Two articles on Catalonia

Over the last few months I have been following the political developments in Catalonia very closely, and have recently published two pieces in the Australian media.

The first, a more personal take on things, for the Sydney Morning Herald, and the second, slightly longer and more analytical, for the Australian Institute of International Affairs. The links for both items are below.


Evening in Plaza Catalunya, central Barcelona, just ahead of the recent December 21 elections.

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The Beautiful Obscure

My recently published book The Beautiful Obscure, on the intertwining cultural histories of Australia and Spain, is available now from Transmission Press, or selected bookshops.

On the Transmission Press website there is also information on upcoming events and launches, as well as links to extracts and media interviews.



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Geoff Page: Plevna


Plevna: A biography in verse

Geoff Page / UWA Publishing

As he did in his superb collection 1953 (reviewed here), in Plevna Geoff Page has set himself the task of recovering unknown, lost or otherwise unglamorous elements of Australian history – and has written some of the country’s most beautiful poetry while doing so.

At first glance, Melbourne surgeon Charles ‘Plevna’ Ryan, whose life reached from the back half of the nineteenth century into the first quarter of the twentieth, is everything that would mark him as a contemporary pariah. He is white, patrician, and elitist; a man for whom the military – and what’s more the military abroad, the white man fighting in brown lands – serves as a foundational value system. Present day narratives might insist Ryan was just the sort of martial and blindly privileged man who sent the world to hell. Yet far from being closeted by his background and upbringing (the contemporary concept of ‘privilege’ is woolly enough to serve no purpose) he was in fact a thoroughly cosmopolitan gentleman, multi-lingual, brave, hard-working and entirely dedicated to helping those around him. As a surgeon on late nineteenth and early-twentieth century battlefields, for years he experienced first hand a degree of carnage, horror and human misery most of us – perhaps even all of us – would now find difficult to contemplate, much less actually bear witness in person. Somehow, with that inner resolve that characterises the ‘putting up with things’ of the time, he lived through those years of horror to create a loving and successful family, a thriving medical practice, and to be an accidental witness to some of the key moments of early Australian history.

Plevna front cover

One of the many remarkable things to be gleaned from this free verse biography is that someone with such an unusual and multi-faceted life could have been largely lost to Australian history. Of course our nation is heavy with the bones of men and women – all too often women – whose contributions went unremarked, their astonishing lives fallen into neglect and oblivion: we thank Geoff Page for recovering, at least, this one.

Geoff Page’s Plevna is notable for the rich complexity and range of experiences encompassed by Ryan’s life, and the nuances encapsulated by his various allegiances; remarkable also for the technical feat carried off by Page in writing Ryan’s biography in free verse, one hundred or so pages of clear, simple and beautiful poetic language, interspersed with extracts from Ryan’s diaries and a selection of old black-and-white photos illustrating Ryan at different points in his work travels around Turkey – what was then the fast-contracting Ottoman Empire – and a series of snapshots of him decades later at Gallipoli.

A student of considerable talent, Ryan’s medical studies begin in Melbourne:

Setting bones in those days is

a sort of carpentry;

and sutures done with gut…

but soon moves on to a broader and more challenging world: Edinburgh, then Bonn and Vienna. Like a true child of Empire he went abroad to receive his final spit and polish. While there, the sense of opportunity and adventure that has seized so many young Australians in Europe grabs him:

the ad for twenty British surgeons

to serve the Ottomans,

currently a little stirred

by problematic Serbs.

Two hundred pounds a year, it says,

paid each month in gold.

Just twenty-three, Ryan signs up to the anti-Russian war effort – for centuries the Russians and the Byzantines had been engaged in turf wars – and soon finds himself deep in Ottoman lands. The landscapes are beautiful, if full of death. A revelation of lovely clear winter mornings opens up to display the effects of war:

The dead lie spread in melting snow,

soldiers and civilians both.

There’s not the strength to bury them

and yet the sky is clear and blue

with just a trace of cloud.

Late nineteenth century wars were terrible for many reasons, not least that mechanized forms of death had begun to be employed against soldiers before modern medicine had caught up with its sophisticated means of easing pain and suffering. The stench and agony of dying men and animals drifts up from these verses. War is terrible even – or perhaps especially – for those who want no part of it: Page recounts, using Ryan’s notebooks, how some frightened young Turkish soldiers shot off their own trigger fingers in order to avoid having to fire guns and kill. Called to investigate these wounds, Ryan, impartial and with a cold Victorian rigidity, puts science before compassion: yes, he must reveal to the Ottoman commander, the wounds were consistent with being self-inflicted. The clever intrigue was thus judged to have ‘sabotaged’ the war effort and in a final irony, the young men were themselves put before a firing squad and shot.


