Абузар Айдамиров  Арби Мамакаев   чеченский алфавит XIX века
Written Chechen literature emerged out of folklore, on the basis of its numerous and versatile genres, which had perfected its philosophical content, language, imagery and symbols over the millennia.

Written literature appeared as soon as Chechens started to use writing. Doubtless, the Chechen population of mountain areas neighbouring on Georgia used the Georgian alphabet in the 8th-19th centuries. Georgian historiography refers to Georgian-language correspondence between Nakh elders and Georgian kings, alongside mentions of the dissemination of Christianity in the North Caucasus[1].

Archaeological data[2] allow assume that Chechens of the Alanian era also used the Greek alphabet received from Byzantium. Chechen traditions mention Byzantine missionaries active in Chechen-populated areas in the early mediaevality.

The use of writing in interstate relations and epigraphy allows assume the existence of literature—at least, translations and compilations of works on ethics. Regrettably, no literary monuments of that kind have come down to this day.

Extant Chechen traditions mention teptars (family chronicles) using Georgian and Byzantine alphabets and, presumably, the zil yoza cuneal writing.

Teptars are the earliest Chechen-language written monuments surviving to this day.

The teptar is the chronicle of a family or a clan covering a long time. Every family had its genealogists and recorders of landmark events in national and family life. According to folklore references, such records were made on leather, wood or stone.

A majority of family chronicles were thoroughly revised in the 17th century, after Chechens were converted into Islam and accepted Arabic writing.

Саид БадуевThe oldest records were destroyed, and the genealogy of a majority of Chechen families and patronymic groups was traced down to the 8th century A.D. A majority of teptars based on the genealogical legend on the West Asian origin of Chechen surnames. The same was typical of genealogical literature on the ancestry of feudal families of all Muslim peoples in the North Caucasus. For the most part, presently available chronicles were written in Chechen using the Arabic alphabet, or in Arabic.

Arabic-language literature appeared in Chechnya in the 17th and 18th centuries as theological and ethical treatises, translations of Oriental poetry, and love lyrics. The development of Chechen literature—mainly its minor forms—started after Arabic writing was adapted to the Chechen language.

All books and teptars, with token exceptions, were confiscated and destroyed during the Chechen deportation of 1944.  A small number of teptars were rescued, and several copies of theological and ethical treatises are extant as secret service officers removed them from Chechnya.

The first attempts to adapt the Cyrillic alphabet to the Chechen language were made after Russia incorporated Chechnya in the 19th century. These efforts were largely promoted by Russian linguist and educationalist Pyotr Uslar, who devoted much time to studies of Caucasian languages, history and culture. Assisted by Lieutenant Kedi Dosov, a Russian army officer of Chechen ancestry, Uslar wrote the first Chechen primer on the Cyrillic basis in 1862, and gathered the first Chechen children’s classes to teach them the three R’s in their mother tongue. However loyal to the regime Uslar might have appeared, his educatory work did not find support from the Tsarist government, and so had no practical impact on Chechen culture, though other attempts to elaborate universally accessible writing in conformity with Chechen grammar and phonetics were made later.

Russian scholar Ivan Bartolomei put out his Chechen primer in 1866. Based on Cyrillic writing[3], it included the first translations into Russian of Chechen folklore samples—proverbs, maxims, funny stories and heroic tales.

During his sojourn in the Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy recorded two Chechen songs in Russian transcription, which his friends Sado Miserbiev and Balta Isayev recited to him. Afanasy Fet later made their brilliant translations into Russian.

People with European education and an excellent command of the Russian language, who appeared in Chechnya in the second half of the 19th century, worked to define the historical and cultural mission of their people and its place in world history.

One of them, Lieutenant Ummalat Laudayev, wrote The Chechen Tribe, a historical ethnographic essay. However strongly influenced by the official view of Chechen history and culture, it was a first-ever scholarly work on Chechens, written by a Chechen in the Russian language—which makes The Chechen Tribe a valuable written monument.

A constellation of Chechen enlighteners—Tashtemir Eldarkhanov, Denilbek Sheripov, and Ahmetkhan and Ismail Mutushev—appeared at the turn of the 20th century.

