Fathers and Sons and Chechnya

The anger and embarrassment visible in the interviews given on Friday by the uncle and the aunt of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, are entirely understandable.

But I see clues here to family dynamics that may be important in understanding what happened. In Ivan Turgenev’s 1862, novel, “Fathers and Sons,” the old man’s son, Arkady, comes back home after studies with a friend, Bazarov, after both had adopted the radical philosophy of Nihilism. Their radicalism roiled the family for a while, until Bazarov’s death. (Later, in 1881, Nihilists assassinated Tsar Alexander II).

The key back in 2013, I think, is Maret Tsarnaeva’s assertion that the father, Anzor, ‘worked in the enforcement agencies’ in Russian Chechnya.


It appears she meant he worked as an attorney for the prosecutor’s office in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, i.e. for the Communist, Stalinist state.

‘We were,’ she said, ‘lucky to get him out of Kyrgyzstan alive,’ presumably because radical Muslims were trying to track him down and take revenge on him there.

Update: If he had been a Soviet era prosecutor, a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan would have had a grudge with him. Hence his abortive attempts to flee first to Chechnya in the early 90s and to Daghestan later.

She also seems to imply that he was given asylum in the US easily, precisely because he had been an ‘enforcer’ in Grozny against the Muslim fundamentalist rebels, and so there was no doubt that his life was in danger from them.*


The uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, said that the bombings had nothing to do with religion, that that charge is a fraud, he said, because he knew the family and the boys as children (i.e. he knew them to have been raised as secularists). Someone, he said, ‘radicalized them.’

Most ex-Soviet Muslims are secular and many don’t believe in God or think religion is important. Their families lived under a Communist regime for some 70 years, with its campaigns of official atheism and anti-religious indoctrination in schools. In the ex-Soviet Muslim-heritage republics, there are huge struggles between those happy in their secularism and those who are attempting to recover a Muslim identity. That struggle has played out in Chechnya as well as in Uzbekistan.

This is the transcript of Ruslan’s remarks

“I want to speak on behalf of Tsarnev. First, the only purpose here is just to deliver condolences and to share grief with the victims here. Those who were injured – this boy this Chinese girl, the young 29-year-old girl – I’ve been following this from day one.

I can never imagine that somehow the children of my brother would be associated with that so it is atrocity. I don’t know this family . I don’t know how to share that grief with the real victims.

They never lived here. The last time I saw them was December 2005.

I never knew they had any ill will towards United States. Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves – these are the only reasons I can imagine why they did this. Anything else, religion, is a fraud. I’ve seen thm when they were kids.

Somebody radicalized them but its not my brother who spent his life bringing bread to their table fixing cars. He didnt have time or chance, He’s been working.

My family has nothing to do with that family.

Of course we are ashamed! They are children of my family! Who had little influence of them. i just wanted my family to be away from them.

Again I say what I think was behind it . BEING LOSERS! not being able to settle themselves. That they were hating everyone who did.

They came early since 2003. They came to Cambridge when they moved to the States. They came to Cambridge. They immigrated. They received asylum. They LIVED there. My family had nothing to do with that family for a long time. Last time I spoke to them was 2009.

I say I teach my children. I respect this country I love this country. This country which gives chance to everyone else to be treated as a human being .
They never been in Checnya. They had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were not born there. One of them was born in neighboring country.

I saw them only this morning when I was contacted at 7 a.m. with the orders. When they said have you seen the pictures I opened up internet and I saw a picture of [Dzhakhar].

I said, ‘You’re alive! Turn yourself in and ask for forgiveneess. The victims from the injured and from those who died. Ask forgiveness from these people.” He put a SHAME on our family. He put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity cause now everyone blames Chechnyans. They shamed entire ethnicity. TURN yourself IN and put yourself in the discretion of these people.

(Reporter asked: do you consider them terrorists) I would, I would. From now on, I ask you to respect our property. Again, with the families of those who suffered, we share the grief with them. I’m ready to bend in, we seek forgiveness. Thank you.”

I think what he was saying is that the Tsarnaevs were secular Chechens, as the majority of ex-Soviet Muslims are. That the family was not interested in religion or religious nationalism is supported by the reports that the two boys liked to party.