Image courtesy Australian War Memorial

Back in Australia in the 1880s, the nickname ‘Plevna’ – inspired by the site of some of his most famous efforts – sticks. Newly established up the top end of Collins St, his expertise is called upon as he tends to the wounds of none other than Ned Kelly, thus inscribing his name as a minor player at the edges of another crucial moment of Australian coming-into-being. He is the ultimate, detached professional:

You think an amputation

‘will not be necessary’.

Hare’s been leading the police

and Ned’s the murderer.

To you they’re just a pair of patients,

requiring expertise.

Ryan has many of the hallmarks of the paterfamilias, albeit without the extravagant beard. Once settled into his surgery on Collins, he sets about finding the right partner, and marrying ‘appropriately’:

The woman you are wanting will

be found through old connections.

attractive and well-educated

but not so well as you.

The Alice Summer he marries, though, is a formidable woman, nobody’s fool, and counts among her diversions an addiction to the new pastime of motoring:

They boast, on their return, how they

clocked almost 30 m.p.h.

along the road from Dandenong.

‘They go much faster,’ Alice offers,

‘in the evening air.’ 

There follow two decades of settled life, of apparent domestic bliss: a successful surgeon, man of cigar-and-brandy Melbourne clubs, working with the Victorian militia, assessing the health of men for duty. A quintessential son of Empire, the sixty-one year-old Ryan is up for duty at Gallipoli, his affections (if not altogether his loyalties) torn between his Australian and British comrades, and those Turks with whom he had shared the life of the battlefield three decades earlier. One can imagine him, in more febrile mediatic times, being roasted as a ‘traitor’ for his past associations. (In today’s environment, he’d be ‘shamed’ from left and right.) In fact, he had found out earlier, in 1895 when starting out on writing his memoirs, how difficult it was to speak with enthusiasm of the Turk; alliances were shifting, and a nation’s collective memory rarely admits of nuance:

the murders in Armenia

disfigure all the Melbourne papers.

Even so, your new book notes

the Turkish soldier’s ‘dauntless courage’

‘in earlier and brighter days’.

(History wars? This poetic work should be an essential text for all sides in that faux conflict that ever rumbles on.)

In fact, as war swells and Gallipoli approaches:

You’re not so chuffed to face the Turks…

You wear their medals still.

There’s no doubt though that doctors,

and ones of your experience,

will be in sharp demand

when longboats hit the beach.

Then hell commences: short on medical supplies, wounded men die in filth, casualties are unprecedented; the tetanus risk is acute; hospital staff work beyond fatigue for weeks on end. ‘One morning,’ Ryan notes, ‘I did five amputations before breakfast.’




Image courtesy Australian War Memorial

On May 24, a month after Gallipoli, a brief truce is declared in order for soldiers from each side to move out into no-man’s land and bury the pestilential dead. Ryan supervises, as the men fraternise with each other speaking basic French.

The earth looks hard but friable;

the graves, we must suppose,

are not as deep as those

in Melbourne’s General Cemetery

where you, with your ‘three score

and ten’ – plus three – will end at last.

Ryan dies, in fact, on a ship while returning from a European holiday in 1926. Just off Adelaide he suffers a heart attack, even informing his fellow passengers, as he winces in pain, that there was nothing they could do, and that he would soon be dead. He was.

The language used throughout by Page is clean and upright; it is cut pure, stern and elegant without being too adorned. Rather like Ryan himself, it is efficient and driven by a desire for clarity. It walks uncluttered across the page; the reading experience is fully illuminating.

Somehow, despite the legendary life and the State funeral, Charles Ryan slipped off the national radar and into oblivion. We live in an age where the past is constantly raked over for the shocking or illuminating secrets held by genealogy – our TV screens are full of persons uncovering their pasts, as we seek to add layers of gravity to the fragile account of nationhood. Now, Geoff Page has heard ‘Plevna’ Ryan talking back from within those shadows of forgetfulness, the ‘various lacunae’. It is an extraordinary feat, to piece together a life lived in that age when not every minute of every day was documented, commented, recorded, obsessed over, made public. From the quiet hallways of the past Charles Ryan has quietly emerged – still shadowy, but that is part of the mystique. He materialises from ancient dust, old documents, dried blood, the long-silenced groans of the dying; from archaic Melbourne clubs; from the forgotten fields of a lost Empire.

