[by Jenna Brightwell]

The Ingush are an Islamic people who closely relate both ethnically and linguistically to their Chechen neighbors. The Ingush, who originated as pagan, mountain people, remained disunited tribal communities until Russian conquest helped incite unification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Nationalism and territorial disputes that developed during the Soviet Period led to ethnic conflict and war in the post-Soviet years.  Ingushetia, though small and less dramatic than their Chechen neighbors, still played an important role in the history and development of the North Caucasus.


Early History and Lifestyle

The southern area of the region encompasses part of the Great Caucasus mountain range and extends northward, decreasing in altitude and bordering North Ossetia on its west and Chechnya on its east.  Both the Ingush language and the Chechen language come
from the “Nakh” language family, and probably split around 800AD (Nichols, 144).  The highlands versus lowlands geography greatly impacted the development of the Ingush (Nichols, 130).  Tribal clans moved downward from the mountains during the “Little Ice Age” in the seventeenth and eighteenth to avoid the frozen pasturelands in the mountains during the winter.  The lowland tribes still define themselves based on their area of origin in the highlands (Nichols, 142).  The volatility of the terrain protected the Ingush from foreign rule, foreign religion, and foreign influence for a majority of their history, eliminating any need to unite under one government.  Most Ingush folklore about the origins of their people is unique to each clan or tribe, rather than the nation as a whole, contrasting Chechnya, which uses single story to describe their national development (Nichols, 133).  Ingush folklore also describes the reluctance of the Ingush to unite under one ruler.  One story describes how all the Ingush tribal leaders came together and summoned a man who they voted to elect as their prince.  The man came to the meeting wearing a beautiful robe belted with a donkey’s girth, equating that perverse juxtaposition to the Ingush united under one prince (Bullough, 254-255).

Early Ingush society broke down into “family, sub-clan, clan, clan group or confederation, tribe or ethnolinguistic group, and language group” (Nichols, 130).  Entrenched local traditions guided interactions between different Ingush tribes.  Tribes customarily took herds and people from other tribes in order to settle disputes and inter-tribal murder often caused blood disputes, or “kanly”, that lasted for generations.  Tribes joined together by adopting sons from other tribes through a system called “atalyk”, allowing them to create alliances (Khardoarkovsky, 16).  Within the tribes, the men generally watched the livestock and the women did most of the work at home, including cooking, milking cows, cleaning, and making clothes (Bullough, 256).     

Russian Conquest and Islamization

Despite the placement of the North Caucasus as a buffer zone between Turkic Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, foreign religion had a very difficult time taking root in the region.  Christianity barely influenced the Ingush and though the Arabs Islamized the Dagestani coast in the 7th and 8th centuries, paganism prevailed among the Ingush until the 18th and 19th centuries; the last Ingush tribe converted to Islam in 1864 (Bullough, 254).  The shift toward Islamization occurred as the Russians began their attempts to conquer the North Caucasus: “it was hardly surprising that the native peoples would perceive Christianity as the religion of the imperial authority, whereas Islam was constructed as a religion of resistance” (Khardoarkovsky, 11).  Sufi-orders, specifically Naqshbandiya, rapidly gained support and became the strongest resistance group in the North Caucasus during Russia’s annexation of the region (Goldenberg, 191).

Russian conquest of the North Caucasus began in 1760 and did not end until the 1860s.  The conquest began with North Caucasian tribes declaring allegiance to the Russian Tsar, however “the [Russian] government preferred to deny the uncomfortable fact that Russia’s relationship with local chiefs was more akin to a military-political alliance of unequal but independent rulers” rather than full authority and control (Khardarkovsky, 13).  The Russian Tsar always understood the threat that Islam posed.  The Russians did their best to minimize conversion to Islam among the people of the North Caucusas; the Ingush even made a pact with Russia in 1810 promising to ban Muslim missionaries from entering the regions under their control (Bullough, 258).  However as the atrocities committed by the Russian authorities magnified, Islam seemed increasingly attractive to the Ingush and they soon broke this promise.  The Ingush supported the Sufi-brotherhoods as they waged holy wars [ghazawats] against the Russian overlords.  However, when attempts to create a unified Islamic state in the North Caucasus failed, ideas of nationalism began to supersede the importance of religion in political organization (Khardoarkovsky, 17).