In her interview, Maret Tsarnaev seemed to me to say that the father of the two, Anzor Tsarnaev, had worked as an ‘enforcer’ for the Russian authorities, I take it as a policeman or security official. That was the reason, she said, that he had to flee to Kyrgyzstan. That is, far from being rooted in the Muslim fundamentalist wing of the Chechnya rebellion, as many are assuming, the family appears to have been part of the Soviet and then secular Kyrgyz establishment and opposed to religious radicalism there. [My guess last Friday that the family is on the side of the Kadyrov-Putin establishment in Chechnya found some support on Sunday when AP reported that Anzor Tsarnaev married one of his daughters off to a policeman serving Ramzan Kadyrov; such police are at daggers drawn with the radical fundamentalists.]

The interview is here:

She also said that the father had ridden Dzhokhar and Tamerlan very hard, and that the latter had dropped out of college and gotten married, and the father had not taken it well. Their mother also seems to have been troubled, having been busted a couple years after coming to the US for stealing $1600 worth of clothing.

So you have young men from a secular, ex-Soviet Muslim family that had perhaps fought opposed the Chechen fundamentalists. And you have young men who felt they had failed their father.

And they had started praying five times a day and listening to radical sermons, and they finally commit suicide by terrorism (they seemed to be acting Thursday night as if they were ready to die), in a cause toward which their father had been unsympathetic. ([In 1999 a second war broke out in Chechnya just after the Tsarnaevs returned again to Grozny from Kyrgyzstan. This war was provoked by Muslim radicals instead of by nationalists.] It is even possible that Anzor had to flee again in 1999 because of his identification with the Russian secular side. )

This sounds to me like a classic father-son struggle, and a tale of adolescent rebellion, in which radical Muslim vigilanteism appears mainly as a tool for the young men to get back to their father, and perhaps to wipe off the shame they had begun feeling about the family having been on the wrong side of the Chechnya fundamentalist uprising. They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The shame of the secular uncle may have been mirrored from the other side in the shame of the newly religious-nationalist adolescents.

*This para deleted because the early speculation seems unwarranted:

It is possible that she is saying that Anzor Tsarnaev was a soldier or security policeman for the pro-Russian Chechnyan government of Akhmet Kadyrov, established in 1999 in the course of the Second Chechnya War against the Islamic Peacekeeping Army, which had invaded Daghestan.

56 Responses

  1. Good article. I want to watch the Aunt’s video when I have a better connection. Another important thing to realize is the diversity of the religious Muslims in Chechnya and Dagestan. You have the radical Salafis, but also a rich tradition of Sufism, particularly of the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders in both places. The former mufti there supported the first rebellion which briefly earned Chechnya independence. That was a struggle for their rights and to have their own state, it wasn’t for Islamic fundamentalism. The mufti changed his position during the second rebellion when foreign “mujahideen” fighters flooded the country. He was assassinated via a bomb by the extremists. A leading sheikh in Dagestan was killed a suicide bomber in August as well. A lot of Muslims in Chechnya and Dagestan are active in trying to stop the extremists. They face prejudice from the Arabs that go there to fight. This is part of what makes this situation sad. I hope my fellow Americans don’t start attacking Chechens. As the uncle said Chechens really do have a peaceful culture.

  2. Professor Cole,

    You are into your own again. Nuanced, informed, detailed, precise and eloquent, absolutely free from mediocre stereotyping. There are the likes of jejune Robert Spencer who are braying hoarsely to impute it to Islam per se. While you draw upon your encyclopaedic knowledge, you never seem to intimidate your readers or hectoring them. You seem to be talking to us as a genial friend. And one can sense the undertone of your sympathy for your readers, and the general public, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.



  3. Ironically, this is the 18th anniversary of the Waco tragedy.

    The important aspect of recent revelations is that it appears these attacks were not the product of a major terror network, but only two isolated individuals working together for vague motives.

    There are parallels between this violence and that which occurred at Columbine in 1999. Both occurred in late April by two persons who could be charitably called “outsiders”. They appear to be indignant toward society for their perceived misforunes.

    In the Boston case, the mother of the two young men had a larceny conviction. The eldest son dropped out of college to get married. They may have been profoundly alienated in the society in which they lived.

    Ironically Cambridge, their home town, is filled with some of the most scholarly and successful students in America, and one of the brothers was employed as a lifeguard at Harvard University. Viewing this success likely instilled resentment and, indeed, one of the attacks occurred at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    There were political figures, such as Congressman Peter King, ludicrously suggesting, before any real facts were in, that this had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda attack. These acts of violence were being improperly politicized to fan the flames of anti-Muslim bias. Some may try to link this case directly to the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, but the actual link is tangential at best.