It is here, up against the void, that we ask our poets to perform their ancient and sacred task. Who better than Geoff Page? Yet one imagines even he might not want to know all ‘Plevna’ Ryan’s secrets. It is sometimes the very lacunae themselves that tell us all we need to know, ‘forcing one to speculate while falsifying nothing’.

Plevna is available from UWAP here.


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From the Archive: Lines from Worship to Despair

This piece, published in The Melbourne Review in 2013, reviewed the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain.


Lines from Worship to Despair

Coming on the heels of 2012’s masterpieces from Madrid’s Museo del Prado that graced the Queensland Art Gallery, this selection of Spanish prints and drawings from the British Museum on show at the Art Gallery of NSW continues a run in which Australian audiences are being spoilt by the offerings from Spain’s particularly rich, always generous and sometimes eccentric heritage.

So dominant is the figure of Goya, so colossal is his presence in the history of Spanish art, that his name alone can denote an entire epoch: from Renaissance to Goya charts a period which begins with the Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain; encompasses the Spanish Golden Age of the seventeenth century and Hapsburg reigns of Philips II – IV and Charles II, the transition to the Bourbon monarchy, and ends in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was above all the age of Napoleon, continuing the steady decline of Spanish political power within Europe and the fragmentation of its colonial empire – a process of collapse that had begun as early as the reign of Philip IV when imperial overreach began to take effect, as history shows it always will.

The earliest years here are scarcely represented; a few engravings and woodcuts – mostly anonymous – that predate the revolution in drawing and material techniques that were to be imported from northern Europe and Italy during the reign of Philip II. Added to this, there was the difficulty of fragile drawings surviving circumstances not amenable to preservation; the drawing was not yet considered of value in and of itself. Yet while those early prints speak of a clearly Renaissance worldview and mode of representation, the world has been entirely reconfigured three and a half centuries later; the exhibition ends with the emotional and physical exhaustion of a depleted and battle-weary empire, with Goya’s reverberating themes of humiliation, poverty, disease and occupation, an all-pervading despondency that settled on Spain and was not to lift until the remarkable ‘generation of 1898’ nearly a century later.

Overlooked, cast into shadow by the glittering sun of Spanish classical painting, the tradition of drawings and prints serves as a guiding path through the mechanics of how many of those masterpieces in oil were created – these are experiments by which form and composition took shape, and the marginalia in which notes are made on everything from religious practice and rules, to authorship, to daily gossip. The steps of draughtsmanship are fascinating – we see surprisingly undeveloped, almost clumsy sketches by Ribera, for example, beside some of the genius’ finest works; we see also how themes were developed over careers – see Vicente Carducho or Eugenio Cajés (or Goya) – across epochs (Renaissance, Golden Age and Napoleonic eras) or via geographic region. So, conveniently, the artworks are represented not just by chronology but to reveal regional schools: we have the great Madrid court artists, the Andalusian masters (Pacheco, Herrera, Zurbarán, Alonso Cano, Murillo, Valdés Leal) and samples of the tradition as developed in the vibrant Mediterranean port city of Valencia, through lesser known masters such as Pedro Orrente, Juan de Juanes or Juan Antonio Conchillos.

It also throws a fascinating light on those painters whom history has cast into second rank perhaps because they dedicated more time on drawings – Vicente Carducho for example – than on oils, or whose drawings have for one historical whim or another survived in greater quantity. The most notable near-absence is that of Diego Velázquez, so dominant in the court of Philip IV. It seems inexplicable that Velázquez could have created some of his masterpieces – Las Hilanderas or The Surrender of Breda – without drawing, yet barely any preliminary studies survive, nor does X-Ray technology reveal any significant degree of preparatory underdrawing.

Another of the strongest lessons coming through this collection is the role Italian artists had in shaping the Spanish creative endeavour of the time; Naples was for much of this era ruled as a Spanish viceroy, and the traffic of commerce and artists between the two kingdoms was constant. Many Italians were contracted to furbish the Royal Monastery of El Escorial, on the outskirts of Madrid, as it became one of Europe’s most astonishing repositories of archival material and artistic treasures, a centre of creativity and of living history.

