How Two Centuries of Conflict Shaped the Tsarnaevs

The Chechens' history is marked by unending fighting and persecution. Could that have influenced the bombers?
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Russian federal troops control a street in downtown Grozny, in the Russian region of Chechnya, on Feb. 16, 2000. (AP)

For many people, the recent Marathon Bombing in Boston is a story of evil terrorists from faraway places. For others, it is a story about the heroism or the failures of the FBI, Homeland Security, or even President Obama. And for others still, it's about individual self-radicalization on the Internet, two boys gone wrong.

The story of the Boston Marathon bombing is about a region of the world that has been engulfed in trauma for the past 23 years and for two centuries before that -- the story about the conflict between two nations.

I want to tell a different story about a region of the world that has been engulfed in trauma for the past 23 years and for two centuries before that. This is a story about the conflict between two nations, the Russians from the north and the Chechens and Avars from the mountains of the south. The Tsarnaev brothers are half-Chechen (on their father's side) and half-Avar (on their mother's). According to the Russian and Kyrgyz press, they grew up in at least four places: Kyrgyzstan, Dagestan, Chechnya, and the United States, as well as possibly Kalmykia and Kazakhstan. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar had at least two passports and a green card: one from the Kyrgyz Republic (Dzhokhar and perhaps Tamerlan were born there in 1993 and 1986 respectively), one from Russia because their mother is from Dagestan and they moved there in 2001, and a green card from the U.S. from 2007. The younger son, Dzhokhar, received U.S. citizenship on September 11, 2012. As I have pieced together the story, the two brothers were triple or quadruple refugees in their short lives, moving from Kyrgyzstan to Chechnya back to Kyrgyzstan to Dagestan to the U.S., possibly with time as well in Kazakhstan and even Turkey. When they entered the U.S., they claimed political asylum. Perhaps they were more economic refugees than political, but what is sure is that everywhere they went, the family faced high unemployment (Kyrgyzstan), war (Chechnya and Dagestan), and discrimination as new arrivals.

Technically, today Chechnya and Dagestan are two of the 89 regions of Russia, somewhat like our 50 states in the U.S. But both are restive, in rather different ways. After two wars between Russia and Chechnya in the mid-1990s and again in the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his representative, Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, have on several occasions announced the end of what they refuse to call a war: it is an "anti-terrorist operation." Still, the violence continues, and it was endemic in the early 1990s when the boys were young.

Two issues have been at the core of the struggles between Russia and the North Caucasus: a) the issue of territory and sovereignty; and b) the issue of oil, which was first drilled outside the capital of Grozny in 1893.


For the Russian Empire, the issue of the North Caucasus became especially troublesome during the reigns of Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I. In 1801, Alexander I and the Russian army were able to annex Georgia on the far side of the high Caucasus Mountains (at 18,000 feet, they are higher than the Alps), and in 1812 they defeated Napoleon, the superpower of his day. Yet it took 25 years of fighting (1834-1859) to conquer the North Caucasus.

At least one historian has said these 19th because the North Caucasians practiced a form of Sufism known as muridism, in which the warrior follows a teacher in a spiritual path.

In the late 19th century, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a novella, Hadji Murad, about the Avars, specifically Hadji Murad (a historic figure) and his muridim, in which he portrayed them as more religious, more upright, but also more entangled in clan relations than the Russian leaders (who were prey to bickering, exaggerating their own vainglory, and senseless violence). The story is a meditation on the senselessness of war, the absurdity of differences that seem enormous but are not so in reality.

The oil in the northern Caucasus (Maikop, Grozny, and Baku) became a magnet for the Nazis in 1942, drawing them deeply into the region before Stalin's Red Army repulsed them. Historians debate the degree to which the Chechens and others in the North Caucasus aided or even conspired with the Nazis, but Stalin's retribution against suspected collusion was swift and brutal. The entire population of the Northern Caucasus nations - men, women, and children - were shot or deported en masse from February 23 to March 9, 1944. They were thrown into cattle cars for deportation to Central Asia, just as Hitler had deported his own Jews, homosexuals, communists and Roma. The name of the operation reflected Stalin's twisted sense of humor: Operation Chechevitsa, a word in Russian that means "lentils," but which sounds like the name of the Chechen nation.

About 99,000 of the 600,000 deported Chechens and Ingush ended up in what was then the Kyrgyz Soviet republic. The extended Tsarnaev family seem to have been among those deported to Kyrgyzstan, settling in a town called Tokmok, 40 miles from the capital Bishkek, a small city of 50,000. Accounts from Tokmok suggest that the whole clan lived on one street. Many members of the family came to have higher educations, quite a few becoming lawyers. Anzor, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar's father, was himself one of ten siblings. Gradually, in the course of the 1990s, the many siblings began to move back to Chechnya, their homeland, which had declared its independence from Russia in November 1991.

Presented by

Elizabeth Wood

Elizabeth Wood is a professor of Russian history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is also an associate of the Center for International Studies and co-director of the MIT Russia Program.

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