    This was simply two immigrant brothers angry at American society. They simply used radical Islam as a “cover” for their shame and rage and give the violence they committed a perverse aura of legitimacy.

    • “This was simply two immigrant brothers angry at American society. They simply used radical Islam as a “cover” for their shame and rage and give the violence they committed a perverse aura of legitimacy.”

      It’s a little bit early in the investigation to reach such a definitive conclusion regarding their motives. You may be correct, of course, but the wiser course of action would be to wait and see what is uncovered on their hard drives, their travel patterns and travel destinations, interviews with people who knew them, and a host of other actions that will assist in providing a clearer picture of what drove them to commit the bombings. It will become clear in due course whether they were “simply angry at American society,” as you propose; or cat’s paws for some larger movement; or self-radicalized via Jihadist propaganda on the internet. Way too early to draw definitive conclusions.

  4. You have made more sense and given more information then all the news channels combined. Thank you.

  5. This is rubbish, Prof. Cole.

    Firstly, it is good muslim v/s bad muslim: good muslims are those that are secular and went along with Russia in its brutal war – bad muslims are those that rebelled which by definition means they are fundamentalist.

    Secondly, some speculation that the father being a cop is on the run from Chechen rebels and hence his son took refuge in the US. Simply speaking, this comes across as poor for a professor.

    • Aamir: “…bad muslims are those that rebelled which by definition means they are fundamentalist.” You seem to be immune to learning. You ignore that a Chechen majority were not fundamentalists nor supportive of them. Quite the opposite. They were just nationalists like so many people occupied for generations. Irish, Poles, American colonials until 1776, et al. Such a shame, your tiny black and white all or nothing pathetic world and worldview.

    • I am sorry Aamir, but before you call a writing of Prof. Cole rubbish you should edit your English first. be more convivial first to people who spend time fighting for you. At least he wrote an article. Did you?

    • With respect, Aamir,
      I did not detect that Prof Cole was making a value judgment regarding Islam in Chechnya. He seems merely to be interpreting, from the information available, that Anzor Tsarnaev was secular and may have served the pro-Russian Chechen or Dagestan government in its struggle with the invading Islamic Peacekeeping Army. Prof Cole is reporting that Tsarnaev was more interested or invested in Chechen or Dagestan independence than he was in a pure Islamic society.
      To your second point, Tsarnaev’s seeking refugee status for his family because of his professional activities in either Chechnya or Dagestan, or for that matter Kyrgyzstan, seems plausible.
      I will read the article again to better understand your point of view.

  6. An excellent and well reasoned analysis. The press spend all night and all day reporting stuff, but they failed to deliver an understanding of where these boys came from.

    Yet someone has radicalized them taking advantage of unsettled and lost minds to create this expensive mess.

  7. I have been listening all day to the same things you have, and while I agee with some of what your analysis, I am stillmtroubled by things that don’t fit, and can’t be made to fit with the information we have now. It is toomsoon to use phrases like “I take this to mean. Some things are clear: this is a fractured family, with tensions and stresses puling at it. But we don’t yet have what is needed to grasp the dynamics of those stresses, or how they might have inflenced what happened. I suspect that some things that seem apparent now will assume different interpretations as more facts are known. I am fairly certain that the relationship between the brothers will prove to be far more complex than we think possible. And that that relationship will become the key to understanding the question that still cannot be answered: why. I ask why your analysis fails to consider the fact that both these young men grew up in this country.

    • Neshobe “I ask why your analysis fails to consider the fact that both these young men grew up in this country.”

      Tamerlan came to the US at age 17. While the last brain development is not completed until 25, a great deal of identity and world view is formed in the first 20 years.

      Dzhokhar was 10 when he arrived. Young enough to integrate the way he was described. However ten years can be quite adequate for early childhood experience to be very much a part of identity. Both my daughter and I had a major change around that age and consider that first decade as having defined many of our preferences in life.

      I am interested how many majors have been reported for Dzhokhar. His father thinks he is a second year medical student (possibly confused with US premed to med track), the WSJ reports nursing, the RA in his dorm reported marine biology, and an old high school friend thought it was engineering. I could understand the last being too long from contact to know for sure. Undergrads often change majors or talk seriously about it. Adds a little to the unsettled and very bright adolescent mind.

