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Trying to understand the Tsarnaev brothers’ connection to Chechnya

The path that put Dzhokar Tsarnaev inside a federal courtroom facing the death penalty for bombing the Boston Marathon started in the perpetually troubled corner of Russia.

People attending a rally to protest against satirical cartoons of prophet Mohammad, in Grozny, Chechnya, in January.
REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

The path that took Dzhokar Tsarnaev to the Boston Marathon route on April 15, 2013, and then to a federal courtroom to face charges that could bring him the death penalty, starts in a perpetually troubled corner of Russia: the North Caucasus region of Chechnya.

The trail is hundreds of years old, and its builders include Peter the Great, Stalin and Hitler. The route was forged by international power politics, and parts of it are illuminated by a gleam from the golden age of Russian literature.

Even as Tsarnaev was found guilty on all counts this week, it still was unclear exactly why he left his bomb on that street two years ago. The penalty phase of the trial will try to determine whether he was an impressionable follower, as his lawyers claim — or a committed terrorist, as prosecutors allege. 

What we do know is that Tsarnaev’s family is one of many whose lives were turned upside down by turmoil in their homeland. Chechnya and other small, predominantly Muslim territories on the northern fringe of the Caucasus mountains rest on a cultural fault line between Russia and the Middle East, turf that has been contested for centuries. They have been the source of seemingly inexhaustible violence since the collapse of the Soviet Union – both Russian military action and terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at Russia. But Chechens and others from the North Caucasus also are fighting with Muslim extremist groups in the Middle East. Others are said to be part of pro-Russian separatist force in eastern Ukraine.

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So what is it about Chechnya?

Masha Gessen’s book on the subject, ‘The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy,” was published this week. If you follow the logic of this interview in Vanity Fair, where Gessen is a contributor, the story of the Tsarnaev brothers is an unfortunate variant of the immigrant experience, written large because of the long history of brutality in the North Caucasus.

While the vast majority of immigrants would never go this route, for a handful “it’s a shortcut to becoming a somebody, to belonging, perhaps even to becoming ‘great’,” she says. What do others who committed recent terrorist attacks have in common with the Tsarnaev brothers?  “They come from marginalized immigrant existences,” she suggests. “They see a chance not only to become a part of something and become somebody but also a chance to declare war on a great power.”

They gain status, she says, because of how forcefully powerful countries tend to respond. For Chechens and others from the North Caucasus, the great power usually is Russia. But it’s not all that hard to see how an alienated young person living in the U.S. could instead focus on Americans.

What has distinguishes Chechens over the centuries is a fierce independence, a willingness to fight and a long history living in a frontier zone. Peter the Great started pushing the borders of the Russian Empire south against Persia and Turkey in the early 1700s. In the next century, his successors fought for nearly 50 years to subjugate the region. One of the early gems of Russian literature, Mikhail Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Times,” was inspired by the author’s experiences as a young Russian army officer there. 

Roll ahead another century. In the depths of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Chechens were forcibly deported because Stalin doubted their loyalty. As German forces drove deep into the Caucasus, he sent them as far east as the Chinese border. Conditions were terrible. Estimates vary widely, but as many as a quarter of them died in exile.

Chechens struggled to get home after Stalin died. Things were so tense, historians say, that serious racial violence broke out in Chechnya even in 1958, at the height of Communist control over the country.

When the Soviet Union collapsed a quarter-century ago, more brutality ensued. Chechnya declared independence. Russia invaded and leveled much of it, but failed to end the rebellion. Vladimir Putin tried again when he became Russian president, and succeeded in another brutal campaign. Chechens responded with terror attacks that left hundreds of Russians dead. Russian secret services have been accused of being behind some of those attacks.

Thousands of people fled the region. Dzokhar Tsarnaev was actually born in one of those places where Stalin exiled Chechens – Kyryzstan, on China’s western border. The family moved back to the Caucasus region before immigrating to Boston.

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Russia has now turned Chechnya over to a loyal warlord, who in turn is supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Chechnya’s quieter, but abuses continue.

As for Tsarnaev, he made clear in social media posts that even with his limited direct experience, he felt an affinity for Chechnya. But did he mostly drift into a horrible wrong turn in his family’s endless effort to find a home? Or was he an equal partner in the attack with his older brother?

We can’t answer that question here. But if they had been from a calmer part of the world, it is unlikely the brothers would have ever settled in Boston. Woven into an act of terror that shattered a world-famous sporting event is a long history of bloodshed thousands of miles away.