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  • Transgressive SanctityThe Abrek in Chechen Culture
  • Rebecca Gould

After the surrender of Imam Shamil in 1859, North Caucasian mountaineers were faced with the problem of developing new modes of expressing their cultural and political aspirations. As the promise of independent statehood offered by the imamate faded from the realm of possibility, the noble bandit of the Caucasus, known to natives by the term abrek, rose in cultural significance. The institution of the abrek is ancient to the Caucasus Mountains. It is linked as a social practice to amanatstvo, in which a member of one clan was found guilty of a crime demanding blood revenge and sought refuge with another clan, changing his identity in some ways in the process.1 In addition to changing places and therefore identity, as the amanant did, the abrek took on the task of providing for the community through the practice [End Page 271] of raiding. Though often violent, the raids initiated by abreks should be distinguished from other forms of aggression that took place between villages and clans. The aim of raiding was the capture of livestock and other food, and it was governed by rules of reciprocity. When one village raided another, it was expected that the raided village would return the favor.

Such is the indigenous practice of abrechestvo (to employ the Russian term), which acquired an anti-colonial layer of meaning only during the latter half of the 19th century, as contacts with the Russian army and other branches of the colonial, administrative order increased in both intensity and frequency. I focus here on the abrek as a latter-day social phenomenon representing what I call “transgressive sanctity,” by which I mean to indicate a particular form of religiosity that is constituted through its violation of the secular codes of colonialism. This abrek (the embodiment of transgressive sanctity) was born in the second half of the 19th century, with the decline in political power of Caucasian mountaineer society, the rise of empire, and the concomitant need for cultural expression in autonomous and indigenous registers.

If the abrek was born in the 19th century as a politically loaded phenomenon, he reached his apotheosis in terms of cultural and political significance in the 20th century in Soviet representations of indigenous resistance during the tsarist period and, finally, in the post-Soviet imagery of mountaineer resistance to Soviet atrocities, such as deportation. I focus primarily on the images of the abrek produced by Chechens and by those who wrote about them, because the Chechen experience is in many ways paradigmatic of this particular aspect of the North Caucasian experience, anti-colonial resistance to Russian rule. Chechen culture thus offers a richly nuanced archive for the historical and literary study of North Caucasian culture in general.

It is important, however, to place the Chechen experience inside its Caucasian context and to remember that the abrek was not a uniquely Chechen phenomenon. The word, of uncertain origin (for details on the etymology, see below), is found in every North Caucasian language, which testifies to the centrality of this practice to the social life of the mountaineers in the past. But, more important for the present context, the abrek as cultural symbol is amply reflected in North Caucasian literature and in Georgian literature as well.2 [End Page 272]

With regard to the present, I simply note that the abrek is one element in an unexamined genealogy of images and histories that has led or, rather, been reduced to the stereotype of the Chechen bandit in Western and Russian media reports on Chechen culture and history. The following pages trace this genealogy with the hope not merely of shedding light on the abrek in history, as a cipher for reading the colonialism of the past, but with the additional goals of unpacking this image for the present and of interpolating colonialist stereotypes with their indigenous counter-images. (Though I should draw attention to the problematic fact that stereotypes and counter-images belong to the same discourse, and that any attempt to disentangle colonial representations from the anti-colonial images conceived in response to them is an exercise in futility.) My quest is not for an impossible...


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pp. 271-306
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