THE CLAN STRUCTURE AND ITS IMPACT ON POLITICAL SITUATION
(CASE-STUDY OF NORTHWESTERN AND CENTRAL CAUCASUS)

Irina BABICH


Irina Babich, D.Sc. (Hist.), leading research associate, Department of Caucasus, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russian Federation)


The radical social, economic, and political changes of the 1990s caused by a collapse of communist ideology and the Soviet Union produced no less deep changes in the life of nations living in the post-Soviet expanse. This was also true of the Northwestern and Central Caucasus. The nations there had to find new identities, new foundations and new ideologies of their societies. This increased an interest in their traditional cultures and history. The local national ideologists are openly supporting and developing certain traditional components of everyday life, they even try to revive those of its elements that were nearly destroyed during the years of Soviet power.

The traditions of worshiping the ancestors and compiling genealogies are two major components of a new ideology of the North Caucasian societies. It was back in the 1970s that first relevant publications appeared; trained historians (Kh. Dumanov, A. Musukaev, and others) joined the process in the 1990s. In his article Istoricheskie korni i znachimost genealogicheskoi pamiati (Historical Roots and the Role of Genealogical Memory) Musukaev has written: Thanks to the tradition of tracing personal histories to a common ancestor the practical importance of ties among the relatives and continuity of generations have survived many centuries. They can be seen in the feeling of collectivism, mutual assistance, solidarity among the relatives and the impact of all this on the economic life of communities and their everyday existence The ethical norms of relationships that existed in the human society have always demanded that contacts among the relatives be preserved together with the tradition of fulfilling ones obligations in relation to the family members, parents and blood relatives. They educated rising generations and shaped and developed moral principles.1

In 1998, Musukaev initiated a Kabardino-Balkarian Historical-Genealogical Society in Kabardino-Balkaria that adopted a Charter that he suggested.2 The society launched an active publishing activity and organized several events, including an international genealogical colloquium in Nalchik in 2000. This inspired many academics to study their family names.3 Some of them together with the members of the Kabardino-Balkarian Historical-Genealogical Society turned their attention to teaching children and teenagers to take an interest in the history of their ancestors and to compile genealogies. In 2002, they organized the first republican competition My Genealogy among senior students.4

The above calls for an analysis of the North Caucasian clan structures place and role in the regions social-political life.

* * *

The clan or kindred structure of the North Caucasian societies is one of their typical ethnic features. The local social-political and national movements are exploiting an awareness of kinship to influence the masses in the process of formulating a new ideology and in their practical activities.

It is important to know that the clan structure today is, on the one hand, rooted in the traditional clan community while, on the other, it is a relatively novel system with elements of a new ethnic awareness and new ethnic identity.

In the last two centuries the North Caucasian peoples lived through several periods of modernization that exerted strong impacts on them: in the 1860s-1880s when the Russian Empire was changing everyday life in the region, in the 1920s-1930s when the traditional way of life was Sovietized, in the 1950s-1980s, the time of dual standards when the repercussions of the Khrushchev thaw gradually sapped control over many spheres of life of these peoples. As a result, some of their traditional institutes revived.

The social and economic changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, first, destroyed extended families which united a great number of relatives and created nuclear families with their own households that functioned as independent economic units. Second, throughout two centuries North Caucasian peoples were constantly moved from one place to another: they were moved out en masse to the Ottoman Empire during and after the Caucasian War of the Russian Empire; in the 1920s Soviet administrators moved people from the mountains to valleys; under Stalin some of the local peoples were deported to Central Asia in the 1940s. These tribulations changed, to a great extent, the traditional settlement pattern that in the earlier periods had been based on quarters in which relatives lived. Life scattered members of kindred communities across the area, which could not but affect their regular communication. Third, by the early 21st century traditional culture of autochthonous peoples nearly disappeared together with a great number of traditions of which the mountain peoples had been proud. However, the general weakening of the traditional basis has only partly affected the kindred structures and solidarity among the relatives. It seems that the relations of kinship proved the most stable in the entire gamut of sentiments in the Caucasus.

The following groups of relatives by blood have survived: the nuclear families consisting of parents and children; extended families (called the families of the first order by specialists in the Caucasus) that include parents, married and unmarried brothers and sisters who most often live separately, and finally, the families of the second order that include a wider circle of paternal relatives.