These insights alone are worth the entry. But the drawings were soon to be more than just a proving ground, a kind of notepad for the working out of the main event later to be executed in oil. There are many prints or drawings here that cannot be linked to paintings, and countless too that stand alone as exquisite masterpieces, such as Ribera’s red chalk images of suffering saints. By the time the art of printmaking had developed fully during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the stage was set for Goya to arrive, producing the towering sets of social commentary that were his Caprichos and Disasters of War, works that combine clarity of message and depth of vision with messages of wonder and horror, and that take the form of artistic representation so much further than they had been taken before – into the realm of the suffering existence of the common man and woman. As with the glimpses afforded through the 2012 Museo del Prado exhibition, here at first hand are examples of a quantum leap in the conscious awareness and depiction of universal human suffering.

The artworks here inevitably describe a version of social history. They are one window into a society that for all its close connections to Italy and its northern European royal lineage and territorial annexations, nevertheless began to develop more and more apart from central European social and political modes of thoughts and governance; Spain turned its back on principal elements of the enlightenment, enacted the Inquisition and remained wedded to a deeply conservative and mystical Catholicism. Folklore played a huge role in this isolation – the festive or ludic is almost always a kind of partner-in-folly to the temperate austerity of the Church. From worship to hysteria, hilarity and despair, the idea of celebration, whether dressed in the bright rags of the drunken street or the sobriety of clerical robes, is never far from the surface of Spanish life.

Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain at the Art Gallery of NSW.


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Sawmill Towns

One of my favourite Les Murray poems is also one of his earliest.

Driving Through Sawmill Towns always evokes childhood memories of passing through the town of Nimmitabel, in southern New South Wales, with its (then) continually smoking sawmill stack. The sawmill was closed in 1992.

Below, I have translated the poem into Spanish. The original can be read here.




En los fresquitos campos serranos,

Al haber bajado de las nubes

Por un camino inclinado

A un valle lejano

Conduces sin prisas. Tu parabrisas parte el bosque

Bamboleándose, y la brillantez del mediodía

Se agazapa en los claros…

Entonces los encuentras,

Los pueblos aserraderos, aldeas casi vacías, hechas a tablones

Quizás una tienda

Quizás un puente más allá

Y un vivo riachuelo de piedritas.



Los aserraderos tienen techo de hierro, sin muros:

Al pasar, miras hacia dentro: hombres ágiles,


El viraje del cabestrante,

Las cuchillas avanzando, relucientes

Por un tronco en su carrito

Hasta que se separe en partes

Un desparrame de listones y tablones.


Los hombres ven como pasas:

Cuando paras el coche para pedir direcciones

Los jóvenes altos miran a otro lado –

Son los mayores los que

Salen en sus camisetas azules y te hablan en voz baja.


Al lado de cada aserradero, chorrea humo de los montículos

De ceniza y serrín.



Sigues. Deslizas por el pueblo

El guardabarros mojados por las nubes.

Las casas llevan porche en su timidez,

Todo el día con sus calendarios en las cocinas, las mujeres escuchan

Por los coches en el camino,

Niños perdidos en los bosques,

Un grito del aserradero, un paso –

No ocurre nada.


Una radio distante canta

Su canción de las aceras.


A veces una mujer, al barrer su escalón,

O una joven, ordinaria, sacando agua del pozo

Con su cubo metálico se dará una vuelta y mirará

A las montañas, maravillada,

Buscando una ciudad.



Las tardes-noches son silenciosas. Por todas partes

Está el bosque.

Se cae la noche y las casas se miran una a otra:

Que una luz se apague significa mucho por aquí.


Te vas, volando, por las colinas altas

Una mirada al pasar por las aldeas

Y desapareces por los bosques, reluciente en una colina lejana.


En las noches veraniegas

Los grillos cantan y pausan.

En la oscuridad invernal, los techos de hojalata susurran con la lluvia,

Los bajantes se frotan en el aire, impacientes de agua.

Al haber tomado su té los hombres se sientan

Al lado de la estufa y sus mujeres hablan, una cerilla muerta

Entre sus dedos,

Pensando en el futuro.