      The other piece I think is worth considering as part of the puzzle is the report that Tamerlan married an American woman, although there is no registration in MA or CT where her parents live. She had converted to Islam and is reported as having influenced him to practice. Sometimes a mind seeking orientation finds more than one source that pushes in the same direction.

      That the parents and aunt are convinced they know these young men from a long distance tempts me to point out that Eric and Dylan were living with parents who were completely unaware of their sons’ hidden problems. I was very close to that situation. Among other things, my son was 18 and graduating from a nearby high school that year. He could have been a victim or a shooter as far as I was concerned.

      I think very few parents escape some gasps when our mid twenties (or older) children admit to some of the adolescent capers they survived. Rebellion against parents at that age is more normal than none, and classically complicated by religious and/or ideological differences.

  8. Neshobe, I think Prof. Cole’s described perhaps the primary aspect of the situation. Every story has a larger story, more of which will become more apparent later. The core of any story, as in any drama, lies with family dynamics, which is the jump-off point for all the rest, which is add-on – important add-on, but add-on. Prof. Cole is describing a possible core dynamic. His type analysis here is far more true and relevant in all of history and drama as well.

    • “Prof. Cole is describing a possible core dynamic. His type analysis here is far more true and relevant in all of history and drama as well.” Well said.

      I often wonder what is in our DNA really and how it compels us forward into certain actions and not others – and what information changes our DNA over time and/or presupposes us to take certain actions or act out in certain ways. These acts, to me, are like a suicide. It is never just one thing but a whole history of variables that go even beyond the family, which is a microcosm of greater influences and collective memories of a long past, acknowledged consciously or not.

  9. I grew up secular Jewish in the U.S. Secular yes but genetically Jewish. We were a fairly private family that kept its problems to itself. My particular rebellion at about 20 years of age naturally took the shape of finding a nice guitar-strumming flamboyant very public Christian cult to live with for about a year. It happens. I gladly left it before I did any more damage than give my mother “neuritis”. Oh, and I was told, “You killed your grandfather, you know” (nonviolently of course, though I did pray for him). Well, I said I was Jewish, didn’t I?

  10. Very original and thoughtful analysis, Prof. Cole. I watched the interviews this morning with the aunt in Canada and the uncle in MD, and my gut reaction was: those are some raw family dynamics on display here, no wonder those two boys are messed up. But I think you are onto something with your Turgenev analogy, and the idea that the boys Tsarnaev boys may have been compensating for the father’s “shame.”

    I’d be interested in your perspective on how this will affect the dynamic of Russian-US anti-terrorism cooperation, and what this episode will mean for preparations for the Sochi Olympics next year.

  11. I think you missed a key part of history. It is true that traditionally:

    “Most ex-Soviet Muslims are secular and many don’t believe in God or think religion is important.”

    But if you remember back in the 80s Reagan administration did all it could to radicalize the Muslim religious elements in Soviet Union (along with the Arabs and Pakistanis) to help the fight against the god-less Communist in Afghanistan. The Chechens were a significant component of the Mujahedin that were financed by the oil money with arms and training by our government.

    The policies worked in destroying Soviet Union. Except that we are still experiencing the after shocks of those policies. Things have been lot worst in southern Russian, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Thomas Friedman observed we are living in a flat world, in that world no matter how much we try we just can’t isolate ourselves from it.

  12. How about we wait for the situation surrounding this family to become clear with verified facts before making judgement or framing narratives, rather than making judgements based on a smattering of reports under the backdrop of the manhunt and its immediate aftermath?

    • Well, we do know that many of his family were estranged from each other and had not spoken in years. Some were involved in shoplifting, pot dealing, domestic violence, angry quarrels, and not paying their rent. Nice bunch of people. No wonder the young men were messed up.

  13. Thanks so much. I can see how a rift between the more secular and the more religious could cause trouble in their family. I also know that religious people crave rules. Following rules make them feel like they matter, that belonging to a group which believes in a future world (and beyond this life, I guess) makes their lives meaningful. In the US we have a tradition of these groups quietly starting communes and farms and enforcing their rules on each other. I think these young men reached an age where they couldn’t find meaning in their lives and boxing and wrestling just didn’t have enough rules. Still, we wonder if they were guided to their deed by someone with a larger agenda; were they “props” of a bigger club? The prostelatyzing and evangelical branches of these groups make me nuts. Rules aren’t enough. Enough is all of us following THEIR RULES. DD

  14. If these boys followed any other religion, would we even be talking about them starting to pray more frequently before the attacks? Is prayer really a sign of radicalism now? And – radical sermons – what constitutes radical at this point?

