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Zelimkhan (also spelled Zelim-Khan and Zelimxan) (January 1872; Kharachoy, Terek Oblast – 26 September 1913) is a Chechen and Ingush hero, who is viewed today as a version of a Chechen Robin Hood. Today the name is given to Chechen and Ingush children.
Zelimkhan was an abrek, a raider of the Cossacks and Russian colonists. He stole mainly to feed Chechens, and because the Cossacks were living on the Chechens land, which was extremely fertile. Without control of these fertile lands, the Chechens became impoverished. To solve this problem, abreks, such as Zelimkhan and his Ingush comrade-in-arms, Sulom-Beck Sagopshinski, raided targets such as the Cossacks, Russian banks, Vladikavkaz mint, and the Czar's post which was transported on the Georgian military highway, in order to restore justice and help the poor.
The Cossacks were serfs who ran away from the Russian Czar and found refuge amongst free peoples of the North Caucasus. Initially they lived side by side with the North Caucasians, adopting their uniform – cherkesska, verta, Caucasian dagger, and papakha. When the Russian Empire expanded, the Russians had made a secret pact with the ethnically related Cossacks: betray the North Caucasians in exchange of land from the Czar. The deal was accepted. Many Chechen and Ingush settlements were burned, the populations butchered by Russian armies. The territories were resettled by Russian Cossacks. They settled in the Northern Chechen plains only, because the Caucasian mountains were a natural fortress, which allowed a small garrison to defend against larger Russian forces.
This historical narrative, however, ignores the spread of poverty and the suffering the Chechens have had to endure during periods where they lost control of the Terek and Sunzha rivers. In medieval and ancient times, the rivers' fertile valleys were necessary to support the populations living in the mountains, meaning that when a foreign people (the Cossacks, for example) managed to push the Chechens out of the area, it caused frequent famines. There was, perhaps, an option to allow the population to decrease dramatically and return to a subsistence lifestyle, but not only would this probably result in the extinction of Chechendom, but the Chechens had been civilized people for at least 7000 years (much before the Russians), as had all their neighbors, so a subsistence lifestyle would be unthinkable. The Chechens would still be dependent on the northern plains for food, but they would require the food by a long cultural established tradition of raiding Cossack stanitsas, and taking all the grain storage as well as other useful supplies, bringing it to the highlands (or to the Sunzha).
Abreks were avengers and were viewed as great heroes. They delivered justice and killed Russian troops in non-stopping skirmishes. The avengers brought the loot back from their raids: food, gold, weapons. They managed to stand up strong against the perceived oppressor; and most importantly, the survival of the Chechen people was at least partially dependent on them, until the northern plains could be retaken. In reality, of course, with the case of the Cossacks, there was no immediate threat to the Chechens' survival because the garrisons of North Caucasian warriors were able to defeat them in many battles, including the one in the plains of Ingushetia, where General Ermolov lost 18,000 Cossacks to Ingush clans. However, there was still massive famines, and the Chechens needed to stay strong and healthy to prevent a loss of the Sunzha.
Despite the dangerous situation of the Chechen people, abreks were supposed to abide by a system of honor, refraining from killing women and children, etc. The scholar Rebecca Ruth Gould argues that the character of the abrek usually takes the form of the lone warrior, the social reject who takes it upon as his role to rescue the society despite its rejection of him. Many of these elements may have increased the popularity of abrek stories, as many people feel at some point of their life that they are rejected by society.
Zelimkhan was the most celebrated of these abreks, and is largely symbolic of the values of the stories and the memory of the abreks.
Chechen folk song about Zelimxan
There is a popular folk song about Zelimxan.
Araxh mox a darc a da'lça bovduš xilla Zelimxan
When a storm break suddenly, they had slanging to run away, Zelimkhan
- Rebecca Ruth Gould, "Transgressive Sanctity: The Abrek in Chechen Culture," Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.2 (2007): 271-306.