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Trouble on the Hour, Every Hour

My essay on the bewildering array of troubles surrounding Europe, drawing on George Friedman‘s recent book Flashpoints, is featured in the latest edition of Overland magazine.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc had opened up whole swathes of Eastern Europe to the benefits of the European Union; the possibilities for expansion, both for the EU and for NATO, were endless. The sober light of EU economic and social management was shone across the old Iron Curtain and into the obscure corners of the Slavic zone. Or so many thought.

Read the full essay here:


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Review: The Tsarnaev Brothers

Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece

The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy by Masha Gessen (Scribe)


Hell is a city much like London, wrote Percy Shelley as he left the choking metropolis for the romantic and revitalizing airs of the Continent. What would he have made of the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala in its Soviet days? A provincial slum; a ruinous outpost on the edge of the Caspian Sea where the most retrograde elements of patriarchy, blood libel and honor killings thrived amid the deprivations of a state-driven economy. In this place, stagnated and utterly forgotten, citizens lived a kind of futureless present, and it is from this environment the story of the Tsarnaev Brothers begins to emerge when their mother Zubeidat, an ambitious young woman trapped in stultifying Makhachkala, has the opportunity to escape to the Russian city of Novosibirsk. There she meets and falls in love with the slight and skinny Anzor Tsarnaev, a young Chechen man on military service. He brings her wildflowers: breaking the mould of arranged or forced marriages, their love is romantic, impulsive and unstoppable; as Zubeidat puts it, together they are ‘as beautiful and exotic as two swans’.

Years later, after a lifetime of movement – decades of circuitous migration, yo-yoing between Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan, Kalmykia, Chechnya and Turkey – the couple would eventually settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Of their four children, the two boys – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar – would come to the world’s attention in April 2013 as the Boston Marathon bombers.

Photo, showing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, accompanied by his father Anzor, mother Zubeidat and uncle Muhamad Suleimanov, is seen in this photo courtesy of the Suleimanova family in Makhachkala

Anzor (left) and Zubeidat Tsarnaev (centre)

In a riveting new account of how this came to pass, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen goes beyond the awful spectacle of that moment by the finish line of the Boston marathon, the subsequent bewildering manhunt that saw elder brother Tamerlan killed and the younger, Dzhokhar, captured, and the FBI round-up of suspected associates in the months after. Where did this story begin? How did this modern tragedy unfold? (The US title of the book has it classed as an ‘American’ tragedy but it is more than that, as Gessen shows: it is a post-Soviet tragedy, a Caucasian tragedy, a family tragedy, a very normal suburban tragedy. In its exposure of the limits of cultural and religious integration, and its story arc that builds around mistrust and suspicion between young Muslim men and women and certain cultural forms of the contemporary West, it is indeed a very ‘modern tragedy’.)

This tale – full of hope turning to despair, sadness, isolation and rage – has all the hallmarks of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: people on the move, incessant migration waves of those seeking opportunities beyond the impoverished and often lawless discriminations of a blighted homeland, only to find, at place after place, rejection. This is a repeating theme throughout history: all our pasts are stacked with the forlorn cries of those who found themselves unwanted at port after port. Indeed, this is a story so confusing, so entwined and entwining, so plagued with bad luck and bad timing, so terrible in its aftermath both for the victims and the perpetrators – and their extended families – that Macduff’s shout of horror as he discovers the slain King Duncan comes fully to mind: ‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!’.

This is a tale of great relevance to contemporary Australia. In some respects, Australia has been a model society of multicultural adaptation; our success, however, was founded partly on the fact we took on the greatest waves of immigrants in the decades when our country was booming. (Timing is everything, in comedy as in history.) It was not too hard to fit in, find a job, build a business and create opportunities for work and education for the next generation, who were then fully integrated as ‘Aussies’. This has, by and large, been our story. But what happens when the world continues to fragment ideologically, while at the same time resources are less available, economies struggle, and the world’s trouble spots, rather than quieten down, continue to bubble up and send forth new populations? And all this just as our own good times are slowing, and the sharing of resources tightens? What happens when members of a second or third generation of outsider migrant children become attracted – for whatever reason, and in whatever manner – to the siren song of militant movements in other parts of the world?


