The present book engages with the question whether the value system of Chechen people has changed over the last decades or whether it has resisted any attempts from outside. Relying on two Russian studies and five biographic narratives of Chechen refugee women in Germany, the author proves that a value change did take place. The appendix consists of a short historical outline of Chechnya and a list of the tables.
Sociologist M. Cremer is out to discuss whether the Chechen value system is as consistent as Chechens claim themselves or whether historical breaks such as the war of 1991 and 1994 did not lead to a change in the value system. In that sense it is a rather uncommon thesis, because it uses scientific approaches to claim ordinary Chechen people’s perception of cultural continuity as false (p. 187). As the author could not conduct research in Chechnya itself, she uses two Russian studies that provide statistical material to set the stage and identify a value change. The first study she uses is ‘Chechen women in the armed conflict of 1994-2000’ ― in short, the Don-women study ― by Valentina Cherevatenko and Valerii Piatin (online since 2001). The second study used in the book has been conducted by the Sakharov Research Institute: “The Value System of Modern Chechens” (online since 2002). In her analysis, M. Cremer provides an impressing insight in Russian sociological and ethnographic approaches. We learn for instance that within such an approach culture can be put into a hierarchy and changes are identified according people’s classification of glillakh (morality, manners, etiquette, right behaviour), o’zdangalla (moral behaviour), sobar (endurance, patience), sij (honour, p. 29). The choice of ‘traditions’ seems satisfying the need for exoticism and hence ignores less exotic practices. The author does a good job in presenting the results of these studies. However, she misses to engage in a critical discussion on such a use of culture and she uncritically uses the studies as prove for a value change.
The author’s own study is based on Chechen women in Germany. She has based her research methods on Fritz Schütze’s suggestion of narrative interview and Gabriele Rosenthal’s method of biographic interview. The core of the book deals with five biographic narratives that the author has conducted in interviews with Chechen women in Germany. A short outline of the concerned women precedes the analysis of the biographies. The choice of these five women appears meaningful and well argued. We learn of various strategies to cope with the different conflict periods and differentiated ways of relating an individual biography to a generalised Chechen culture (that all these women believe to exist). Whereas the first analysis accords the narrative limited space, in the other four biographic presentations long passages are rendered.
1. Fatima, the first example, frames her life within a culture of suffering that she claims to be specific to Chechen people. The wife of a successful fighter and politician, she recalls her life by linking it to her husband’s story which, to her, mirrors the hard fate of the Chechen people. She frames her life as a peril path and reveals her pride for the deeds and brave action only via third parties. Hence, despite her deep traumatic experiences she makes allusion to her life as a heroic story. Fatima, like all the women in the study, shows a high grade of self-reflexivity and a subtle way to negotiate gender roles under changing circumstances. She allows only third parties to express her brave and heroic acts while she adapts her narrative to cultural expectations of female suffering and submission.
2. Heda tries to link her life to the imagined cultural unity of Chechen people despite her mother’s and her grandmother’s unconventional behaviour. Her narrative provides the paradox that the author is looking for, namely, one the one hand, the pride for individual activities and the heroic acts of women and, on the other hand, the longing for a traditional way of life which provides a sense of belonging and which includes a large family and strong value codex. Even more than Fatima, she identifies women not only as strong gender but even as motor of Chechen society.
3. Amina is the youngest woman of the series. Her war experiences go back to her student’s life. She struggles with notions of modernity and tradition. For Amina traditional behaviour is tight to age, in other words, old people are traditional while young people opt for modern life. This interesting classification would have required some reflection by the author, furthermore that she is interested in changes of the value system. Amina does not question the cultural unity of Chechen people but offers a less rigid picture of culture than the other women.
4. Ajna’s biographic narrative contributes interesting insights into the life of a young Chechen woman who received an education in Russia. Despite her very positive experiences with Russians, she constantly re-centres her life along Chechen culture to which she subscribes and who provide her with a sense of belonging. Thus, her Chechen identity eventually becomes incompatible with Russian values. The further the war develops the stronger she refers to a collective fate of Chechen people.
5. Medina, the author claims, was very reserved during the interview and controlled the flow of information without allowing much emotional outbreak. The long passages that we find in Medina’s (and also in Ajna’s) biographic presentation nicely demonstrate the structure of their narratives and the context they provide to justify their action. Just as in the other biographies, Medina’s story reflects on gender. Whereas in many cases the women framed their lives as influenced ― or, as the author claims, directed or controlled ― by men they also emphasis that they take decisions using their gender to protect children, men and maintain cultural values. For instance, when their village is encircled by Russian troops the women refuse to leave without the men knowing that otherwise they would all be killed. The author interprets this act as submissive and traditional lacking any sense of emancipation and thus denying women agency.
Although I believe that the author has overlooked female agency in the biographies, the book is a very interesting document on female life strategies during war periods. As the title reveals, the interpretations of the biographies reflect more the author’s cultural background than the women’s subtle and plural strategies to cope with conflict situations. Arbitrarily some acts are classified as trauma while others are referred to as traditional acts. “Generell ist eher eine verstärkte Unterordnung der Frauen unter die Interessen der Männer zu beobachten.” [Generally, one can observe a rather increasing submission of women in favour of men’s interests (p. 186).] It has been repeatedly stated before that post-war societies emphasise on gender to re-order society. In this context traditions (whether invented or transmitted) help to re-gender society, whereas women are often pushed into traditional roles. However, as the author mentions at the very end, this re-gendering does not exclude that women held or still hold a central role in the daily survival of families. This does not change the value system as such, but may lead to reinvent ‘traditions’ useful in the process. It is rather odd to state that wars affect societies. It may have been more interesting to ask how it does and why these women and men insist on such a strong cultural continuity denying any changes. It seems that the belief in a more or less homogenous and fixed ethnic identity and cultural value system has helped the people to cope with the massive changes and war troubles. The negotiation of values between modern and traditional, Chechen and Soviet, or collective and individual appears on various levels and in many forms. Hence despite the author’s wonderful pluralistic and subtle biographic narrative presentations, she concludes that a value change has been statistically proven.