Map of Russian Federation

Map of Russian Federation

European Russia and the Caucasus

West of the Ural Mountains lie the neighbouring republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Chuvashia.   The indigenous peoples of these republics, the Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvash, speak Turkic languages.  

The Tatars
The name “Tatar” was initially used to denote a people from northern Mongolia. In Russia it has commonly been used to denote any person of non-European descent (generally Muslims of Turkic or Mongol descent). The word ‘Tatar’ does not refer to a homogenous ethnicity, but rather there are several different Tatar ethnicities, such as the Kazan Tatars, the Crimean Tatars, or the Astrakhan Tatars.  Initially, the word came into use to denote the Turkic and Mongol invaders of Russia.Today, the word ‘Tatar’ is used in Russia to denote some Turkic peoples who live in Eastern European parts of Russia, and in particular the Kazan Tatars, who are the indigenous population of Tatarstan. 

There are nearly 7 million Kazan Tatars, most of whom live in Tatarstan and neighbouring regions, but also in Central Asia, Siberia and the Caucasus.The territory of Tatarstan was part of Volga-Kama Bulgaria, which was home to the Bulgar tribes who are the ancestors of modern Tatars, and which was founded at the end of the 9th century.  Islam became its state religion in 922.  In the 13th century this territory became part of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde state. After the demise of the latter, the Khanate of Kazan emerged, with its capital Kazan, which today is the capital of Tatarstan.  The Kazan Khanate was conquered and annexed by Russia in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible.

The Kazan Kremlin is the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia today and consists of a group of historic buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and which integrate the remains of earlier structures of the 10th to 16th centuries. It has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The language of the Kazan Tatars became a literary language in the 15th century, and included many Arabic and Persian words.  It was written in Arabic alphabet.
Today, Tatarstan is one of the richest republics of the Russian Federation with a population of almost 4 million, almost 50% of whom are ethnically Tatar, and the rest mainly Russian. The Kazan Tatars speak a Turkic language and because of their mixed ancestry they have diverse features, although the majority look European.  Most are Sunni Muslims.  

The Bashkirs    
The Republic of Bashkortostan borders Tatarstan, and its capital is Ufa.  Bashkortostan has a population of over 4 million, around 20% of whom are Bashkir, the indigenous people of Bashkortostan. The rest of the population are mainly Russian and Tatar. The Bashkir language is a Turkic language, closely related to Tatar. The earliest descriptions of the Bashkirs were written by the Arab traveller and writer idn Fadlan at the beginning of the 10th century. In 1556 they voluntarily recognized the supremacy of Russia, and the Russians founded the city of Ufa in 1574, initially a fort built as a defense against the the Kyrgyz.  The Bashkirs rebelled several times against the Russians, in 1676, in 1707, and in 1735-41.  In 1774 the Bashkirs supported Pugachev's rebellion. The Bashkirs lived as nomadic cattle breeders until the nineteenth century, when they adopted an agricultural lifestyle, although still today traditional occupations of animal husbandry and beekeeping remain important activities. The traditional Bashkir clan-based social structure, typical of Turkic peoples, has disappeared.

The Bashkir are predominantly Muslim although some are Russian Orthodox.
Bashkiria was the first ethnic region to be designated an autonomous republic after the 1917 revolution. In 1992 the republic declared full independence, but two years later, Bashkortostan agreed to remain within the framework of the Russian Federation.

The Chuvash 
The small Chuvash Republic, with 1.4 million inhabitants, a majority of whom are Chuvash, is located next to Tatarstan, and its capital is Cheboksary. The Chuvash language is a Turkic language. The Chuvash are mainly Russian Orthodox.

The Chuvash are descendants of the Bulgar tribes and are believed to have descended from the same ancestors as the modern Bulgarians, who migrated from the area. The Volga-Kama Bulgars migrated to present-day Chuvashia in the 13th and 14th centuries after their defeat by the Golden Horde. In the 15th century the Chuvash lands became part of the Kazan Khanate.
After the defeat of the Kazan Khanate by Muscovy in the mid-16th century, the territory of present-day Chuvashia became part of the Russian state. At that time, the Chuvash were already a settled agricultural people. In 1920 Chuvashia became an autonomous oblast, and in 1925 it was redesignated an autonomous republic. The republic declared its sovereignty within the Soviet Union in 1990.