Tamerlan (left) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Gessen’s previous works on Russian politics and society – books on Vladimir Putin and Pussy Riot to name but two – are proof of her credentials for digging out the deeper truths of this story. Her on-ground knowledge shines through in nuanced observations such as this, of Dagestan, circa 1980: ‘The possession most coveted by any young person who wanted to escape Makhachkala’s provincial uniformity was a white plastic bag printed with a full-colour photograph of a man’s behind in Wrangler jeans.’ This paints the claustrophobia, deprivation and lack of opportunity superbly, and in a few deft strokes. To create lighting effects for their basic discotheques, ‘young men stole colored glass from traffic lights (or) flashing lights off police cars.’ A people used to improvisation then, and great hardship: this was the generation many of whose grandparents had been shipped away, in sealed boxcars, from Chechnya to the wastes of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan in one of Stalin’s great 1940s purges of ‘undesirable’ or ‘unpatriotic’ ethnic populations. Slowly drifting back to their homelands years later, these were people hardened over decades by violence, dispossession and ongoing conflict.

The early chapters of Gessen’s book lay out the background to the family story and serve as a brief primer of the sorry recent history of a region largely ignored: Dagestan, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – republics and regions too far from world centres of power to be of everyday interest, yet serving as fulcrums on which turn so much geopolitical strategy. The destruction of Chechnya – and in particular the capital Groznii, for some time the most hellish and blasted zone of rubble on earth (‘no heart can conceive, nor tongue express…’) – was simultaneous to, and an integral part of, the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin. The infiltration of Saudi-inspired Wahhabism among the jobless, disenfranchised and volatile young men of Chechnya and Dagestan is a tale that would come to be repeated increasingly throughout the broader Muslim world: ‘self-important young men who trafficked mostly in words,’ says Gessen, ‘and yet balanced unmistakably at the edge of constant and extreme danger’. In Australia, one doesn’t need to look too hard to see Zaky Mallah et al in this portrait.

RUSSIA CHECHNYA grozny-war-chechnya-north-caucasus

Groznii, Chechnya, 2000 (AP Photo)

From this environment, and after those years of tracking backwards and forwards across central Asia searching for a stable home for their children, it was to the United States that the Tsarnaev parents finally came, arriving – once again, their timing was poor – just after the September 11 attacks. For all their initiative and capacity for survival in a hostile world, in the home of the brave and the land of the free they were considered suspect from the very first.

And so begins what Gessen describes as ‘the slow and catastrophic demise of a whole set of immigrant dreams.’ This is the story of a family for whom the American dream could have happened, and by all rights should have happened – but did not, with terrible consequences. As Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev grew up in Boston as teenagers, the world did not deliver on its promises. Tamerlan failed to become a championship boxer – martial arts being a common route to respectability among males from the Caucasus – and fell instead into an odd amalgam of pizza delivery and drug dealing. Looking back, a series of incidents and administrative changes which blocked his access to advancement in the sport take on the guise of punitive measures that did nothing but frustrate the talented Tamerlan; drifting out of the discipline boxing imposes, he relied on his good looks, swagger and ‘Italian gigolo’ style. He married, but by age 24 was living with his parents and doing dead-end jobs. After ten years in the United States the adopted world was, for the Tsarnaev family, as incomprehensible as ever. Anzor and Zubeidat grew apart and divorced. Tamerlan and his mother Zubeidat, who had tried job after job to help support and better integrate her family – without any of them proving fruitful – moved into the study of the Koran, while Tamerlan blended this with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, 9/11 ‘truther’ thinking, and a whole gamut of ultra-libertarian mind fodder.

Dzhokhar meanwhile, sweet, likeable, not overly ambitious and with the ability to ingratiate himself with others, moved through high school, graduating with honors in 2011 and enrolling at University of Massachusetts with a local scholarship to help him settle fees. He seemed the most likely to succeed, despite adopting many of the attitudes of the classic American slacker teen.