Soviet Period

Though the Chechens and Ingush identified themselves as separate ethnicities, in 1934, the two people groups decided by popular support to unite together under the Soviets as the Checheno-Ingushetia Republic (Balzar, 84).  However, Stalin’s rise to power greatly threatened the survival of the indigenous populations of the North Caucasus.  On 29 January 1944, Beria signed the “Instruction on the procedure of the resettlement of Chechen and Ingush” (Bullough, 157).  Nearly 400,000 Chechens and Ingush died during the deportations and of the ones who survived, many the Ingush were sent to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  Part of the Ingush region was given to the North Ossetians and Soviet Russians began to populate the rest of the area (Goldenberg, 197-200).  The Soviets justified the deportations by accusing the indigenous population of supporting the Nazis during World War II, while in actuality they used the deportations to Sovietize and control the region (Goldenberg, 42).  Stalin also set up “administrative structures…which divided the mountain peoples and prevent[ed] them from acting together in their own interest.  It magnified differences or dialect to build up the idea of separate nations” (Goldenberg, 176).  The Soviets also wanted to destroy Islam because they knew that it could potentially unify the people in the North Caucasus (Goldenberg, 190). Though Khrushchev reversed Stalin’s harsh policies toward the indigenous people, administrative Communist leadership still remained largely in the hands of the Russians and the devastation caused by the deportation continue to persist today (Bullough, 239).

Ethnic Conflict After the Fall of the Soviet Union

Two groups of Russians live in Ingushetia, Soviets that repopulated the region after the Stalin deportations and Cossacks who lived in the Terek Valley since the Caucasus wars in the nineteenth century.  The Ingush resented the Cossacks for occupying their land, so the Soviets gave the Terek Valley back to Ingushetia in the 1920s and forced the Cossacks to resettle.  The Terek Cossacks attempted to ‘rediscover’ their nation in 1990, but murder of their people by the Ingush in the city of Troiskaia led to a huge exodus of Cossacks out of Ingushetia in 1991 (Balzar, 86-87).  Violence toward Russians in both Chechnya and Ingushetia, forced many Russians to leave the region allowing the indigenous people to repopulate (Bullough, 446-447).

When Chechnya declared independence from the recently dissolved Soviet state in 1991, Ingushetia chose to break away from the Chechen-Ingush Republic and remain part of Russia.  55% of the Chechno-Ingushetia population was Chechen and only 12% was Ingush and most of the political, cultural, and economical centers were located in the Chechen region (Goldenberg, 178; 186).  The Ingush feared that remaining with Chechnya would ultimately lead to full assimilation into Chechen society and hoped that remaining part of Russia would help preserve the autonomy of their culture.  Chechnya and Ingushetia did not fix the border between their lands, and the Sunzha and Malgobek regions became areas under dispute (Balzar, 85).

Ethnic conflict between the Ingush and the North Ossetians led to war in 1992.  As the Ingush slowly returned from exile after Khrushchev ended Stalin’s brutal Sovietization policies, they began to voice their concern over the Prigorodny region being given to North Ossetia.  The Ingush hoped that Russia supported their interest in the region since they declared their allegiance to Russia during their split from Chechnya.  When fighting broke out in November 1992, Russia declared a state of emergency in both Ingushetia and North Ossetia, did not support either side definitively, and refused to give up any control in either area (Goldenberg, 199-202).  When the war ended, thousands of Ingush were forced North Ossetia for fear of continued violence (Balzar, 182).


Works Cited

  • Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Culture Incarnate Native Anthropology from Russia (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1995).
  • Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame be Great: Journeys among the Defiant People of the Caucasus (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
  • Suzanne Goldenberg, Pride of Small Nations: the Caucasus and post-Soviet disorder (London: Zed Books, 1994).
  • Michael Khodarkovsky, Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).
  • Johanna Nichols, “The Origin of the Chechen and Ingush: A Study in Alpine Linguistic and Ethnic Geography”, Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 46, No. 2  (Indianapolis: Indiana University, 2004), pp. 129-155,, accessed 26 March 2012.