Kalmykia is the only Buddhist nation in Europe. It is located south of the Volga on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The Kalmyks are descendants of an Oirat tribe who decided to migrate en masse in 1618 from the upper Irtysh river area in the Altai region  to the region of present-day Kalmykia in the Northern Caucasus.  Almost the entire tribe, hundreds of thousands of people and animals moved across southern Siberia, the Urals and Kazakh and Bashkir lands, which they raided. The reasons for this massive migration have not been fully explained.  It may have been motivated by political discontent, a flight from military fighting or simply a search for new pastures since their lands were being increasingly infringed upon by Russians and Kazakhs.

The Kalmyk became Buddhists in the 17th century and belong to the Tibetan Gelugpa sect. Kalmyk monasteries historically operated out of tents and were mobile, travelling with the nomadic tribes.  The Lamas also practiced traditional medicine and had a strong political influence in society. Kalmyk has been a literary language since the 11th century, when the Uyghur script was used.  In the 17th century a Buddhist monk created a Kalmyk alphabet which was used until 1924, when it was replaced by Cyrillic.  The use of the Cyrillic script was briefly interrupted between 1938 and 1938, when the Latin script was used.  Today the Cyrillic script is used.  

The region had previously been part of the Astrakhan Khanate, but was now part of Russia, which however had little control over the region and was in no position to stop the Kalmyks from settling there.  The Kalmyks drove out the indigenous people of this region, the Nogais, most of whom fled eastward to the Crimean Khanate. They established a Kalmyk Khanate which lasted between 1630 and 1724.  During this period the Kalmyks were nominally loyal to Russia, but their real allegiance was to a code which had been publicized in the 17th century by several Mongol tribes which had been drafted as a way of resolving differences and uniting as Gelugpa Buddhists. This code regulated all aspects of nomadic life.  The Kalmyks became a borderland people who often allied themselves with Russia against neighbouring Muslim nations. The Russian government granted subsidies to Kalmyk nobles which later became a means of political control.  

After the death of the ruling Khan in 1724, the situation in the Kalmyk Khanate became increasingly unstable.  Russia put political pressure on the Khanate by imposing the introduction of a council reducing the power of the Khan and encouraging settlement by Russians and Germans in the Khanate. The Orthodox Church also became increasingly active in its missionary activities. In the winter of 1770-71 the ruling Khan decided that the Kalmyks should return to their ancestral land, which was now controlled by the Manchu.  The Dalai Lama was contacted and asked to set the date of departure and give his blessing.  At the time of departure many Kalmyks were left behind due to the weakening of the ice on the Volga – only those on the eastern bank were able to leave.  Around 200,000 Kalmyks  began the long journey but two thirds died on the way. After this exodus Catherine the Great abolished the Kalmyk Khanate and came under direct control of the Tsarist government, although the remaining Kalmyks continued their traditional nomadic way of life. Some Kalmyks took part in the Pugachev rebellion following which Catherine the Great transferred the hereditary leadership of the people from one tribe to another causing further disruption to the Kalmyk society.

Over time, the Kalmyks gradually became settled and built permanent houses and temples. The Capital Elista was founded in 1865. The Revolution of 1917 split the Kalmyk nation into opposing camps, some siding with the Reds and others with the Whites. The Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast was created in November 1920 and reorganized into the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1935.Under Soviet rule religious thought and practice was suppressed and all Kalmyk Buddhist temples were closed or destroyed. In 1944, all Kalmyks who did not fight in the Soviet army were accused of collaboration with Germany and exiled to Central Asia and Siberia.  The Kalmyk nation was rehabilitated in 1957 and allowed to return to their homes, but their religion was not restored until the 1980s and Glasnost’.  Many temples were built in the 1990s and in 2005 the largest Buddhist temple in Europe was built in the capital Elista.  

Much of the land in Kalmykia became desert during Soviet times due to over grazing and over cultivation.  Today livestock farming remains the main economic activity. The President of Kalmykia is a millionnaire businessman who has been president of the International Chess Federation and plans to build a “Chess City” in the republic. 

Finno-Ugric Peoples
Almost 25 million people in the world today speak Uralic (Finno-Ugric and Samoyed) languages. They represent around 25 different peoples, most of whom live in Russia, but some of whom live as far west as Norway and as far south as the Danube river. In the Russian Federation the the Karelians, the Mordvins, the Maris, and the Udmurts have their own republics, and the Khantys, the Mansis, and the Nenets live in autonomous regions.  However, they are in all cases minorities in these territories.

