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.

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.

Anzor himself has claimed he worked for the equivalent of the district attorney's office in Tokmok, but was forced out because of discrimination against Chechens. Neighbors have disputed that, saying that he worked for the local police department. The local police department disputes even that. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Anzor worked principally in repairing and selling foreign cars, a quite common profession in the turbulent 1990s. Zubeidat, the mother, stayed at home.

The most probable version of the family history is that they moved to the town of Chiti-Yurt in Chechnya in 1993 (after the birth of Dzhokhar) to a house that the grandfather had built. Chiti-Yurt, though, is just 20 miles south of Grozny. When war broke out between Russia and Chechnya in 1994, Grozny experienced the brunt of the aerial attacks and all-out bombing. By 1996 it was reduced to rubble.

The Tsarnaev family now fled back to Kyrgyzstan, and Tamerlan went to second grade (age 9). Looking at him in a photo from May 1995, his teacher remembers that in those years he was rather withdrawn. But for these children, this was normal - their spirit had been trammeled by the wars.

A month after that photo was taken, a group of some 80 to 200 Chechens under the leadership of rebel leader Shamil Basayev crossed into Stavropol krai (the same region that Gorbachev was from) and took at least 1,500 people hostage in the Budyonnovsk hospital. In January 1996, a group of Chechen rebels instigated another hostage crisis in Kizlyar in Dagestan. By August 30, 1996 Boris Yeltsin's government had been forced to sign a humiliating treaty with the Chechens at Khasavyurt.

But that did not mean the late 1990s were quiet. During this time hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians were taken hostage by both sides and returned to their families (alive or sometimes dead), but only after elaborate bribes were paid. Throughout the '90s, the Russian armed forces ran dozens of filtration camps -- or detention facilities -- in which they arrested and often tortured some 200,000 Chechens (out of a total population of one million), most of them young men. As both Human Rights Watch and the Russian human rights group Memorial have documented, most of those interned were young men who were captured principally for the purposes of intimidation and psychological terror. Many were held in pits in the ground during the winter with no place to sit or lie down except on the bare earth.

In Kyrgyzstan (which had also declared its independence in 1991, but which, unlike Chechnya and Dagestan, had been able to establish its full independence as a nation), there was less violence, but by the beginning of the 1990s the country was facing a different problem: escalating unemployment rates, moving from 7 percent in 1999 to 11 percent in 2001 and 14 percent in 2002. Whether in search of economic improvement or political asylum, in 2000 or 2001, the family moved to Dagestan, which turned out to be just as dangerous as Chechnya in the 1990s. Dzhokhar went to first grade, but in the middle of the year (March 2002) he and his parents headed to the United States, which they entered on Kyrgyz passports and where they requested political asylum.

If we place their story against the story of the region, we see the confluence of war and violence -- the maelstrom that they were caught up in. Chechnya and Dagestan were themselves changing dramatically in these years. From a movement that had initially been directed against Moscow for nationalist reasons, the independence movement had now become dominated by radical Salafi preachers who teach that there must no nationalist differences among the nations of Islam. Russian commandos further radicalized the situation by assassinating one of the moderate Sufi religious leaders, Sheikh Said Afandi, in August 2012. Since 2007, the insurgency movement under Doku Umarov has begun to refer to the region of Chechnya and Dagestan as the Caucasus Emirate.

One of many strange aspects of this story of the Tsarnaev brothers is that so many different nations have denied knowing them or being affiliated with them. Russian President Putin, Chechen President Kadyrov, and the Caucasus Emirate, as well the administrations of Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan, have all claimed that the Tsarnaev brothers do not belong to them and did not act on their behalf. While much of the story of the Tsarnaevs' attacks on the Boston Marathon resemble the attacks made in the name of Al-Qaeda, this piece is anomalous. No one has claimed the attacks as "theirs." And in a certain sense no one has claimed the young men as theirs, either.

But did Tamerlan and Dzhokhar claim Chechnya and Dagestan? Yes and no. On the one hand, investigators have found evidence that they claimed their "real" targets were the U.S. because of its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, historically Chechnya has not viewed the United States as its enemy. Moreover, Doku Umarov has publicly stated, as recently as February of this year, that his movement should not harm civilians. Yet the Tsarnaevs' pressure cooker bombers were directed precisely at civilians.

Of course, much has rightly been made in the press of Tamerlan's six-month stay in Dagestan (January-July 2012). What hasn't been noted is the level of violence in the time he was there. In the first half of 2012 alone, there were over 185 terrorist attacks, making it the most dangerous place in Europe. On May 4, while Tamerlan was in the region, two car bombs exploded in Makhachkala, killing at least 13 people, just three days before Putin's inauguration for his third term as President. Journalists speculated at the time that the bombs were being prepared for the Victory Day celebrations to be held on May 9 (a holiday celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany). Victory Day explosions in Dagestan had also killed dozens of people in 2002, 2004 (including then President Akhmad Kadyrov), and 2010. Dzhokhar has now confessed that he and Tamerlan were preparing their attack for July 4, but since the bombs were ready, they looked for an earlier holiday. As most people in Massachusetts are well aware, April 15 was Patriot's Day. Since there is no May 9 celebration in the U.S. to mark Victory Day, perhaps Patriot's Day would suffice.

Finally, one must consider the split in the family over religion. How are we to understand Zubeidat, the mother's, call to her son to become more religious? How are we to understand her own transformation from someone who wore stylish dresses and high heels to someone wearing a hijab? Clearly this was something that made her own husband Anzor and his brother Ruslan extremely uncomfortable. Ruslan, who would later tell reporters on April 19 that the boys were "losers," broke with the family in 2009. In 2011, Anzor and Zubeidat had divorced.

Perhaps the mother's calling her son to adopt a more militant version of Islam is also part of the story of a war-torn region where children and young people have lost their way. Throughout the Middle East, including Bulgaria and the North Caucasus, Muslim women are turning to religion in hopes that it will help them curb their men's turn toward alcoholism and despair. Perhaps by praying and submitting to the will of God, the thinking goes, the men will return to their families.

It seems that that turn to Islam went terribly awry in the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Senator John McCain and others have called for Dzhokhar to be treated as an enemy combatant. Yet, as many have argued, the ultimate vindication of our democracy must be that we apply the law to all who have transgressed. And we must also apply history so that we can see how history shaped these two brothers.