The settlement pattern according to the relations of kinship was destroyed. People belonging to the same family live in different villages or even in different North Caucasian republics, therefore kinship within the structures of blood relatives is renewed mainly during large-scale events (marriages or burials) that attract adult members of the families of the first and second order. This is the traditional sphere of everyday life in the Northern Caucasus inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Public opinion within the family attaches different social statuses to different members: there are highly respected members whose voice can settle many social problems and resolve many local conflicts. Many societies that existed among these peoples in the past were arranged according to a social hierarchy that included high social groups and common members. The memories of the most respected princes and uzdens have been preserved in folk memory and are tacitly extended to their descendants. Today, as in the past, a marriage between a young man from a formerly privileged class and a common girl is not easily accepted. The families remain exogamous, that is, they ban marriages inside the family circle.

The families have lost many of their cults, symbols, and other signs of affinity that existed in the past, yet the family and public traditions typical of North Caucasian society have been partly preserved within all communities united by blood kinship. For example, the older men and women in a nuclear or extended family, as well as in larger associations of relatives, enjoy a special status. Mutual assistance among relatives is alive: relatives help each other in all situations. Any member can count on solidarity with his relatives when dealing with a problem. Only those who have marred their reputations with bad behavior cannot expect support.

Certain families have preserved memories of their ancestors and legends about their heroic lives, and are keeping symbols of their clans (tamgas). Such families acquire high social status. This explains why in the 1990s all mountain people started displaying an interest in the history of their families. The wealthiest of them study the past either themselves or with the help of historians, archivists, ethnographers, and other specialists. They are looking for documents to confirm the feats of their ancestors and their great roles in the history of the Caucasus. The genealogies of many families mentioned above are an ample confirmation of this.5

* * *

Lets have a look at the place and role of the structures of blood kinship in the system of communal and village administration, in the functioning of the judicial system, choice of the means and methods of settlement of personal and group conflicts and in the social-political developments in the republics of Northwestern and Central Caucasus.

The system of communal and village administration. During the state and administrative transformations of the 1990s communal and village administrative structures extended their functions. Some of the North Caucasian republics (Adigey) passed the Law on Khase, a traditional communal meeting of 10 to 15 most respected members. Together with village administrations this meeting acquired wide powers in dealing with the majority of problems within a village. This can be described as an attempt at restoring the long-forgotten communal rules of administration. Kinship structures have an important role to play in the process of election of the Khase members. The most respected families name as candidates the villagers of middle and senior ages who enjoy authority. While by the late 19th and early 20th century the role of kinship and age in shaping the social hierarchy had declined and personal features6 had come to the fore, by the late 20th and early 21st century a reverse process can be observed. The reason for this should be sought in the Soviet period and Soviet ideology that denied outstanding personalities any considerable roles. As a result, age and the fact of belonging to a strong family have come to dominate the social hierarchy.

The legal framework and conflict settlement. Throughout the years of Soviet laws the judicial system has been preserving its specific methods of conflict settlement (including conflicts of criminal nature) by skillfully adjusting them to the Soviet legal field.7

Relations of kinship retained their role in fanning or quenching social aggression. If any of the village dwellers is wounded or even killed, it is for the families of the first order to start the procedure of traditional peacemaking among the relatives of the victim and the offender. The older villagers restrain the young willing to avenge the crime on the perpetrator and his relatives and help negotiate a settlement. Solidarity among the relatives helps the families of the offenders compensate for the material and physical damage incurred on the victims relatives. Very much as in the past the older relatives play a decisive role in defending the interests of the victims relatives both in the courts of justice and while settling petty quarrels. Serious conflicts are rare inside groups of two levels bonded by blood kinship (the nuclear family and the families of first order): these bonds nearly rule out even just claims.

Social-political life and communities of blood relatives. There are two key trends now evident in the Northwestern and Central Caucasus: a quest for new identities as a starting point of a movement for setting up new states and the desire to establish new relations with the federal Center.

In these conditions, kinship affects, in the first place, the nature of power struggle at the republican level. When a certain family comes to power, its men increase their influence on social-political life. Closeness to the families with members represented in the high republican structures adds weight to ones social status.

