14 January 2004, 01:37

Geography of the Land of Vainakhs

The land of the Vainakhs, or Chechen-Ingushetia, as it was referred to in the Soviet period when Chechnya and Ingushetia formed one autonomous republic as part of Soviet Russia, is located in the North-Eastern Caucasus. Two closely related nations, the Chechens, or Nokhch, and the Ingushes, or Galga (1), as they call themselves, are the ancient inhabitants of this land. In order to emphasize their unity they bear a common name "Vainakh", i.e., "our people". The Vainakhs are the most numerous group of the mountaineers inhabiting the Northern Caucasus. As to the Chechens, they are the most numerous North - Caucasian people. According to the 1989 census, 957,000 Chechens and 237,000 Ingushes lived in the Soviet Union. Besides that several tens of thousands of Vainakhs (mainly Chechens) live in the countries of the Near East, on the whole the descendents of the migrated in the 60s of the 19th century.

Chechnya and Ingushetia taken together (within the limits of ASSR) cover an area of 19,3 thousand sq km. According to the 1989 census the population of Chechnya and Ingushetia numbered 1,270,429. Representatives of more than 80 nationalities lived on the territory of the autonomous republic, including the Chechens - 734,501; Ingushes - 163,762; Russians - 393,771; Armenians - 14,824; Ukrainians - 12,637; Kumyiks - 9,853; Nogais - 6,884; Avars - 6,276; Tatars - 5,102, and others. The mean density of the population was 61 per 1 sqkm.

Chechen-Ingushetia with Grozny as its administrative and political center comprised the following administrative areas: Akhch-Martan, Veden, Grozny, Gudermes, Malgobek, Nadterek, Nazran, Naur, Nozhai-Urta, Sunzha, Urus-Martan, Shalin, Shato and Shelkov.


In 1991 Ingushetia left the Chechen-Ingush union and with the status of a republic incorporated into Russia. The Ingush Republic includes the western districts of former Checheno-Ingushetia: Malgobek, Nazran and Sunzha districts. However, part of the territories of Malgobek and Sunzha districts is a debatable land with Chechnya, but the parties put off the final decision for the future. The city of Nazran is considered the capital of Ingushetia, though temporarily, as Makas, a new capital of the republic is laid not far from the city.

The land of the Vainakhs is bordered by Northern Ossetia in the West, the Stavropol region in the North and Daghestan in the East (all three are held subject to the Russian Federation). The southern neighbour of Chechenya and Ingushetia is Georgia, the former Soviet republic, but an independent state now. The total length of the countries' borders is above 850 km. From the North to the East the boundary line stretches up to 170 km, from the West to the East it is 150 km long.

Judging by the area occupied within the limits of the North Caucasus, the territory of Chechnya and Ingushetia taken together is considerably inferior to Krasnodar Region covering an area of 76,000 sq km, Stavropol Region (66,500 sq km), and Daghestan (50,300sq km), but it significantly exceeds the territories of Karachai - Cherkessia (14,000sq km), Kabardino - Balkaria (12,500 sq km), Northern Ossetia (8,000 sq km) and Adygei (7,600 sq km).

The land of the Vainakhs, though comparatively small by area, is distinguished for the diversity of natural conditions. By going from north to east one can observe a succession of landscape zones from semi-desert to steppe which at the foothills turns to forest- steppe. In the south are the mountain forests, higher up there are blossoming subalpine and alpine meadows, and above the alpine zone are seen the peaks of the Lateral Range covered with eternal snow and glaciers rizing to the clouds.

The exceptional variety of natural conditions of the country can be explained mainly by the diverse structure of the surface. Nearly half of the area of Chechnya and Ingushetia is covered with lowlands and plains, as to the rest of the territory, its constituent parts are the mountains and hills.

From the northern boundary of Chechnya to the reaches of the Terek river stretches a Chechen part of the vast Terek-Kuma Lowland. Its plane surface gradually fails down to the Caspian Sea, lowering below the level of sea in the north - eastern part of the republic.

Southward of the Terek stretches the Terek-Sunzha Upland. Its constituent parts are two not high mountainous structures of the Terek and Sunzha ranges with soft and roundish outlines, stretching in a latitudinal direction. Between these two mountains lies the Alkhanchurt Valley. The Terek-Sunzha Upland is separated from the front ridges of the Great Caucasus by the vast and fertile Chechen Plain, the most densely populated part of the country.

As recently as the first half of the 19th century the Chechen Plain, like most of the flat land(2) of Ingushetia, was covered with dense forests, the significant part of which has already been cut down. At present the tracts of forest cover nearly 17 per cent of the country's territory. The forests are abundant in the mountainous area. As to the plains, the forests here mainly grow in the valleys of the rivers.

The whole southern part of the land of Vainakhs is located on the northern slope of the Great Caucasus Range. Four parallel ridges rise here one above another, cut by the deep gorges at the bottom of which rapid mountain rivers flow rumblingly.

The Black Mountains constitute the most northern and the lowest ridge which is completely covered with dense forests giving it a dark green, almost black coloration from a distance.

To the south of the Black Mountains stretches the Pastbishny ("Pastbishny" means "pasture" in Russian) ridge. The name is given owing to the fine mountainous pastures spread over the slopes of the ridge.

Behind the Pastbishny Range rise the rocky slopes of a taller and more stern Skalisty (or Rocky) Range, and farther, along the borders with Georgia, stretches a chain of snowy mountains of the Lateral Range with Tebulosmta Peak (Tuloy - Lam) reaching a height of 4,494 m above sea level. This is the highest point not only of Chechnya, but also of the whole Eastern Caucasus.