The designation of all these peoples as a group on the basis of linguistic similarity seems in some ways arbitrary or futile. Despite the various similarities of the Finno-Ugric languages, they are not mutually understandable. There is no racial homogeneity among the group: some Finno-Ugric peoples belong to the Caucasian race, and some to the Uralic race, with both European and Mongolian physical characteristics. Nor is there any cultural homogeneity: the cultures of many Finno-Ugrian peoples are agrarian, but the Khanty, Mansi, and Samoyed cultures are based on hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry. Many Finno-Ugrians are Christians of various confessions, but in Siberia many have preserved their ancient animistic religion with shamanistic practices.

The Komi Republic lies west of the Ural mountains. It has the largest expanse of virgin forest in Europe, which has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Virgin Komi Forests.   in the north east of the European plain.  In 2002, around 256,000 Komi lived in the Republic, representing 25% of the population.  Russians make up 59% of the population.The northernmost Komi are called Izhemtsy and still lead a traditional way of life involving reindeer husbandry. The northern Komi retain close ties with Nenets tribes, and they often intermarry. In the southern parts of Komi, close contacts with Russians have made ethnic distinctions subtle making it hard to tell a Komi from a Russian.

Farming and animal husbandry began in the 10th to 15th centuries and the Komi became settled abandoning their semi-nomadic way of life. Komi lands paid tribute to Novgorod and by the end of 15th century, the area became a part of Russia, and the population was Christianised. The Komis strongly opposed the system of serfdom and frequently rebelled.

Volga Finns
Mordvins, Moksha and Erzya are Finno-Ugric peoples living in the Volga basin.   

Mari El
In the Middle Ages the Mari were close to the Turkic peoples (the Volga Bulgars and later the Kazan Tatars) living in the same region and the Mari fought on the side of the Tatars against the Russians until the fall of the Kazan Khanate in 1552. The Mari rebelled against Russian rule of the region and many migrated east to the lands of the Bashkirs.  During Tsarist times, separate administrative districts divided the areas of Mari settlement. 

In 1920 the Mari Autonomous Oblast’ was created by the Soviet authorities but because the Mari were so widely dispersed, only a minority lived in this district. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Mari El was founded in 1992. Today, the Mari are still a very dispersed people.  This and the general urbanisation and ‘russification’ of the region has led to a low sense of ethnic identity or awareness. In 1917 a political movement called the Union of Mari (Marii Ushem) was founded, which was later repressed and disbanded during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.  The movement reappeared in the Glasnost years and played a part in the post-communist national revival of the Mari people in the 1990s.  In the later nineties the revival movement lost its momentum.

The Udmurt have lived in the area that is the Udmurt Republic since the 9th century. Udmurt society was traditionally organised into clans and today most Udmurts still feel that they belong to one of the around 70 clans that have been recorded historically. Most Udmurt settlements were traditionally located by the banks of rivers where clans or families built their kar, or castle. Until the middle of the thirteenth century the Udmurt made a living from fishing, hunting, beekeeping and limited livestock farming. The Volga-Bulgarians were in control of the Udmurt region until the Mongol-Tatars conquered it in the 1230s. The Mongol invasion destroyed man of their settlements and their lands became part of the Golden Horde state. The Udmurts became subjects of the Russian empire after the Russian defeat of the Kazan Khanate in 1552.The Udmurt region became subject to central control of Tsarist Russia and was industrialised in the first half of the eighteenth century.  Serfs of the Russian state were relocated to work in the industries, forming a new urban population, and the Orthodox Church established cloisters and church estates here.

Most of the Udmurts lived in rural villages and only superficially accepted Christianity, retaining their old animistic religion, until the first two decades of the twentieth century, when small groups of Udmurt intellectuals appeared, who took a leading role in forming an ethnic consciousness. The Udmurt ASSR was formed after the revolution. The collectivization campaigns of the 1930s swept away the old villages, the towns lost their unique features, and the Udmurt peoples were transformed into Soviet citizens. Today, about a third of the population of the Udmurt Republic is ethnically Udmurt and in rural areas they constitute a majority.