Second, when regulating relations among peoples the local administrative structures deliberately use propaganda and kinship structures to control the situation: for negotiations they gather together the elders and heads of the largest and most influential clans. This happened in 1992 in Kabardino-Balkaria when the problem of the republics continued unity acquired urgency. It was the time when the Kabardins and Balkars wanted to set up independent states of their own: Kabarda and Balkaria. Specialist in the Caucasus L.T. Solovieva wrote that at that time the elders and the family heads of the Zolskaia District of Kabardino-Balkaria supported the republics unity by addressing all its peoples, elders, heads of clans, related and friendly families. They called themselves the plenipotentiary representatives of the clans, families and extended families living in the district.8

Third, representatives of some of the family alliances are actively participating in public life. During the election campaigns of 1997 and 2001 in Adigey and of 1996 and 2000 in Kabardino-Balkaria they convinced members of the alliances to support one of the presidential candidates. It was through the members of the families that the main ideas of public movements such as the Adighe Khase of Adigey, the National Council of the Balkar People, etc. are disseminated.

* * *

Forms of artificial kinship. In its time, such kinship was one of the local traditions. The atalyk institute as well as adoption and foster kinship have been well studied by historians and ethnographers. It was through these instruments that weak members of society with little or no influence upgraded their social status and acquired influential patrons in the person of their new relatives. These social institutions disappeared long ago. Today we are witnessing their new formalliances of persons bearing the same family names. They gathered for congresses from time to time during the years of Soviet power, yet the phenomenon played no significant role and exerted no influence. Today we are watching how new rituals and symbols of this form of artificial kinship appear along with a new ideology based on a search for common ancestors. Nearly all North Caucasian peoples are already involved in the process that is most developed in Adigey, among the Ossets, Karachais and Balkars.

Congresses of people bearing the same family names (they are sometimes confused with congresses of blood relatives and are called congresses of families) are conducted at the republican and inter-republican level (for example, there were congresses of Adighe with the same family names from Kabardino-Balkaria, Adigey, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Shapsugia on the Black Sea coast). There are congresses that attract people with the same family names from the Middle East, mainly from Turkey, Syria, and Jordan with considerable populations of Northwestern and Central Caucasian extraction.

For example, in 1996 in Kabardino-Balkaria people with the family name of Kushkhov formed an alliance with over 800 families (4,000 people) from Kabardino-Balkaria, 700 people from Turkey, and the same number of people from Syria, Jordan, and the United States. Those who initiated the alliance started with looking for common ancestors. One of the Kushkhovs has written: While in the past members of the clan who lived in different places treated each other as people with the same family name, today, thanks to painstaking efforts and studies of the 300-year-old genealogical tree, historical and archival documents it has been established that all the branches with the same family name have a common root and are related.9

The Kushkhov alliance is working on a clan code of honor designed to restore the best Adighe traditions and customs. It launched a newspaper Golos Kushkhovykh (The Voice of the Kushkhovs). By 2002 more than 10 issues have already appeared.

In 2001, the relatives of the family and people with the same family name gathered for their congress in Nalchik attended by people from Kabardino-Balkaria, Adigey, and Turkey. They set up informal administrative structures of this public organization and created a Kushkhov Foundation to help the poorer members.

It is quite often that similar alliances seek an official status, many of them have been registered in the republican ministries of justice, the Clan Alliance of the Shybzykhue is one of them. The congress of people with the family name of Shebzukhovs took place in 2000 in Kabardino-Balkaria. They have their own coat of arms, flag, and a charity fund. It should be said that political designs of members of such alliances prevail over their ethnic sentiments and the desire to revive ethnic traditions.

