Ch'ir (Chechnya and Ingushetia)

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Location: Chechnya and Ingushetia
Definition: Blood feud/blood revenge
Keywords: Chechnya Ingushetia Russia Caucasus Blood revenge Kinship
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Kinship lock-in
Author: Emil Aslan Souleimanov
Affiliation: Department of Social Sciences, Charles University, Czech Republic
Website: Profile page at

By Emil Aslan Souleimanov, Department of Social Sciences, Charles University, Czech Republic

Blood revenge – a custom of avenging a grave insult by killing either the offender or his male relatives – has been prevalent in the Caucasus for centuries. Various terms have historically been used across the Caucasus to designate blood revenge or blood feud (that is, a cycle of subsequent blood revenges). These include ch'ir in Chechen, ch'ir or pkhä in Ingush, bidul k'isas in Avar, öttul kisas or badal in Lak, kanga kan or kanly in Kumyk and Noghai, litsvri in Svan, and qanli qisas in Azerbaijani, to name a few. This social practice expired in most of the region over the twentieth century owing to processes of modernisation and urbanisation. However, it is still commonplace in Chechnya and Ingushetia, two ethnic republics within the Russian Federation (Souleimanov 2007: 24-29[1]).

Blood revenge is by no means unique to the Caucasus. As part of informal local codes, known as unwritten or customary law, blood revenge has been practiced widely by tribal or clan-based societies, among which central authority was either weak or absent and law enforcement was poor. Therefore, tribes or clans had to take upon themselves the task of defending their individual members (MacCormack 1973[2], Chagnon 1988[3], Boehm 2011[4], Nivette 2011[5]). Blood revenge was widespread in ancient Mesopotamia, Palestine, Greece, Rome, as well as in the (proto)states of the Fertile Crescent (Barmash 2004[6]). In early medieval Europe, it was practiced by Scandinavians, Franks and other Germanic tribes (Rosenthal 1966[7]). Blood revenge was practiced well into the twentieth century in Southern Europe: for instance the notorious vendetta in Southern Italy and Corsica (Wilson 2003[8]), as well as in parts of Greece and in Montenegro (Black-Michaud and Peters 1975[9], Gallant 2000[10]). Beyond Europe and the Middle East, it spread from pre-modern Japan (Mills 1976[11]) through Cambodia (Hinton 1998[12]) to Oceania (Hoebel 2006[13]). Nowadays, in addition to the Northeast Caucasus, blood revenge remains active among the Gheg Albanians of northern Albania and Kosovo (Boyle 2010[14]); in the Kurdish-dominated areas of Turkey and Iraq (Icli 1994[15]); in Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan (Mahdi 1986[16]); Somalia (Mohamed 2007[17]); as well as in Yemen (Morris and Trammel 2011[18]) and in other predominantly tribal Arabic societies.

Blood revenge in general, and specifically ch'ir, entails that following an insult – either verbal or physical – an offended male or his patrilineal relatives are expected to exact revenge on either the direct culprit of offence or his patrilineal relatives (Elster 1990[19], Souleimanov 2007: 24-29[20]). Grave verbal insults include those directed against a male or his female relatives, wife, or his/her ancestors. Significant injury, particularly injury leading to permanent disease or death, murder, manslaughter, rape or any form of defilement against women, including bride abduction, are regarded as grave physical attacks in Chechnya. In the past, a variety of acts were considered disrespectful, making a case for ch’ir. Killing one's dog or showing disrespect to a man's hat (papakh) by means of touching it with one’s feet or throwing it on the ground, were considered a grave insult in the Caucasus that was to be ‘washed off’ by the offender's or his relatives' blood. Nowadays, ch'ir is triggered almost exclusively by murder, manslaughter, and rape.

The perception of honour is closely linked to the understanding of an individual as part of a larger community made up of ties of common ancestry, ‘shared blood’ and identity. Individuals in Chechnya and Ingushetia are rarely treated without reference to their patrilineal family (nekye or dözal) or clan (teip) ties (Sokirianskaia 2005[21]). Therefore, offence against an individual is considered to extend to relatives. Retaliation, too, becomes the business of the entire family or clan. Failure to retaliate sharply decreases the social status of the offended individual and his or her clan. This may lead to opprobrium, with the entire family or clan dishonoured, and its male members regarded as weak and cowardly. Members of a dishonoured family or clan may be excluded from the community: girls lose the chance of a worthy marriage, while men are ridiculed and marginalised. It may take many years and great effort for a family or clan to restore lost honour. Triggered by the threat of social sanctions, members of the offended families and clans usually seek to ‘take their blood’ in order to avoid ‘losing their face’ (Souleimanov 2007: 24-29[22], Souleimanov 2015[23]).

Since the mid-1990s, ch’ir has been instrumental in shaping violent mobilisation in Chechnya (Souleimanov 2007[24]). Many Chechens took up arms in order to avenge their relatives' murder or fatal injury, or to seek ch’ir for the humiliation at the hand of the Russian counterinsurgents or their Chechen alllies. Those who mobilised even included politically neutral individuals and those with prior antipathy towards Chechen separatist elites and their ideas. Those who knew the individual perpetrator of an offence – who was typically a Russian officer or a kadyrovets (a member of Chechnya's pro-Moscow paramilitary force) – usually sought to retaliate on their own. There is evidence of insurgent units drawing on a network of relatives formed exclusively for the purpose of retaliation. Following a successful ch’ir, some of these units disbanded, while others were absorbed into the insurgency and continued fighting. When the actual culprit of the offence was unknown or could not be found, the perception of the legitimate target of retaliation was broadened to all members of the Russian military or Russians as an ethnic community per se (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015[25]).

The codes of hospitality (Chechen: siskal) and silence (Chechen: disttsakhilar) are important sources of pro-insurgent support in the Northern Caucasus (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015[26]). While considerably weakened over recent decades, these codes still persist, especially in rural and mountainous areas. Enshrined in the customary law, adat, the code of hospitality requires the highlanders to provide support to those in need. Fugitives escaping enemies in ch’ir, or abreks (outlaws or lone-wolf guerilla fighters) are required to be sheltered by fellow highlanders, regardless of the risk of armed confrontation with their guest's personal enemies or with the authorities (Bobrovnikov 2000[27]). This tradition partly survives in the North-East Caucasus. The code of silence, close to the South Italian custom of omertà, requires highlanders to reject collaboration with outsiders, including formal authorities. Even in the case of severe inter-personal or inter-clan conflict, highlanders are not supposed to approach the authorities; such a move would expose the violators of the unwritten code of honour as fearful and weak. The code of silence prescribes highlanders to remain silent about their community's internal affairs and resolve their issues on their own, within the circle of clan or religious authorities. Insurgents have routinely been provided with shelter, food, medicine, clothes, and other basic needs by the local population. Even those disapproving of the insurgents and their activities are unlikely to report them to the authorities (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015[28]).


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