In 2012 Tamerlan, re-connecting with his ancestral past, returned to Dagestan where he stood between two worlds: he was admired for his experience and knowledge of the American way of life (America was ‘a racist country and a deeply divided one,’ he recounted: everything Russian television said about the perfidious imperialists, he could confirm, was true); meanwhile for his part, Tamerlan absorbed the stories of struggle and war, of the independence guerrillas and their mountain life. If not exactly ‘radicalization’ this period did represent, Gessen argues, a ‘fundamental shift in the way he perceived the world’. Tamerlan returned to the US in mid-2012, ostensibly to fix some documents relating to his passport. The family was disintegrating: his mother was set to return to Dagestan – Makhachkala and even Groznii in Chechnya were greatly improved places to live, to all appearances, than two or three decades earlier; his two younger sisters were both coping with marriage failures and various types of broken dreams. His brother Dzhokhar, now Jahar, was cruising through college in a cloud of weed and with a bunch of outcast friends: ‘as tight and purposeless as any set of college kids ever was.’ In other words, entirely normal. Like many naïve college kids, he found sustenance in the conspiratorial narratives spawned by the internet; Jahar also began to find some companionship, purpose and solace in a local mosque.


If it weren’t a statement clouded by paranoia, one might be tempted to suggest there are some peoples destined for continual persecution and mistreatment. For the Chechens, what followed the arrest of the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston was unfortunately reminiscent of their treatment at the hands of Russian forces in their homeland: the state apparatus was eternally suspicious of their motives, their movements, their associations, their community. Gessen reports that after the Boston bombing, members of the Chechen community were issued with a brief document, in Russian, explaining their fundamental rights under US law when approached by the FBI: they had the right to a presumption of innocence, and they could refuse to allow security officers into their homes. But once the knock came on the door, a type of fear, or paralysis, or even atavistic response would kick in: these were people from backgrounds where knocks on the door were customarily laden with bad news, pain, even tragedy, and where obedience before state authorities had become for many a fundamental question of survival.

Gessen’s book outlines superbly the ‘collateral damage’ that such an event causes for bystanders – family, friends and acquaintances – particularly when those around the suspects belong to a range of ethnic and/or religious minorities. (Australian Muslims will know the feeling all too well.) And in this case, ethnic minorities whose Caucasus variant of Islam, fused with tribal traditions of patriarchy and honour, are so very at odds with the system of justice in the United States, where this motley collection of Chechens – the Tsarnaevs formed part of a small nucleus of Caucasian families following the yellow brick road – came to a halt. Associated Russians felt it too: Elena Teyer was a self-made Russian woman who had first come to the US as a mail-order bride and had worked her way up into the system, and towards a measure of success serving in the Army. Her son-in-law, Ibragim Todashev, was a Chechen immigrant killed in dubious circumstances by the FBI during the investigation following the Boston bombing. Discharged from the Army, guilty by association, everything turned sour for Elena: ‘America’s promise of fairness, openness and honesty had turned out to be a ruse,’ writes Gessen. America was no better than Russia, just ‘a better liar’. The same rules applied here as to her former homeland: the secret police ‘killed people when they wanted to; a reason could always be found later.’ In their over-zealous paranoia, the FBI cast a broad net and brought in Chechens, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzstanis and anyone resembling them; anyone was fair game. The book was thrown at a series of individuals who, if Gessen’s painstaking reconstruction of events is accurate, were unluckily in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same applies, of course, to those actually killed by the Tsarnaev Brothers’ bombs – but the locking away of fundamentally innocent associates does nothing to assuage the pain of victims’ families, or clarify the chain of events that led to the bombings. It pins a few stars to a few FBI chests, but other than that only creates further simmering resentment within already suspicious ethnic and religious minorities.


In Australia, we have often examined the notion of the bad egg, the cuckoo in the nest: the immigrant who turns against our generosity. ‘We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil’, and look badly upon those who turn their backs on that utopian possibility. At various times in our history we have held the Aboriginal, the Irish, the Chinese or even Communists as the danger within. In recent times two favourite types have occupied the popular imagination of the damned: the ‘mad Balkan’ (Ivan Milat, Damir Dokić) and now the volatile and turncoat Muslim – Man Haron Monis, Zaky Mallah or any of the young Australians who have left to fight in Syria with ISIS. Many Australians are angry at the ingratitude; this suggests that which is given is not given unconditionally, but is dependent upon a return in the form of certain conforming behaviours. Up to a point, this is no bad thing: Australia has, given its bewildering inter-racial mix, been remarkably successful in keeping foreign conflicts off our shores and we are, despite our self-image as larrikins and freedom-lovers, a deeply conservative country.