The foot of the northen slopes of the Pastbishny, Skalisty and Lateral Ranges, as well as the whole region of the Black Mountains, is covered with forests. The upper border of the forest zone is at elevations of 1800 - 2200 m above sea level.

According to the character of relief the territory of the land of Vainakhs is divided into four parts: the Terek-Kuma Lowland, the Terek-Sunzha Upland, the Chechen Plain and the mountainous region. They differ from each other not only in the structure of surface, but also in the peculiarities of climate, waters, soils, flora and fauna. Owing to the essential natural differences the mode of life of the natives of these regions also differ.

The rivers form an uneven network on the territory of the land of Vainakhs. The mountainous part and the adjacent Chechen Plain are characterized by an abundance of rivers, whereas in the Terek-Sunzha Upland and in the area northward of the river Terek there are no rivers. This is caused by the peculiarities of the relief and climatic conditions, and, in the first place, by the distribution of rainfalls.

The main river of the country, the Terek, takes its source in large glaciers of the Great Caucasus. In the upper reaches the Terek is a typical rapid mountain river running down rumblingly, its turbulent stream, squeezed in the walls of rocky banks, turning the cumbroze stones and throwing the silver splashes about the air. The Ingush republic egresses only to the small area of the gorge in the upper reaches of the river. On breaking out of the gorge the Terek, replenished by numerous tributaries on the left side and then abruptly turning to the east, reaches the borders of Chechnya. Here the Terek is a water-abundant flat land river, working her way in a broad fertile valley. Upon reaching the territory of Daghestan the Terek forks in a vast delta and drains into the Caspian Sea.

Almost all other rivers of Chechnya and Ingushetia, the largest of them - the Sunzha, Argun, Assa - taking their sources on the slopes of the Great Caucasus, retain all the features of typical mountain rivers in their upper reaches, though at the egress to the wide and open spaces these rapid streams change into flat land rivers and slowly carry their waters to the Terek.

Lakes are found in the plains, as well as in the mountainous region of the land of Vainakhs. Although the lakes here are not numerous, they differ in origin and the character of water regime. Mention should be made of Lake Kazenoy-Am which is located in Chechnya at the border of Daghestan at 1870 m above sea level. This is the largest mountain lake of the North Caucasus, being 72 m deep and covering an area of close to 2 sq km. The lake has been formed as a result of a landslide damming up the vast river valley. This picturesque lake is rightfully considered one of the remarkable natural sights of the whole North Caucasus.

In the highlands of southern Chechnya there is another lake called Galanchozh - Ami. The lake is lifeless due to the hydrogen sulphide composition of the waters, giving rise to the consideration among the native people that the lake is sacred. Not long ago the Chechens swore on the pure waters of the lake.

The climate of the country is formed by its geographical location in the North - Eastern Caucasus, i.e., in the southern part of the temperate climatic zone, as well as by the local factors, i.e., proximity to the Caspian Sea, a complex and rugged terrain, lack of high barriers in the North and mountain ranges in the south, shutting Chechnya and Ingushetia off from the subtropical climate of the Southern Caucasus.

The Northern part of the land of Vainakhs is the region of continental climate: in the Terek-Kuma Lowland the mean January temperature is -3?C and that of July is 25?C. In the Chechnya plain the mean January temperature is -4?C, that of July is 22 - 24?C. In the mountains the mean temperature of January ranges from -5?C in the foothill zone to 12?C and lower in the upland zone, that of January is 21?C and 5?C, respectively.

The atmospheric precipitation is distributed unevenly. There is the least rainfall in the Terek-Kuma Lowland. The annual rainfall here amounts to 300-400 mm. Southward the humidity gradually increases, the annual rainfall averaging 400-600 mm in the Chechnya Plain and 600-1200 mm - in the mountains. The northern slopes of the Great Caucasus receive more rainfall owing to the moist winds prevailing in this zone. In the upland, where the moist western air currents are particularly strong, the western slopes receive more rainfall than the eastern slopes. In the deep valleys there is comparatively less rainfall than on the surrounding slopes. The Alkhanchurt Valley is notable for particular aridness.

Owing to the long summer and heat obtained from the plants, the climate conditions of the plains of Chechnya and Ingushetia are favourable for agriculture, and especially for growing grapes, fruit and rice.

Oil and gas is the main mineral wealth of the land of Vainakhs. The deposits are chiefly exploited near Grozny and in the Terek-Sunzha Upland. Since olden times oil has been used for everyday necessities of life by the inhabitants of the region. The extraction of oil was carried out primitively in the places of its natural outlet. The oil was scooped out of special wells dug in the oil-fields. For this purpose people used leather pails. As far back as 1823 the Russians built an oil refinery in the town of Mozdok (on the territory of North Ossetia), working on the raw material extracted from the oil deposits of Chechnya. The first oil well (133m deep), from which a gusher of oil sprang out, was sunk near the city of Grozny in 1893. In that way started the development of the Grozny oil-industry, being the oldest after Baku in the post-Soviet area. In Soviet time the powerful oil refining and chemical industry, working not only on the local raw material, but also on the oil supplied from the different regions of the USSR, was founded in Chechen - Ingushetia. At present the oil industry of Chechnya is completely destroyed as a result of the Russian-Chechen war.

In addition to oil and gas the land of Vainakhs is also rich in building materials and raw materials for the engineering industry. The mineral springs and thermal waters come to the surface in many areas of the country.


(1) The ethnicons "Chechen" and "Ingush" appeared before the 18th century and come from the names of the villages - Great Chechen and Angusht located near present - day Grozny and Vladikavkaz.

(2) Foothill plains are called "flat land" in the Northern Caucasus. As to the Southern Caucasus, this term is not applied there.

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