SHALAJI, RUSSIA — TRAVELLERS in the Caucasus are liable to find that the mountain peoples' legendary hospitality has one peculiar flaw: If you ask for directions to a person's house, local residents can often be unhelpfully vague.
The reason, it turns out, is self-preservation. If you, the stranger, were to kill the person you had been looking for, anyone who helped you find him would be subject to revenge.
The tradition of family vendettas has torn this wild and lawless corner of Russia apart for centuries. And although the cycle of violence has been somewhat tamed in recent decades through attempts at arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution, the ethic of revenge still has far-reaching consequences.
Indeed, Russia's involvement in the war in Chechnya, which has killed nearly 25,000 civilians according to human rights groups, can partly be attributed to the local penchant for personal retribution, local residents say.
Moscow's plan was to use Chechen opposition forces to overthrow separatist leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev.
The Russian secret services gave anti-Dudayev fighters guns, ammunition, and money, and let them get on with it.
A provisional government was established, leaflets were circulated, some bridges were blown up, and a few skirmishes occurred. But nobody really seemed to put his heart into the fighting.
The problem, as the Russians eventually found out, was that Chechens were reluctant to go so far as to kill each other over such a minor question as political preference. Robbery and revenge are mortal matters; but to risk a blood feud by killing someone in a civil war was hardly worth it, local residents say. So the Russians were obliged to wage the war themselves.
Chechens have killed Russians, their enemies for centuries, without a second thought. But they do not kill other Chechens without carefully weighing the consequences, which are specified in the ancient unwritten code called adat that acts as Caucasians' ethical framework, based on folk traditions.
Adat is older than Islam, the predominant religion in the region, and a good deal more widely respected than the Russian penal code, which has never sunk very deeply into many Chechens' minds.
Until the early years of this century, adat was interpreted in such a way as to ensure blood feuds that continued until whole clans had wiped each other out, in a spiral of violence fed by each revenge killing.
Pitiful families of women, children, and old men, left without any able-bodied males to fight, would live on the charity of neighbors, stripped of their honor, at the bottom of the social pile.
Today, the honor code demands only an eye for an eye, and once the damage has been redressed, justice has been done. Even though Russians are not part of the code, it is sometimes being applied in the war, according to Macksharip Churdayev, a Chechen who fought in Grozny in recent months.
A group of his comrades who had lost two of their number to Russian gunfire, Mr. Churdayev recounts, eventually captured the building from which the fire had come and seized some Russian soldiers with it. They shot two of the prisoners in retribution for their own loss; the rest they disarmed and released.
But when justice is this rough, the slightest miscarriage can have unfortunate repercussions.
Not long ago, for example, in the course of an argument between two residents of a village near here, one man stabbed and wounded another. In quick revenge, a relative of the victim stabbed the original aggressor, intending to wound him too. Tragically, however, he killed him.
Now that relative - even though his family was the first to be offended - has a price on his head. The dead man's sons would be within their rights, according to adat, to slay their father's killer.
In fact, village elders are working on a more peaceful settlement of the dispute, given that the death was a mistake. In many cases nowadays, Chechens prefer to sort out their differences without resorting to the ultimate sanction.
Elders, still men of influence in rural areas of the Caucasus, and lawyers, who even here are seeking to wield more influence, are called on increasingly to arbitrate disputes and suggest peaceful resolutions.
Sometimes not even their aid is needed: A victim's family may display what is known in the Chechen language as rhilk - extreme and unusual nobility - and actually forgive a wrongdoer.
Churdayev, for example, visiting his native village of Shalaji, nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains during a break in the war, recalled how an uncle of his accidentally ran over and killed a neighbor.
The victim's family ``knew it was an accident, and they knew my uncle has three kids, so they showed their nobility and forgave him,'' Churdayev explains. ``We went to the funeral with a cow, a sack of sugar, and some money, and offered them with respect. They accepted the cow and the sugar, but they refused the money. Their rhilk was higher than ours,'' he says.
And as modern ways make inroads into traditional lives, some Chechens are even ready to hand over their personal responsibility for exacting justice to the state. But only if the state satisfactorily shoulders that responsibility, as the following story illustrates.
About 10 years ago in Gehi Chu, a small village North of Shalaji, a drinking bout one evening erupted into an argument, and in a drunken rage, one man stabbed another.
He was arrested, charged, tried, and eventually sentenced to a long jail term, and the sons of the man he had killed decided that this punishment sufficed - that they would not take their revenge by killing one of the murderer's sons, as adat allowed them to do.
But only a few years later, when General Dudayev seized power in Chechnya, he declared a general amnesty that emptied the republic's prisons, and the murderer went free.
``When the victims' sons saw that, they went back on their decision,'' Churdayev recounts. ``He hadn't served his punishment, so they said they would take their revenge.''
As for the murderer, he might as well still be in jail. He was certainly safer there before his release, and from that day to this, he has not dared step foot outside his home.
``The sons showed great rhilk when they didn't take revenge before,'' Churdayev explains. ``They can't be expected to be so noble a second time.''