There are two tribes native to Mordovia, called the Erzya and the Moksha.  Present-day Mordovia was ruled by the Ostrogoths in the 3rd century and later by the Volga Bulgars. In 1236 it was conquered by the Mongols and became part of the Golden Horde state until 1552, when it was incorporated in the Russian empire following the defeat of the Kazan Khanate. Its capital is the city of Saransk. Only around 30% of the Mordvins (i.e., Erzya and Moksha) live in the Republic of Mordovia. Most live in the provinces of Samara, Penza, Orenburg, Ulyanovsk and Nizhni-Novgorod, partly also in Central Asia and Siberia.In the 16th century many Mordvinds moved east, attempting to escape Russian colonisation and in 1671 they staged an uprising which was suppressed by the Russians and as a result of which 1/10 of all Mordvins were killed and 2/3 migrated to escape forced conversion to Orthodoxy. Several other uprisings were brutally crushed by the Russians in 1743-45 and 1804. In 1920, Mordvins were encouraged to migrate to Siberia because of a famine that ravaged their region. In 1928  the district of Mordovia was created.

The North West
The Sami
The Sami people are an indigenous people of the northern regions of Scandinavia and north-west Russia.  Traditionally, they keep reindeer and lead a nomadic lifestyle similar in many ways to that of some Siberian reindeer herding peoples such as the Samoyeds.The Sami who live in Russia live on the Kola Peninsula and are sometimes called the Kola Lapps. In the late 1800s Russians, Komis and Nenets immigrated to the Kola Peninsula encouraged by tax exemptions, and today the Sami are a minority in the region. In the 1930s the Soviet collectivisation campaign reached the region and collective farms were set up where Komi, Nenets and Sami families worked. The Sami were forced to settle down. All over Russia, children of indigenous peoples were sent to boarding schools, and this also applied to Sami children, who as a consequence became separated from their families and failed to learn the traditions of the Sami way of life.Today, like many other native peoples, the Sami face social problems including unemployment and alcoholism. Mixed marriages and the Russian-language environment have accelerated their loss of culture. In addition, industries pollute the Kola Peninsula with heavy metals and cause acid rain, further endangering their traditional lifestyle.

Votians, Livonians, Izhorians, Veps
The Votians are a small people now living in two villages in the Leningrad Region.  The Votians paid tribute to the principality of Novgorod, which was later conquered by Muscovy and divided into five parts, of which the northern was called the Votic fifth. At this time many Votes converted to the Orthodox faith. In 1617, the area became part of Sweden and was called Ingermanland. The Swedes propagated Lutheranism to attach the area more firmly to Sweden, but many Votes escaped across the border to the Russian side and peasants from Finland moved to unoccupied previously Votian areas. The difference in religion remained - Ingrians are Protestant, while the Votes and Izhorians stayed Orthodox. Ingermanland was returned to Russia in 1721. Later, the founding of St. Petersburg brought the arrival of thousands of Russians into Ingermanland. Votes are traditionally farmers and herders, and some also fishermen and sailors. Trades and crafts were an essential part of Votic life.  By the mid 19th century, Votes were already ‘russified’. The Izhorians, Veps and the Livonians are three other small Finno-Ugric peoples.  The Livonians are closely related to Estonians and were settled beside the Väina River, which was an important trade route. The Veps live in Karelia and the Leningrad Region and the Izhorians are an indigenous people of Ingermanland and live between the Narva and Neva rivers. These peoples were traditionally farmers, but as the land in the region was not fertile, they also fished and hunted and sometimes bred livestock. Trade and crafts were also important sources of income and many were skilled carpenters, smiths and iron founders, and weavers. 

"Russian Karelians" who live in the Russian Republic of Karelia and "Finnish Karelians" who live in eastern Finland have had different histories, cultures and religions since the 13th century. Some Karelians were Christened by Sweden, others by Novgorod, splitting them into two groups. Karelians are traditionally farmers, fishermen, hunters and timber cutters. As late as the second half of the 19th century, they had a traditional lifestyle and lived in extended families. The Karelian culture is rich in folklore and many of the Kalevala songs (the Finnish national epic) are of Karelian origin. Under Soviet rules, Russian Karelia was industrialised which brought an influx of Russian immigrants. Today, Russian Karelians have been ‘russified’. 

