Young Kists in Pankisi Gorge

I had many conversations about Pankisi Gorge with my friend Bella, general manager of the “International Union of Young Caucasians” (see previous article posted in April 2011). She is a Kist herself. In a few words, here is a short reminder about who the Kists are.


Pankisi Gorge. View of Duisi.

Kist people belong to the larger Caucasian ethnic group called “Vainakh“ just like the Chechens from Chechnya and the Ingush from Ingushetia. All three peoples, Chechens, Ingush and Kists, are Vainakh people and share similar cultural features.

The term “Kists” refers to ethnic Chechens who came from Chechnya to settle in Pankisi Gorge in the 18th century. It is the name that the Georgians originally gave them. The Kists have now become Georgian citizens; they speak Georgian and bear Georgian surnames.

The Kist community also managed to preserve its original Chechen dialect, culture and traditions. Most members of the community are bicultural and bilingual, and a large number have also lived in Chechnya at some point.

Bella expressed her own identity feeling like this: “I have two homelands, Chechnya and Georgia; but my first home is the Caucasus…”

Kist people are Caucasian mountaineers about whom Bella also said: “the Kists are proud people, honest and fair, with a hard, austere, cold character. They don’t like expressing their feelings. They know the value of friendship; they are even able to give their life for the other if they are a true friend. They are also very hospitable, and they respect their elders and traditions. ”

Throughout time and until now, traditions like hospitality, friendship, mutual help and blood feud have remained. Kist people are proud to show how they can still respect them while coping with modernity and the changes which come along.


Tradition and Modernity in Pankisi.

Once, Bella accepted to answer specific questions about how it is nowadays to be young in Pankisi, and about what difference it makes to be a girl.

How is life in Pankisi for the youth of the Kist community?

Bella: Young people are mostly busy with school and doing sports. In their 12th and final school year, they prepare for the national high school final exam to get into university. However, the majority of youth does not wish to study and generally engage in rural affairs. Sometimes, unfortunately, they just do not do anything…

After graduating from high school, what kind of opportunities do Kist youth have?

Bella: The young may go on studying at university or other more technical education institutions. Those who failed to enter university usually have two options: go abroad or stay in the village and help their parents. In their free time, most young people just loaf around because there is no opportunity to do something else… although I guess that if you really want to, you can always improve things… The thing is, they probably do not want to change things, or do not have the will to do it themselves…

What is the position of women and young women in the Kist community nowadays? Do young women encounter specific difficulties?

Bella: Kist women are more or less respected in their society: they must earn the respect they receive. This means there are some restrictions for girls. Kist girls are not allowed to stay inactive all day; they should always be busy doing something. They should not go out if it is late and they are unaccompanied. Even during day time, a girl should actually not go out unaccompanied. It is not necessary, but it is much preferred, otherwise it could look indecent and the image of the girl would become suspicious. It is also indecent for a normal Kist girl to have a boyfriend. However, a Kist woman is not limited in society. She can work, engage in public activities or just be a housewife, as she wishes. She can ride horses, do sport, study abroad, go anywhere she wants; but she must also behave correctly and has to know her place, for her image must not be corrupted if she does not want to lose the respect the local society has for her. In the Kist society, there is much subtlety; if one does not live among Kists for some time, one can hardly understand how society functions…

And what about girls kidnapping in Pankisi: Is it still a tradition in use?

Bella: Kidnapping the girls is a very old tradition which is still used sometimes, even today… There are specific reasons for using this tradition nowadays: if a boy likes a girl but she does not, or if she does like him back but her parents do not accept the union, then it is likely that a boy will try a bride kidnapping…

How do Kist youth manage to combine their traditions and modern way of life in 2012?

Bella: The Kist youth society can be divided into three groups which reflect how the youth deal with traditions and modernity. The first group is a religious group which follows a movement of Islam called “wahhabism” that does not correspond to old Kistian traditions. A second group is made up of young Kists who adhere to what the Kists consider to be “traditional Islam”: It is the Islam which was formed in the Caucasus and combines religious elements as well as the traditions of the Caucasian people. And a third group includes all young Kists who have become similar to Europeans, I mean that they behave like European youth, dressing the same way, talking like them and having values and mindset similar to theirs.


Tradtional Kist Costumes.

@ Many thanks to Bella Borchashvili for her time, her answers and her pictures! —


Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge: An Ethnographic Survey by Shorena Kurtsikidze and Vakhtang Chikovani, available at:

Ethnic Groups in Georgia #5 – Kists by Geotimes with information from ECMI, available at:

And a series of articles to be found in our good old Wikipedia:

Kist people, available at:

Nakh peoples, available at:

Vainakh mythology, available at:

Vainakh languages, available at:

Vainakh social organization scheme, available at:


About Méline

I am an EVS volunteer working with minority youth in Tbilissi, Georgia, during 12 months. This blog aims at presenting Georgia's minority groups and their youth initiatives. The development of joint-action strategies is the work in process which we are conducting together. Let's see what will be achieved in 2011 !
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