Their political activities and topical journalism aimed to improve their people’s social and economic status, educate Chechens and acquaint them with Russian and European culture.

Chechen enlighteners’ Russian-language journalism of that time made the basis for further social and cultural progress of Chechnya, and for the appearance of a new generation of intellectuals with European education and profound interest in Chechen culture and history.

Aslanbek Sheripov’s book Selected Chechen Folk Songs, put out in Vladikavkaz in 1918, comprised three illi songs of heroism—“Abrek Gekha”, “Yussup Son of Mussa” and “Assir Abrek”, in liberal translation into Russian. Their style and imagery bore a strong imprint of Pushkin’s, Lermontov’s and Maxim Gorky’s Romantic works. Aslanbek Sheripov was a prolific journalist and public speaker, marked by excellent literary Russian, intellectual precision, immaculate logic and apt arguments. Politically topical, his works were imbued with youthful radicalism, revolutionary romanticism, and pure and sincere belief in sublime revolutionary ideals.

New written Chechen-language literature emerged as late as the 1920s. Ahmat Nazhayev’s collection Songs and Stories was published in 1923. The newspaper Serlo, established in Grozny in 1925, published Chechen-language stories, essays and verse by Abdi Dudayev, Shirvani Sagaipov, Mahmad Salmurzayev and Issa Eldarkhanov.

Those authors needed new literary forms and characters, and sought new expressive means in other languages and elsewhere. Their quest did not bring rich fruit. Extremely declarative and one-dimensional, of primitive imagery, their high-falutin’ works extolled Soviet rule and leaders, and called to renounce traditions and old social patterns.

The emergence of classic Chechen literature was connected with the name of poet, prose-writer and playwright Said Baduyev. The founder of Chechen literature equally excelled in the Russian and Chechen languages. He started his literary career as playwright and poet.

In 1929, he and Eldarkhanov co-authored the drama The Fatherly Law, a wrathful denunciation of blood feud as a remnant of outdated customs destroying innocent lives. Baduyev next wrote several satirical comedies (Every Day Is Not Bairam Even for a Mullah, Eid ul-Fitr and others), which mercilessly deride the Chechen clergy’s bigotry, avarice, cowardice and secret vices. The comedies draw on Chechen anti-clerical folklore, with its omnipresent figure of the stupid, greedy and cowardly mullah. Written in lively vernacular, they abound in proverbs and folk sayings.

Within several years, he wrote a number of topical political plays devoted to the eradication of old customs, class struggle and collectivisation (The Changing Highlands, The Bolshevik Sewing Campaign, The Political Department, The Shepherd’s Family, The Awakening, and others). Highly declarative, those propaganda plays ignore psychological motivations, and their plots are schematic. Baduyev’s best work, the play The Red Fortress stands in contrast to them with psychological insights, exquisite language, and a well-made, dynamic plot. The Chechen Drama Theatre performed it to packed houses for many years, and its incidental music became folk songs.

In the cycle of short stories Adats, written in the 1920s, Baduyev tries to comprehend the destructive impact of old customs and mentality on the Chechen society of his time. Petimat, published in 1931, was a first-ever Chechen novel about a woman. The name character strives for freedom as she passes through trials and tribulations to see that happiness must be fought for.

A constellation of gifted and profoundly original authors appeared in Chechen literature in the 1930s—Khalid Oshayev, Said-Bei Arsanov, Magomet Mamakayev and Shamsuddin Aiskhanov. Arsanov’s novel Two Generations, published in 1931, was a landmark testifying to the maturity of new Chechen literature. Its heroes join the revolutionary movement after they re-appraise their life, grasp the essence of good and evil, and begin to see to the roots of the contention between the old and the new. They are portrayed in the dynamism of intellectual development as they get anxious to renounce the dire heritage that warps their life. They see that freedom and dignity must be obtained not on one’s own but in a well-knit team of comrades-in-arms, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Arsanov’s prose is marked by realistic portrayal of life, interest in the details of everyday routine, and subtle psychological portrayal of characters[4].         Verse dominated Chechen literature of the 1920s and 30s because poetry was a much longer-established and more prolific genre of folklore than prose.