Large families of Kabardino-Balkaria are using these alliances in their latent struggle for high places in the social-political hierarchy. This brings closer together the interests of blood relatives and people with the same family names. For example, the authors of the book on the Kushkhovs genealogy that was traced back to 1630 has written that in Kabardino-Balkaria their family is third by its numerical strength coming after the Shogenovs and Kardanovs. The book enumerates all Kushkhovs who hold important posts in the religious and administrative spheres, in science, industry, agriculture, education, medicine, and even sport.10

Shapsugs from the Black Sea coast (the Lazarevskoe and Tuapse districts of the Krasnodar Territory) who have no their own territorial unit are often invited to such congresses that also take place in Adigey. Early in the 1990s, they made an attempt to restore the Shapsug District that had existed before the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and failed. The heads of the Shapsug Adighe Khase of the Black Sea coast wisely decided to orientate to Adigey where the second congress of the clan of Shkhalakhovs (Skhaliakhos) was held in 2001. It was attended by people with the same family name from Adigey and the Lazarevskoe District of Sochi. Presence of the Black Sea coast Shapsugs was of great social-political importance. Sometimes such congresses are held in Shapsugia. For example, in 2001 the members of the Khagurov family, that lives along the Black Sea coast, Adigey and the Krasnodar Territory, met at the mouth of the Ashe River. People with the same family name from Jordan, Turkey, Syria, and the United States also came.

Similar congresses take place among the Karachais and Balkars. Late in the 1980s, people with the family name of Ulbashev (one of the most influential and numerous among the Balkars) attended their congress. The Karachais and Balkars attach special political importance to such events: in the 1990s, the Balkars were looking for allies in their political confrontation with the Kabardins. The ethnically close Karachais were their only potential ally.

People from abroad are invariably invited: such contacts are expected to produce significant political and economic results. The Adighe-Abkhazian and the Turkic diasporas in the Middle East are much more numerous than the number of ethnically close people living in the Northwestern and Central Caucasus. For five centuries Middle Eastern countries, Turkey in the first place, had their geopolitical interests in the region. Today they are reviving them and are trying to strengthen economic, political, and ethnic contacts. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia wants to spread the radical Islamic trends to the Northern Caucasus while the North Caucasian republics badly need closer economic ties with the Middle East, and Turkey in the first place. The congresses of people with the same family names create an opportunity to establish closer business contacts.

It is important to note that congresses of people with the same family names are often conducted together with congresses of blood relatives. Sometimes, blood relatives hold separate congresses. Our field research has shown that in Adigey and the Black Sea coast blood relatives gather more often than people with the same names while Kabardino-Balkaria prefers to gather people with the same family names. I think that this is explained by a higher degree of political involvement of such alliances in Kabardino-Balkaria.

* * *

The clan structure and Islamic resurrection. The clan structure of North Caucasian society is one of the main reasons behind the differences among various Islamic trends that appeared in the region in the early and the latter half of the 1990s. The changed social-political situation in Russia made Islam one of the key religions in the Russian Federation. In the Northwestern and Central Caucasus it is developing along various roads: there are traditional Islam, canonical (dogmatic) Islam, and all sorts of radical trends that penetrate the region from Saudi Arabia.

Traditional Islam is the religion of old and not very young people who would like to see their faith restored in the form in which it has been taking shape for many centuries starting with the time when it first appeared in the Northern Caucasus. In the process it imbibed local features (absent from it in other Muslim areas) and became specifically North Caucasian.

Those who are siding with non-traditional Islam (they are known as new or young Muslims) are not older than 35. They are out to purify Islam of all local additions and influences. More often than not being ignorant of canonical Islam, its young supporters take for it its more radical forms, information about which is spread in the Northern Caucasus.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the ideologists and teachers of the young Muslims revised the Caucasian traditions and counted as negative the institute of respect for older people and the clan structure of society. It was decided that these two features have to go in the process of Islamic modernization. It seems that this unflagging position has several reasons behind it.

The young Muslims mainly rely on children, teenagers, and the youth whom they educate in all sorts of study circles at mosques and state schools. It turned out that these age groups display a lot of enthusiasm for new forms of Islam while people of the older age groups, especially the oldest people, atheists and traditionalists alike, reject all religious novelties.

As a result, serious conflicts between the younger and older generations gradually came into being: children and grandchildren are looking at the young Muslims as their teachers and treat them with more respect than their own parents and grandparents. The institute of respect for the older people is crumbling. Children and adolescents who cannot restrain themselves are openly criticizing their older relatives, the way they dress, their lifestyle, norms of conduct and moral values.

