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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