Strongly coloured by politics, the lyrical verse of Abdi Dudayev, Ahmat Nazhayev, Magomet Mamakayev and Said Baduyev called to reject everything old and accept the new ways. Many poems were dedicated to revolutionary leaders—Lenin, Stalin, Sergo Orjonikidze and Aslanbek Sheripov. The poetry of that time shrugged off psychology and the lyrical palpitation of the heart. Its hero was one with his time and the revolutionary mass. He talked and thought in propaganda slogans, and his words were uncompromising political declarations and impassioned appeals.

The Chechen poetry of the 1930s rose to a higher level of comprehending the world. New names appeared (Shamsuddin Aiskhanov, Nurdin Muzayev and Arbi Mamakayev), and enriched it with new forms, content and aesthetic quest. The long poems Gory Mountains and A Conversation with Mother by Magomet Mamakayev, and Guerrillas by Said Baduyev became landmarks of Chechen literature.

Arbi Mamakayev’s long poem In the Chechen Mountains was notable in Chechen culture of the late 1930s and early 40s. It was a beautiful ballad of tragic love, and a wise tale of people hunted and downtrodden for centuries, who have to wage unending war for their poor but free life—people who fall victim to savage, gory traditions. Strong people of free spirit, its heroes strive for happiness through suffering and privation to fall innocent victim to blood feud. Written in an impressive and harmonious language, abounding in imagery, the poem extolled love, friendship, honour and valour.

The late 1950s into the early 1980s saw a new developmental stage of Chechen literature. Side by side with leaders of the older generation—Said-Bei Arsanov, Magomet Mamakayev and Khalid Oshayev, young writers came to the fore. Their works made an impact on their and the coming generations of Chechens.

Said-Bei Arsanov’s novel How You Get to Know What Friendship Means describes Chechnya on the watershed of historical eras, contacts and clashes with the Tsarist administration, human relations and personal fates. The grandiose events of the Revolution are portrayed through the prism of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Life is changing, and the hero changes with it. He grows to understand that an active and creative attitude to reality is necessary, and feels it his duty to stand up for his human and ethnic dignity. Rich in vivid pictures of everyday Chechen life, and profoundly analysing the culture and politics of a stormy era, the novel shows Arsanov as a mature verbal artist.

Another landmark of Chechen culture was Khalid Oshayev’s novel The Fiery Years. The author took an active part in the Revolution, knew Aslanbek Sheripov, Nikolai Gikalo and other prominent revolutionaries, and saw what stood behind many events in the Caucasus of that time. So he painted a memorable picture of the Revolution—realistic on the verge of a documentary record.

The novel The Murid of the Revolution by Magomet Mamakayev, another Chechen literary classic, is about the destiny and doom of Aslanbek Sheripov, the foremost Chechen revolutionary leader and Commander-in-Chief of the Chechen Red Army. A man of courage and excellent education, Aslanbek regarded the Revolution as the only way for his people to win liberty and live a new life, free of poverty, oppression, obscurantism and archaic customs. He held revolutionary ideals sacred, and laid down his life for them.

Zelimkhan, Mamakayev’s next novel, was about another spectacular historic personality—the famous abrek (outlaw) Zelimkhan of Kharachoi, a man who became a legend even in his lifetime. The indomitable and audacious robber was the horror of gendarmes and bureaucrats of the entire North Caucasus for many years. Though Mamakayev portrays him as endowed with heroic qualities, his Zelimkhan is an ordinary man thirsty for peace and calm. The writer shows Zelimkhan forced to join the outlawry by the arbitrariness and obtuseness of Tsarist officials. He fights for his honour and for all the oppressed and downtrodden—yet each of his victories results in cruel reprisals against his kin, friends and sympathisers. Clashing with the merciless state machinery, the abrek sees that his cause is lost. Yet he has no way back.  Mamakayev does not portray his life as futile but as practical proof of one simple and harsh truth: freedom and dignity deserve to be defended by the force of arms. Zelimkhan shows to the poor and the docile that there is room for justice even in this unjust world, and that evil can be punished however strong and invincible it might appear. His enemies could not recollect the daring outlaw without tremor even long after his death. Side by side with the protagonist are realistic and psychologically convincing verbal portraits of his comrades-in-arms, kinsmen, and civil and military officers. Mamakayev vividly re-creates Chechen everyday routine and the entire life of the early 20th century.

