Growing Up Tough: Raising Sons in Chechnya
I first heard about the dynamic between Chechen fathers and their sons while at a village wedding. I was gathered around a table with a dozen or so young Chechen men when Usman, one of the young men, said, “The bravery of our nation would disappear if fathers started saying, ‘I love you,’ to their sons.” None of the men gathered that day had ever heard those words from their father, and they did not lament it.
The Chechen men I know are responsible, hard-working, polite guys – not cold or severe. What, then, is it like to grow up as a Chechen young man? Not just as it relates to the father-son relationship, but in total? What shapes them? What sort of men do they aspire to be? A few weeks after the wedding, I invited Usman and four other Chechen men who have graduated from or are currently attending the local medical university to have dinner and explore these questions.
Fathers aren’t physically or verbally affectionate with their sons. This distance – both physical and relational – continues as boys grow up.
Fathers and Sons
The distance that Chechen dads maintain with their sons starts early. Illias, one of two fathers in the group, told us that he occasionally holds his infant son in private but never in the company of guests. To do so in front of his own father would be particularly shameful.
Fathers aren’t physically or verbally affectionate with their sons. This distance – both physical and relational – continues as boys grow up. Sitting around a table for a meal, Chechen boys rarely speak and typically do so only in response to a direct question. Ibrahim shared that when he did well in school or sports, his dad would always express approval through Ibrahim’s mom rather than affirming him directly.
Illias and Usman shared a story of Illias’s father taking them to the bus station when they were traveling back to their university town nearly eight hours away. What happened at the bus stop that day illustrates not only the rise of Islam in Chechnya over the last 25 years, but also the relationship between fathers and sons.
Both Illias and Usman have the look of young Chechen men — fit, dark hair and thick beards with tightly cropped mustaches. The older generation of Chechen men tend to be clean-shaven, a habit inherited from growing up in the Soviet Union where religious expression was forbidden. On the other hand, young Chechen men typically grow beards, a sign of their devotion to Islam. Some parents worry that even though their sons are not inclined toward Islamic extremism, their beards will tell a different story and attract the wrong sort of attention from authorities.
Waiting for the bus together that day, Illias’s father glanced at Usman’s beard and asked, “Who do you want to become? An Islamic theologian or a doctor?”
Usman understood what was happening – his friend’s father was expressing concern for his son but using Usman as the intermediary so as to maintain relational distance. “We want to become doctors,” Usman answered.
“You look like Islamic theologians,” said Illias’s father. “You should shave.” Usman acknowledged the counsel respectfully before he and Illias boarded the bus to head back to school. While away from home, Illias still prefers to keep a full beard; but when he travels home, he trims it out of respect for his dad.
Illias and his father
For example, Zelemhan shared that if a new boy began attending their school, the newcomer would always have to fight to determine where he fit in the hierarchy. If he won the first fight, he would have to fight again until he lost. Ibrahim noted that when a boy lost it was not automatically shameful. More important than winning was honor. If he did not shy away from the fight; if he faced the opponent with courage; he could preserve the respect of his peers, no matter where he fell in the pecking order.
Usuf told a story of talking with several Chechen friends at their university. Several Russians were also talkingnearby, using foul language. Usuf stood up, walked over to the Russians and told them to stop using that language with young Chechen women within earshot. They complied, said Usuf, in a matter-of-fact way.
Ibrahim, Usman and I in Chechnya
Mothers and Sons
The constant communication with mom is not dependent on a man’s marital status. Married and single alike keep mom abreast of their daily affairs. They often seek counsel from their mothers when facing an important decision. Illias, for example, recently changed jobs, and the first person he talked through this decision with was his mom. His father’s counsel came through the conduit of his mom’s advice.
It is also mothers who typically deliver corporal discipline. The men said they don’t remember their fathers physically disciplining them. A certain look from dad was enough, they said. But Zelemhan remembers that it was his mother’s hard rubbers slippers that were always the instrument of choice to punish out-of-line boys.
Zelemhan graduated with honors from the medical university and is now working as a dentist, but his responsibilities to his younger siblings continue. He sends a substantial part of his paycheck home every month to help cover costs for his teenaged siblings. When I – myself an oldest sibling – expressed my surprise at this burden, Zelemhan made an important point. For men who feed their families by the sweat of their brow, their prime years of physical strength and earning potential have often passed by the time children are turning into older teenagers. The oldest son inevitably becomes the most effective breadwinner at some point.
Typically, the youngest son bears the responsibility to care for his parents in their old age. The parents’ home is assumed to be passed to him; and once he marries, he often lives there, caring for them until they pass. The guys shared with pride that there is not a single retirement home in all of Chechnya. Older people are cared for by their families, almost without exception.
As the conversation with these men winded down, they turned the tables as it were, and asked me what I thought of all that they had shared. I told them that it was this culture that produced the upstanding, hard-working, kind men that they are. My respect goes to their parents. But I will keep hugging my sons. And start calling my mom more often.
This culture produces upstanding, hard-working, and kind men.
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