Friday morning, America woke up to Chechnya. Two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had become suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, gunned down an MIT cop, and, in the ensuing chase, turned Boston into an eerily quiet war zone. Suddenly, everyone needed a primer on Chechnya, on the wars there, on its connections to Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army—despite the fact that we don't know whether their alleged acts were motivated by ideology. “Now everyone, they play with the word Chechen,” their uncle Ruslan Tsarni fumed at the press scrum outside his Maryland home. “They put a shame on the entire ethnicity."
But the Tsarnaev story—at least as I see it now—is not about Chechnya. Or, rather, it is only about Chechnya insofar as it is a story about the wanderings of the Chechen people writ very, very small.
The Chechens are an ethnic group from the mountains of the North Caucasus, a small neck of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. When the Imperial Russian army invaded at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia’s writers began to romanticize the place, a land of severe mountains, full of quiet, dark-eyed maidens and proud, ruthless warriors against Russian conquest. Tolstoy, who was once stationed in the region, wrote about their eternal struggle against the Russians in Hadji Murat, as did Pushkin, who went there in exile, in Prisoner of the Caucasus. They describe a society that fetishizes masculine honor and violence, skill with one’s horse and one’s sword. The fact that the region now produces international wrestling and martial arts stars is not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was as devout a boxer as he was Muslim and that Dzhokhar, 19, was an all-star wrestler in high school. Nor is it a coincidence that they faced off against the authorities, and that Tamerlan died in a hail of bullets.
Russian orientalism ended, however, when a guy from Chechnya’s next-door neighbor, Georgia, came to power in 1928: Joseph Djugashvili, or, as we know him, Stalin, knew how to end the aspirations for independence among the Caucasian Muslims like the Chechens and the Ingush. As elsewhere, he drew the boundaries of the local republics in a way that would make separation along ethnic lines a nightmare, and he imported a lot of ethnic Russians. When Nazi Germany invaded, local nationalists sensed an opportunity to wrest their independence from the Soviets. After the Germans retreated and Stalin crushed the insurrection, in 1944, he shipped the entire Chechen population to the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, where as many as half of them died. (The European parliament recently labeled this a genocide.)
The fact that Dzhokhar was born in Central Asia, in nearby Kyrgyzstan, is ironic and deeply significant, as is the fact that he shares a name with Dzhokhar Dudayev, who unilaterally declared Chechnya’s independence in 1991, and, when the First Chechen War broke out with Russia, in 1994, declared jihad against the Russian Federation. That war ended in a truce in 1996, and Chechnya, now de facto independent, became a wild and violent place. Ethnic Russians fled or were pushed out, and many Chechens escaped north, to neighboring Dagestan, which is where Dzhokhar is said to have attended the first grade, in 1999-2000. Around that time, in 1999, Chechnya invaded Dagestan, plunging the region back into war, and it is shortly thereafter that the Tsarnaevs moved to Boston, in either 2002 or 2004. It is why their uncle Ruslan told a local reporter this morning that “they got their start as refugees, as refugees from war.”
In the U.S., they seemed to have lived a hard life. Their father was a mechanic who struggled to make ends meet, doing repair work here and there for $10 an hour. Then he is said to have been diagnosed with brain cancer and had to go to Germany for treatment, though he is now, apparently, in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, where he is besieged with television cameras.
If Dzhokhar seems to have been a relatively well-adjusted kid, the elder, Tamerlan—who is named for a Muslim Mongol warrior—clearly had more trouble. Their uncle, incensed at his “loser” nephews, was outraged that they were ungrateful to this country “that gave everyone a chance,” and speculated that they were driven by “hatred of those who were able to settle themselves.” In the now infamous and currently blocked photo essay on Tamerlan, he speaks of his Chechen background and flaunts shoes that any person who’s ever been to Russia will tell you are kavkaz shoes: They are the trademark footwear of men from the North Caucasus who are trying to be posh. And so, Tamerlan tells the photographer, “I’m dressed European style.”
Tellingly, Tamerlan also says he has no American friends. It is a statement that the media jumped on, but the second half of that statement is the more illuminating one: “I don’t understand them.” This is not surprising. I moved to America from Russia when I was 7, spent my entire conscious life and education here, am fully assimilated and consider myself American, and I often don’t understand Americans. It’s no wonder that Tamerlan couldn’t make sense of them either. Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnaevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition an uneasy one cannot be irrelevant.
If the YouTube channel that is said to be Tamerlan’s really is his, you can see him fervently clinging to this torn identity: It is full of Islam and Russian rap, which makes sense given the Soviet policy of Russifying Chechnya. In fact, Chechnya is still part of Russia and Russian, as well as Chechen, is its official language. Dzhokhar, who was either 9 or 11 when the family moved, may have been more assimilated than Tamerlan, but if that VKontakte page is his, it too is telling: VKontakte is the homegrown Russian rip-off of Facebook. The mere fact that he had a page on an exclusively Russian social network shows that the assimilation was not a complete one. Because emigrating at 11, or even 9, is hard, too. (The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent. In front of them is a dish plov, a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing.)
In the end, this is not a story about Chechnya or radical Islam or the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov, the usually insane president of Chechnya, says that the Boston bombing was not a Chechen act of terror, that these boys were reared and forged in America. He was probably right. But that's not to say the men—whatever their alleged motive—had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were reared by both Chechnya and America, forged in the joining of the two through the painful, disorienting process of emigration, of accepting and being accepted by a new society, or not.