Abuzar Aidamirov’s novel The Long Nights is dedicated to the dramatic history of Chechnya in the second half of the 19th century. The book had a tremendous impact on the Chechen mentality not so much due to its artistic merits as to the author’s historiosophy and brave and penetrating re-appraisal of historic personalities—mainly Imam Shamil. Aidamirov portrays him as a man of intellect and profound education, a subtle politician and wise military leader who, regrettably, stands aloof to the Chechen people’s interests. He uses courageous and freedom-loving Chechens to establish a hereditary theocratic monarchy. Fully aware that Chechen valour and love of freedom would be a formidable barrier on his way to unlimited power in the Imamate, Shamil uses the Muslim cause as a pretext to trample out Chechen traditions, old culture, cherished independence, ethnic identity and dignity. Aidamirov shows that the death of culture and ethnic honour are far more destructive to a nation than trampled-out crops, burnt homes and cut forests. The novel came as a warning to contemporary Chechens. Regrettably, they lent it a deaf ear.

Shima Okuyev’s novel The Republic of the Four Rulers is an epic panorama spreading vast in space and time. Published posthumously, it came to Chechen readers as a thunderbolt, and showed its author as a powerful verbal artist and expert on the Chechen language and lore.

Chechen playwrights, especially comedians, excelled in the 1950s-80s. Brilliant young authors appeared—Abdullah Khamidov, Bilal Saidov, Lecha Yakhiayev, Ruslan Khakishev and Said-Khamzat Nunuyev.

Khamidov’s The Fall of Bozh-Ali has become part of Chechen folklore. This sparkling comedy, written in colourful and aphoristic language, might be reproached for cardboard characters—yet, paradoxically, these caricatures appear large-as-life because everyone is prototyped by reality. Situational and psychological verisimilitude brought the comedy general love, and numerous quotations from it have become proverbs.

Chechen prose of the 1950s-80s is dominated by historical narratives and interest in historical personages. Unlike it, the poetry of that time concentrated on the human heart. Philosophical lyricism marked the verse of the young Raisa Akhmatova, Magomed Sulayev, Khasmagomed Edilov, Bilal Saidov, Musbek Kibiev and Sheikhi Arsanukayev, and the older Magomet Mamakayev and Nurlin Muzayev.

The 1980s produced another generation of poets and prose writers, who determine Chechen literature today—Mussa Beksultanov, Mussa Ahmadov, Said-Khamzat Nunuyev, Apti Bisultanov, Umar Yarichev, Lecha Abdullayev, Kanta Ibragimov, and Hermann Sadulayev.

Present-day Chechen literature possesses a constellation of authors of the most diverse genres. Some of them are reputed as modern classics—Mussa Beksultanov, Apti Bisultanov, Mussa Ahmadov and Umar Yarichev. Others, as Kanta Ibragimov, Hermann Sadulayev and Sultan Yashurkayev, are winning readers’ and critics’ recognition. Still others are only groping for their literary path. Time, the most objective and passionless of all critics and judges, will say what they are worth.


[1] Гамрекели В.Н. Об изучении прошлого. // Документы по взаимоотношениям Грузии с Северным Кавказом в XVIII веке (V.N. Gamrekeli. On the Studies of the Past // Documents on 18th Century Relations betweenGeorgia and theNorth Caucasus). – Тбилиси, 1968. –с.37

[2]An inscription in Greek lettering on a slab of the Kirdy combat tower in the Argun Gorge.

[3] After the 1917 Revolution, the Cyrillic alphabet ousted Roman letters and formed the basis of new Chechen writing.

[4] Туркаев Х.В. Путь к художественной правде. – Грозный, 1987 (250)


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