North Caucasus
The landscape in the north Caucasus is varied: the coastlines along the Black and Caspian seas – in the west the mountains rise out of the sea, but in the east a narrow and low coast line separates the Caspian sea from the mountains;  fertile steppe and low hills where nomadic horse and cattle breeders roamed; and high mountains – including the Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe – traditionally isolated regions until modern technology and the construction of military highways. The peoples indigenous to this region share many similar cultural traits developed due to the environment and similar life conditions.
The Caucasus mountains have always been at the intersection of cultures. They were a barrier between the urban civilisation of Mesopotamia and the nomads of the north; later,   Scythians and Sarmatians penetrated the mountains, of which the Alans, a Sarmatian tribe, became a controlling power in the Caucasus for some time. The Caucasian Alans were called Os, a name still carried today by the Ossetians. In the first centuries AD many Turkic tribes from the Altai mountains migrated to Europe via the Caucasus, taking people as slaves on the way. In the fourth century many peoples in the western Caucasus were converted to Christianity while the eastern parts came under the influence of the Iranian Sasanids. The Arabs brought Islam in the seventh century. A new people, the Khazars, whose origins remain a mystery – some think they were ethnically a mix of Turkic, Iranian and Caucasian tribes, others that they were a Finno-Ugric people from the north - had by the year 650 established a state along the coastline of the Caspian Sea with trading routes across the mountains. The Khazars converted to Judaism in the 9th century and made Judaism their state religion and installed religious tolerance in their state. However, they suffered a rapid decline in the 10th century and were forced to migrate west towards central Europe where it is believed they mixed with other Jewish communities, notably the Ashkenaz. 

The Caucasus belt separating the Khazar state from the Arab lands became a theatre of wars in the eighth and ninth centuries, resulting in further migration -  conquerors brought immigrant families, while those conquered were either killed or assimilated, others emigrated or sought refuge in the mountains. In the thirteenth century Ghenghis Khan's troops crossed the Caucasus mountains and in 1227 Ghenghis Khan's grandson Batu established The Khanate of the Golden Horde, also known as the Kipchak Khanate, in the North Caucasus, dominating Russia until the fourteenth century. At the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth century Timur conquered a vast empire including the Caucasus. The Russian Czar Ivan IV (known as Ivan the Terrible) married a Kabard princess, and Russian rulers initially sided with local feudal lords in order to extend power over the Caucasian peoples. The Tsarist Russian Armies invaded the Caucasus in the first half of the 19th Century and defeated local resistance in 1864.

The Caucasus is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world.  Today, it is believed around 40 groups living in the North Caucasus have a distinct ethnic identity. They live mainly within seven republics in the Russian Federation - Dagestan, Chechnia, Ingushia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygea - and in two former autonomous republics in Georgia - South Ossetia and Abkhazia.Some of the ethnicities are related either by religion, language or way of life, but although many have cultural traits in common, the cultural diversity of the region, and especially the diversity of languages, is astonishing.  This is sometimes ascribed to geographical isolation, but social structures which determined who could get married or trade with whom, who was friend and who was foe, are probably more important.

Many of the languages in the Caucasus bear no resemblance to any other languages and are categorized as ‘Caucasian’. Many are mutually incomprehensible. The Caucasian languages belong to two major language groups, the North Eastern branch: (Lak, Avar and Dargin in Central Dagestan; Lezgi, Tabasaran and Rutul in Southern Dagestan; Chechen and Ingush in their respective republics) and the North Western branch: (Circassian languages - Kabard and Adygei or Cherkess - and Abkhaz, including Abaza).  Turkic languages are also spoken in the Caucasus (Nogai, Kumyk and Karachai-Balkar) and were brought by Turkic nomads who first came to live in the region centuries ago. In Dagestan one also finds an Azeri, whose language belongs to the Oghuz branch of the Turkic language family. Indo-European languages are spoken by the Osset and the Tat, who speak Iranian languages.  Russian and Ukrainian are also spoken. Russians, including Cossacks, have lived in the region since it was incorporated into Russia, but the largest immigration of Russians took place during the Soviet era. Most people today are bilingual – they generally speak their native language and Russian.  Prior to the Russian colonisation, Kumyk (a Turkic language) was the lingua franca of the region, and prior to that, Arabic.

Three religions are represented in the North Caucasus: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, alongside of which Pagan traditions and rituals still survive.Islam played a unifying role during the wars with Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today Islam of the Sufi tradition is regaining strength in the region. Two major tariqat (movements or brotherhoods) exist, the Naqshbandia and the Qadiri, both of which survived underground during Soviet times. Membership is in practice often linked to traditional clan loyalties.