    • People who advocate violence against non-combatant civilians are radical, and we know which preachers do. Prayer is not a sign of radicalism in itself, but was part of a pattern here and therefore worth noting in the context of the argument that the family’s traditions were typical ex-Soviet secular.

  15. A few observations.

    This is a lot of speculation in regards to their relationship with their father and why I’m not a fan of playing ‘Criminal Minds’ on specific cases when many times there are ties to overall trend of an ideological religious political extremist movement, a crisis that does exist, and only ultimately ends up sounding like excuses for such crimes. (See Canadian Liberal candidate Trudeau versus Conservative PM Harper on such narrative: and Canada is watching this closely, in light of the recent London cell involved in the Algerian attack, and Tsarnaev’s aunt in Canada and the whole conversation on their migration)

    Having said that, it is interesting to note the family dynamics. The older brother is clearly an outcast. There is a split between the uncle and cousin and the aunt and the parents. The denials don’t surprise me as much as the added on conspiracy, which unfortunately only makes the family, and sadly the Chechen/Muslim community, look worse and I fear they’re feeding into stereotypes and further prejudice.

    There is current speculation of the father being a Shia, which is surprising, but could be possible, however a recent online reply by Tamerlane (named after the Turkic Persian ruler, which sadly a CNN ‘expert’ claimed it highlighted the family’s ideology, when in practice a lot of Asian Muslims unfortunately in their culture name their sons after many conquerers, including Genghis/Changez) disparaging the author of a video of their conversion to Shiism, would make one assume its said by a Sunni Islamist hardliner.

    Despite the poor speculative coverage, props to government officials on handling the situation. And US society overall for their tolerance, if not acceptance, at least during my travel and visit here so far. Though I do realize there are some sad exceptions for many residents here.

  16. Thank you Mr. Cole for this analysis. Among all the insanity of this past week, it’s nice to read something that makes some sort of coherent sense.

  17. Very insightful Juan.

    I recall reading the father who I think was diagnosed with brain cancer decided to stay in Russia to die there….that may have also had played a factor….of course that is no excuse for the atrocities that were done

  18. Thanks for the excellent backgrounder on the problematic allegiance options available to these young men. Sorta in the same vein, it’s worth pointing out that the assassins of Alexander II were members of Narodnya Volya, a somewhat leftish, peasant-oriented group that sought to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy and establish a form of peasant commune-based socialism. That’s hardly “nihilist,” a term which only highlights a critical point of departure from conventional views but doesn’t get at the eventual content of their thinking.

  19. I don’t agree that we need to wait for the situation to become clear before we start to think with our heads and with history rather than with our guts. How we understand these boys/bombers and their place in a diaspora and the immigrant experience is going to have a huge material impact on three separate debates in the US political realm: immigration, guns, and the “war on terrorism.” If it is at all possible to get out in front of the muslim/not muslim terrorist/lone wolf white guy oppositions and help the American Public understand that this is not really a war of muslim against secular, Al Quaeda against the US but father against sons, immigrants against scary new world that is worth doing.

    I used this phrase elsewhere “a diaspora of the mind.” People who are highly mobile, whose families are scattered, who are experiencing the vertigo of being poised between classes, languages, fates, histories have a very stressful experience. They can break. They can do terrible things. Of all people Americans whose ancestors immigrated here ought to understand and speak up against turning this into a global disaster by tagging it as an us against them incident.

    I”m local, I spent the day yesterday under lockdown. My children go to school in Boston. We know lots of people at Rindge and Latin. This horrible event is very near to us in time, space, and social connection. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply the same critical thinking to the causes as we do to anything else. I fear the rush to judgement, with its inevitable rush to ugly action and retaliation, that lies behind the “bad guy vs good guy” “islam vs the world” radical right worldview.

    • Excellent points, Aimai. Good thinking.
      It is stunning and sad how uninformed most Americans are in such an age of available and abundant information. The commercial media, as we know, do an ineffectual and largely self-serving job of informing the masses — as evidenced this past week when the hyperventilating networks and cable outlets fanned the speculation that the attack could ONLY have been concocted and carried out by either al qaeda or by Tim McVeigh Jr.

