as social product: Chechen tradition

“Identity formation at the group level is an elaborate and dynamic process” (Springborg 2009, p.26) which can be described by narratives of imagined communities. Such imagined communities are constituted overwhelmingly by a discourse, i.e. speech acts, performing acts, written text etc. According to the theory of critical discourse analysis, a discourse is a form of social practice. The relation between specific discursive acts and the situation, institutions and social structures which border it, are of dialectical nature; a discourse is social constitutive as well as social constituted (cf. Wodak and Cilia 1998, p.42). In the following three chapters I will examine how discourses have been structured and with which result in Chechen tradition.

(1) Gemeinwesen, mountain democracy and the “adat law”

A genealogical relation exists, if the social connection among human beings is based on relatives. Social Groups, who are based on this principle of organisation, include the family as well as other relatives as clans or lineage (cf. Francis 1976, p.57). The Chechens, one of the oldest ethnic groups of the Caucasus, were mainly organized in clans. Every clan, as Souleimanove puts it, “build their own defensive clan bastion. The main objective of these so-called “free mountain communities”, made up of uzdens – inhabitants with equal rights and responsibilities – was to defend the land, property, and lives of their respective members” (Souleimanove 2007, p.19).

Under these conditions, a peculiar form of Gemeinwesen as well as a strong sense of community has evolved gradually. The fragmentary landscape of clans in Chechnya, i.e. there were about thirty independent clans in competition with one another, was a structural obstacle for such patterns as feudalism. “The principles of feudal economy could not be applied to life in the highlands. These so-called mountain democracies derived their power mainly from families and clans (teyps)” (Souleimanove 2007, p.22). While the Caucasian ethnic groups that had settled in the lowlands had enough resources to develop intensive agriculture practices, allowing the emergence of feudal structures, “the highlanders developed a sophisticated agriculture-livestock economy that seldom involved any form of forced labour” (Souleimanove 2007, p.19). Chesnov explains the effects of this process very well when he states that in:

workers it reinforced a sense of human dignity, which then formed the distinct Caucasian mentality [...] Furthermore, mountain democracy handily found social mechanisms ensuring the safety of personal property and of the individual. These mechanisms consisted of blood relations and family alliances, territorial peasant communities, military organisations, as well as the religious community. The same principles of mountain democracy subsequently took root in political life. Out of all these peculiarities grew a type of person whose main characteristics are a sense of independence and an original sort of aristocratic sort of behaviour. (Chesnov 1999, p.67)



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Free University of Bozen-Bolzano
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Chechnia Identity Formation Comparative Politics



Title: The Chechen Identity: between social movement and “identity makers”