Christianity in its Orthodox version was once the main religion in the region, especially after the final Russian conquest in 1864, when hundreds of thousands of Muslim Caucasians left Russia for the Ottoman Empire and Christian Armenians, Georgians and Russians settled in the abandoned areas. Today, apart from the Russian population, the Ossetians are Christian.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were many synagogues in the Caucasus. Today there is a Jewish community in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. A number of Jewish villages has long existed in the area along today’s borderlands between Azerbaijan and Daghestan. The so-called ‘mountain Jews’ (the Russian ethnonym for Caucasian Jews) are believed by some to be descendants of the Khazars. Others believe they are descendants of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the Caucasus in connection with Persian rule at the turn of the first millennium AD, and who mediated between the Persian Empire and the Empire of the Khazars. Many Caucasian Jews have emigrated to Israel since the 1970s, and the since the beginning of the 1990s the emigration has been massive. 

North West Caucasus 
Circassians is a general term for the peoples living in the three republics of Adyghea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. As the names of the republics suggest, there are five titular nationalities:  the Adyge, the Kabardians, the Cherkess, the Karachay and the Balkars. The Adyghe, Cherkess and Kabardins are closely related culturally and linguistically and speak Caucasian languages. The Karachay and the Balkars speak a Turkic language.

Historically the Circassians lived along the shores of the black sea in the west up to the
Kuban river in the North. Their number was reduced after the Russian conquest of the Northwest Caucasus in the 1860’s, when hundreds of thousands of Circassians fled to the Ottoman Empire.  Today the majority of Circassians live outside the Russian Federation: more than 2 million live in Turkey and about 100,000 in Jordan, Syria, Israel, the United States and Europe. 
In 1918 the independent state of the Mountaineers Republic of the North Caucasus was formed, in which the Circassians who remained participated. The republic was short-lived. It became part of the Soviet Union and was renamed the Soviet Mountain Republic in 1921, but disintegrated within a few years and the Circassians were divided into three categories as the Adyge, the Cherkess and the Kabardians. The Karachay-Balkars were divided as well.
During the Second World War, Stalin had several entire nations of the Caucasus deported as a punishment for alleged collaboration with the Germans.  The Karachays, the Balkars, the Chechens, and the Ingush, were deported to Central Asia. During the deportations around one third to half of these populations perished, and meanwhile their lands were incorporated into neighbouring regions. After 1957 they were allowed to return following Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin's actions at the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, but even so the human suffering and grievances caused by the deportations has never healed.

The Ingush, the Chechen, and the Kist (who live in Georgia) call themselves Vai Nakh (literally 'our people'). Their languages are from the same language family and they share many common customs. Prior to the Russian conquest, the Ingush and the Chechen lived in an area inside the Terek bend – the land inside the bend created by the Terek River as it descends from Mount Kazbek in central Caucasus and flows out into the north Caucasian plain before bending to go round the foothills and eventually empty into the Caspian Sea. Neighbors to the east are the various peoples of Daghestan (many of them speaking languages related to Chechen and Ingush); in the plains to the north, the Turkic-speaking Kumyk; to the west the Ossetians; to the south the southern Ossetians and the Georgians.

“Chechen”and “Ingush” are Russian ethnonyms - the Chechens call themselves Nokhchi, and the Ingush call themselves Ghalghaaj. The Chechen term for the Chechen Republic is Ichkeria and the Ingush term for Ingushetia is Ghalghaachie.

After the Russian Revolution the Chechen and Ingush were part of the short-lived Soviet Mountain Republic. By 1924 separate Chechen and Ingush autonomous regions had been set up, and in 1934 they were united into a Chechen-Ingush republic, which was abolished during the 1944-56 deportation and reinstated after 1957. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Ingushetia became a republic in the Russian Federation. Chechnya declared independence from Russia. In 1994 Russia sent armed forces to Chechnya which were met with fierce resistance. Moscow withdrew its forces under a 1996 peace agreement. The deal gave Chechnya substantial autonomy but not full independence. In August 1999, Chechen fighters crossed into the neighbouring Russian Republic of Dagestan to support a declaration by an Islamic body based there of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya. Vladimir Putin sent the army back to subdue the republic by force in a second brutal campaign which has yet to reach a conclusion.