  20. Hmmmm…I’m not entirely sure of this. Reading this transcript, and reading statements from the other uncles, it looks like there is a rift within the extended family. Some of the uncles describe the boys as losers and seem to suggest that they haven’t had much contact with the father (their brother) in years. The boys’ mother described them as becoming more devout and she seemed happy about that. What seems like more of a red flag to me is that the father left them in the U.S. (and it’s not clear where their mother was), so they may not have had much parental support or supervision from a fairly young age.

  21. This is the kind of analysis I can totally get behind. Makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you for some valuable background and for your analysis.

  22. Thanks for writing out what I have a hard time explaining to people Prof.

  23. Just wanted to say that the night before the bombings, I was reading Crime And Punishment and left off at the part where Raskolnikov is being interviewed by an investigator who states that he finds his ideas on criminal justification interesting – that a crime is justified, even if innocent people have to die – that is, if it is committed for the greater good. The next day the bombings happened and I thought a lot about having compassion for the bombers who thought they were doing something good most likely and what may be the origins of the whole situation, as complex as those may be. Then I was really surprised to find out the bombers are of basically Russian descent. It was an odd synchronicity for me and I’ve been wondering since about the influence of the great 19th Century Russian literature on younger generations entering into acts of terrorism.

    • Interesting analogy. I am not certain that these young men thought enough of the consequences of their actions to justify the radicalism of the act perpetrated against the spectators and the general public as a whole.

      Anger and frustration seem apparent in their aggressive behavior…. Young men trying to find purpose can easily be influenced by individuals whose failure in life is fueled by hated of their immediate condition. The information gathered thus far points to the conclusion that these young men were victims of this misdirection.

      • Since the Russians wanted the FBI to investigate the older brother, I was wondering if he (and possibly his younger brother) were trying to show some larger terrorist organization that they were capable and willing. But at the same time, I can see personal frustrations being directed in this way and influenced by anything that has an ideology of collective anger and aggression behind it. I still think there are collective motivations from their historical backgrounds and roots that they may not be as consciously aware of. Otherwise, why not just go kick a bum?

  24. Tamarlan was a 14th century Asian ruler, who called himself the Sword of Islam.

    Dzhokhar was a 20th century Chechen leader, killed by the Russian Air Force.

    These are probably not names that would be chosen by a father who was accepting Russian rule, or favored cooperation between Russia and the US.

    • The argument is that he was part of the Kadyrov group that made peace with Putin instead of joining the jihadis in the later 1990s; he can still be a Chechen nationalist.

  25. Thank you again for an interesting analysis grounded in real social science knowledge. You properly indicated that you were offering speculation. I reject the complaints about your speculating. That is what almost everyone spouting off about the islamic/Chechen aspect are doing. Yours was informed and honest about being speculation.

    I would add on one caution about interpreting the statements of the uncle. He is embarassed and threatened by those who will use this to event to disparage Islam and Chechens. Some of his statements may be defensive rather than reflecting his full views.

  26. I think the older brother was just angry at the world. I read an article saying that he had lost a national boxing match by controversial decision (the audience booed the judges) which may have killed his boxing dreams. He was denied citizenship here because of a domestic violence charge. His wife and child were living separately from him, with the wife’s parents. He had dropped out of school. He recently went back to Russia for 6 months, which must have been a wake up call if he had been romanticizing Russia and being Chechen. He didn’t fit in here. He probably didn’t fit in there either, especially if his father was involved with the Russians during the war?

    What is a mystery is the younger brother – I haven’t seen anything saying he was praying 5 times a day or living a Muslim life. He was partying. I wonder if we will ever be told what he says his motives were.

    • “I haven’t seen anything saying he was praying 5 times a day or living a Muslim life” Although I understand where you are coming from here, some people turn closer to religion, including of course, Islam, for comfort during stressful times. Praying five times a day is not in itself an indication of extremism. Being a devout Muslim is not an indication of fanaticism.

      • Sorry, that wasn’t what I meant at all, although I can see how you would get that. I just meant that in contrast to his older brother, Dzhokhar did not seem to even be especially religious, much less fanatical.

    • If the older brother had been influenced by some of the many chechen islamist groups, that would of been his justification given that considering the broader conflict, the US wouldn’t have been off limits.