The new forms of Islam have found its niche: a new generation with atheist parents, though there are other cases. In the Balkar village of Kashkatau there is an old man whom his neighbors call an effendi. For many years, he performed the Islamic burial rite and took part in funeral repasts. Late in the 1990s, his grandson educated in the Islamic Institute in Nalchik became the mullah of the local mosque and started instructing his granddad about the right way to conduct the burial rite and the funeral repast.

Since the time Islam had come to the Northern Caucasus it imbibed many of the Caucasian traditions. This happened in the 18th and 19th centuries and during Soviet power. After the Great Patriotic War there appeared a tradition to gather for funeral repasts on the 52nd day after the funeral. Numerous close and distant relatives meet for a huge feast with wine and liquor. After some time this came to be regarded as an Islamic rite. The young Muslims are actively opposing this and similar things. The grandson from Kashkatau asked his granddad to stay aside from the feasts. His granddad refused. Such things are sapping the clan structure that rests on the centuries-old custom of respect for the old relatives. Different people are gaining prestige with the youth.

This isolates the young Muslims in the Northern Caucasusteenagers no longer communicate with their relatives. As a rule the eldest members of families, who enjoy respect in the villages, oppose the new Islamic forms and present the young Muslims in the negative light. Being aware that the institute of respect for older male relatives prevents them from disseminating their ideas about Islam, young people are trying to explain that many of the traditions (clans and respect for the old) no longer work. The above testifies that this is not true.

* * *

I am convinced that the congresses of people bearing the same family name are developing into a powerful instrument of a new ideology that is taking shape in the Northern Caucasus. The process is facilitated by the local media that pay much attention to such gatherings. The congresses are predated by special issues of newspapers providing detailed descriptions of their agenda and aims.

Further consolidation of the clan structure and ties among relatives are of both positive and negative importance for the region. Solidarity among the relatives and a greater reliance on their alliances develop the system of traditional education and revive ethnic cultures. At the same time, the prevalence of the factor of kinship over others, including the personality factor, with economy and politics going ahead according to modern patterns inevitably brings about social degradation. In this context, the young Muslims desire to limit the role of the older relatives in social life is a positive factor, no matter how complex is ones attitude to the new forms of Islam in the Northern Caucasus.


1 Materialy Vtorogo mezhdunarodnogo genealogicheskogo kollokviuma, No. 1, 2000, pp. 20-22.
2 See: Elbrus, No. 1, 1999.
3 See: O.O. Aishaev, K istorii familii Aishaevykh, Elbrus, No. 1, 2000; T.Sh. Bittirova, Bittirovy: dokumenty i ustnye istochniki, Elbrus, No. 1, 2000; M.S. Kushkhov, Rodovoe obedinenie Kushkhovykh, Elbrus, No. 1, 2000; M.Kh. Pshukov, Rod Pshukovykh, Elbrus, No. 1, 2000.
4 See: Genealogia Severnogo Kavkaza. Materialy Pervogo respublikanskogo konkursa TsNTTU MON KBR Moia rodoslovnaia, Nalchik, 2002.
5 See: M.Kh.-B. Kishmakhov, Rod iz sviashchennoy doliny ubykhov. Istoriko-kulturniy ocherk o rode Kimshakhovykh-Kimsharia, Cherkessk, 1999; Sh.T. Eshugaov, Ot pradeda do pravnukov. Kratkiy ocherk istorii roda Eshugaovykh iz aula Mamheg, Nalchik, 2002; A.S. Dzagalov, Islamovo: zabytye predki. Iz istorii proshlogo malokabardinskogo selenia, Nalchik, 2001; M.S. Kushkhov, A.T. Kushkhov, M.D. Kushkhov, Rod Kushkhovykh. Sotsialno-istorichekiy portret, Nalchik, 2001.
6 For more detail, see: I.L. Babich, Narodnye traditsii v obshchestvennom bytu kabardintsev, Moscow, 1995.
7 For more detail, see: I.L. Babich, Pravovai kultura adygov, Moscow, 1999.
8 L.T. Solovieva, Rodstvennye obedinenia adygov: traditsii i sovremennost, Rasy i narody, No. 26, 2001, p. 228.
9 M.S. Kushkhov, op. cit., p. 143.
10 See: M.S. Kushkhov, A.T. Kushkhov, M.D. Kushkov, op. cit, p. 11.

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