But in the welcoming of globalisation and new technologies comes the obvious side-effect that no country is any longer immune by geography (or wishful thinking) from the broader battles waged across the global conflict zones. Battles for resources and for control of land; battles over trade, battles for the mind and soul – these will all continue to be reflected in Australia’s social fabric. It is part of our success as a country of huge diversity that, so far, our systems of education, law and social integration have worked to dampen, mostly, any localised flowering of global discord. But we are not as distant as we used to be, nor so apparently innocent. The attractiveness to certain youth of militant Islam and the multiple concerns that spread from its vortex, look set to be major social and political challenges for the years ahead, with solutions to be worked over somewhere between the relentless demonization of the Right and the ingenuous accommodation of the Left.


In concluding her book, Gessen tracks a way through the multiple conspiracy theories, dead ends and wrong leads that spread out like false but unstoppable stains from the murderous act itself, implicating its citizens (one chapter is appropriately but darkly titled ‘Everyone Is Going To Jail’). Were the brothers set up, was the FBI involved, was the long hand of Putin and his secret service, the FSB, somehow implicated to further denigrate the long-suffering Chechens? Against the whole narrative also looms an unsolved and horrifying drug-related triple-murder in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev may or may not have been involved, and the truth of which will most likely never be known.

Importantly, Gessen finds one theory, among others, to be most vulnerable to close inspection: that the brothers were ‘radicalized’, that they were victims of a darker force that gathered around them, swept them up, exploited them, brainwashed them, and turned them almost overnight into public assassins. This is not to say that ‘radicalization’ does not exist; simply that Gessen sees it as an easy cover-all explanation when perhaps the causes are simpler, more mysterious or even, more banal. Not everybody committing acts of terror, she suggests, forms part of elaborate international networks, nor have they been along a path of increasing ‘revolutionary consciousness’ to use old Marxist terminology – easy though that narrative might be for much media punditry.

The radicalization theory has gained much weight in the popular press; it is a common theme for politicians. We hear it endlessly in Australia. Gessen goes beyond the headlines and the easy grabs, and finds that this was not the truth for the Boston bombers. After all, as she explains, ‘only a small minority of people who subscribe to radical ideas actually engage in violence’. Had he been fully radicalized in Dagestan, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a much more logical path to follow: jihad in Syria – a path he did not take. Radicalization stands in contrast to the ‘lone wolf’ theory: neither can fully explain the path towards horrific public violence. Who might have radicalized the Tsarnaev brothers? That has never been answered, perhaps for the simple reason that there is no answer. The Tsarnaev brothers were not the victims of some wayward ‘hate preacher’, did not travel a tortuous path deeper and deeper into sociopathic violence laced with religious extremism or political ideology. On the contrary, they fulfilled the very essence of the typical contemporary terrorist: early twenties, of immigrant family, middle-class but marginalized, behaviourally normal, educated, and with a high tolerance for risk.


None of this, of course, explains why thousands of others who fit those categories do not become terrorists. In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, we may never know. Other theories abound, such as schizophrenia, delusional paranoia, indoctrination – for none of which any conclusive evidence exists. Another from left-field: was Tamerlan, in fact, an FBI informant or agent gone rogue – was his time in Dagestan actually part of undercover work? And lastly, what Gessen calls the ‘gaping hole’ in the investigation: who made the bombs, and how? Where? With what expertise, gleaned where? Going into Jahar Tsarnaev’s trial, ‘there was no indication that the FBI knew where and how the bombs had been made and whether anyone had helped make them’. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers proved that layered social alienation – cultural, religious, linguistic and political – does not lead to serious acts of violence. Until, for reasons we can never fully know, some snap. And then it does.

Jahar Tsarnaev was recently sentenced to six death sentences, with the judge invoking Shakespeare in damning him to an ignominious death and afterlife. But Shakespeare can be invoked for any and every occasion: like folk sayings or maxims, there is one to suit every purpose. The Tsarnaev brothers now constitute a footnote, not only in the vast sociology of immigrant disillusion, but also in the ongoing ‘war on terror’ that morphs each year into new forms and along new battlefronts. Their actions – their very selves – are still surrounded by mystery and confusion. This book and the story Gessen tells – in so many places heart-breaking for its sheer, quiet normality – is about two more lives wasted. Two dreams that never came to fruition, and two young men who uselessly tore apart a series of other lives in the process; a damage that spirals off into a dreadful list of victims, victims’ families, survivors, and a sequel of grief, anger, shame, confusion, trauma and physical disability that lives beyond the act.

Masha Gessen’s The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy is available now from Scribe.



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