Chechen and Ingush, together with Bats (a minority language of Georgia), make up the Nakh branch of the Nakh-Daghestanian, or Northeast Caucasian, language family. There are over 30 languages in this family, most of them spoken in Daghestan, just to the east of Chechnya. The language family is indigenous to the Caucasus and has no demonstrable relations to any other language group. They were not traditionally written languages and previously Arabic and Kumyk were the literary languages of the region, later replaced by Russian. In the 1930s orthographies using the Russian alphabet were created and are used today in newspapers and literature.
Chechen and Ingush society was traditionally grouped in clans, which survive to this day. Clans regulate social relationships and behaviour and determine who you can marry and who you can trade with. Even today, an individual will treat all members of a clan with the same degree of respect as to a relative in that clan. People generally know and pass on to their children a good deal of information about their clan's origins, the location of their clan towers, and the highland village to which they trace their origin. Generally the Ingush and the Chechen can trace their ancestry back several generations - a man is expected to be able to trace his paternal ancestors going back seven generations. Chechen and Ingush society is traditionally egalitarian and non-stratified, without any formal political organization.  Each clan was headed by a respected elder. Clans and villages were autonomous.  This traditional social structure rests on principles of respect and deference to one's elders, formal and dignified relations between clans.

Through the Middle Ages Christian missionaries were active in the region but the people remained mostly pagan until the Russian conquest began. Islam became associated with resistance to the Russians, and from the 17th to the early 19th centuries the Chechen and then the Ingush converted to Islam. Today they are mostly Sunni Muslims.


The South of Dagestan is mountainous, and the north consists of steppe.  The strip of coastal plain on the border of the Caspian Sea has traditionally served as a north-south passage way since there is no easy access across the Caucasian mountains. As elsewhere in the Caucasus, the mountainous regions of Dagestan are very isolated.

There are 30 ethnic groups living in Dagestan, most of which are indigenous to the region and speak mutually unintelligible Caucasian languages. The Kumyks and the Nogai are Turkic speaking peoples who originate from Central Asia and live in the steppe regions of Dagestan. Russian serves as the lingua franca in Dagestan.

As with other Caucasian peoples, the Caucasian ethnic groups of Dagestan are divided into tribes and clans, headed by elders. Traditionally, sheep-breeding was the main occupation in the region. In summer, flocks were taken to graze in the mountains, and in winter to the lowlands in the north. Limited agriculture in the form of terraced cultivation of crops also prevailed.
The region of present day Dagestan formed part of Caucasian Albania from the 5th century B.C.  In the 7th century A.D. it came under Arab domination and the population was converted to Islam.  Most peoples of Dagestan today are Sunni Muslim.  In the 13th century the Mongol Golden Horde ruled the area and after them, the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and the Persians in the 18th century. However, the peoples of Dagestan always enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and independence.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Empire extended its influence to the Caucasus and during the Caucasian War (1816-1856) the Caucasians resisted the Russian advance under the leader Imam Shamil, who was born in present day Dagestan. By the end of the 19th century, millions of Caucasians had either perished or emigrated to the Ottoman Empire.
During the Russian Revolution, the peoples of Dagestan actively supported the Bolsheviks. After the Russian Revolution they were part of the short-lived Soviet Mountain Republic and in 1921, the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed.

Since the 19th century there has been extensive migration from mountainous areas to the lowlands. In the 19th century, Tsarist troops destroyed many of the terraces constructed to make high altitude agriculture possible. This policy was continued under Soviet rule and in the 1930s during the collectivisation campaigns people were forced to move to kolkhozes in the plains. Since malaria was brought under control in the 1950s, migration to the plains has increased. This has led to many changes: urban society has become more dominant and intense cultivation of the lowlands has affected the pastoral peoples who traditionally inhabited these areas.
The Avars are the most numerous ethnic group of Dagestan and are subdivided into 17 sub-groups. The legendary Imam Shamil, who led the resistance against the Russians in the 19th century, was an Avar. The Avar are a mountainous people with ancient origins.  They formed the Avar Khanate in the 14th century which became powerful in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Other peoples of Dagestan are: the Kumyk, the Nogai, the Lak, the Lezgin, the Dargin, the Archi, the Tabasaran, the Rutuls, the Aguls, the Tsakhur, the Hinukh, the Bezhta, the Dido, the Kvarshi, the Hunzib, the Andi, the Botlikh, the Godoberi, the Karata, the Akhvakh, the Bagvalal, the Tindi, and the Chamalal.