  27. I enjoyed your parsing of the Caucasus, and it’s an interesting theory about family rebellion. As a fan of literary-political analogies (link to counterpunch.org), however, I had hoped for a more robust invocation of Fathers and Sons. The parallels seem a bit tenuous. Still, the piece has a perspective one doesn’t find elsewhere, so I’m grateful.

  28. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Turgenev’s book is a novel and his characters are just caricatures of actual nihilists. (See, for example, Chernyshevky’s critique of Fathers and Sons.)

    The nihilist movement in Russia was founded on legitimate grievances against state and society. Turgenev was wrong to reduce it to a mere ‘father and son’ dispute, and it is wrong for Professor Cole here to reduce it even further by depicting the novel as an actual historical source on the movement.

  29. Very interesting. Along the lines of the father son thing, look at the age sepparation of the 2 boys. As an older sibling of same sex siblings 7, 8, and 14 years than myself, foster parent who has raised many kids, and as a schoolteacher I am very familiar with hero worship among sibblings. Add to that an absentee father and I can easily see how a younger brother, could easily be drug into something that would be entirely out of charicter for him otherwise. The older brother was going through life failures, divorce etc. . His comment about no friends in America goes hand in hand with attachment disorder behavior. They talk about the older brother comming here later than the younger one. So who was he living with before? How old was he when his family first came here without him? How did that make him feel? What kind of abandonment issues could he have developed? Did he blame his father for abandoning him? Then, after he is here, his father goes away again? How did he feel about that? Ok, add to that “if”” the older bro;er is pissed off at dad, add to that typical family dynamics and it is no large leep to see “ownersip” of younger brothers loyalties as a prize to be fought over, or conquest over dad. With dad out of the picture, over seas, older brother wins. If younger brother does survive, I doubt questioning him will get him to reveal what he probably does not understand.

  30. Folks,

    Some basic facts here:
    1. It is way too early to either be making apologies for these two – and their mother and father, who are clearly in denial -, or to find extenuating circumstances. There are many, many stones to turn over before conclusions that are not apparent to the eye can be made.
    2. Saying that their background is thus and so is not a factual monologue, until factual evidence proves it so.
    3. Stating they were rebelling against their Russian Security Police father goes against what the uncle says and any other submitted bit of proof. It may or may not be true but there’s nothing to suggest it is, beyond 4th or 5th hand hearsay.
    4. Even if this were true, there are many other Russian kids who did not rebel against their past in such a way. Saying they were rebelling even if true is a reason, not an excuse or even mitigating circumstances.
    5. That these two kids would strike back at the country that gave them sanctuary would not make us their prime target – Russia would be.
    6. From reports on several news stations, the Russian FSB inquired via the FBI what both, or perhaps at least the older brothers whereabouts and situation 2 or 3 years ago. Clearly, the FBI did not see a tithing worth taking much further at that time.
    7. To this point there exists no evidence that they were working with other people/conspirators, or with any terrorist organization.

    The bottom line here is that there is no factual evidence that these two had any mitigation reasoning for their horrendous acts. Some evidence may, repeat may come forward, but until then we have the younger brother in custody who is both a conspirator with his now-dead brother, and a terrorist, and there appears no reason why they should not feel the full weight of the law. If that should change then there will be a change in their situation, and until then there is every reason to believe the two brothers committed these heinous, and vicious attacks.

  31. Another thought. I guess I’m not that pollitically advanced, but I could not help but be proud of Obama and how far America has moved in comparison to the “let’s retalliate immediatly regardless of whether we know who we are retalliating against, or what those we are lashing out have at all to do with what just happened mentality” that seemed so prevelent after the twin tower attacks. Remembering the Manson, “helter skelter” terrorism to insight race war theme, I kind of felt like there was some connection beetween the mindset Ben Ladden, if what he did was a brilliant, all be it horrific, chess move to get America to lash out at Iraq, and thus improve his standing, by creating, stimulating race/religon war. Those who lust for violence tend to gravitate toward stimulating race/religon “diffentnesses”, as a way of stimllating the weak minded. It’s kind of like that twilight zone episode where all the enemy aliens (from outter space)

  32. Oops my tablet posted too soon.
    All the space aliens had to do to take over the planet was hide in the bushes, turn on and off electrisity from town to town and watch while the people came at each othe with their predjiduces and fears and exploded at each other. Like the older brothers personal issues may have been used to stimulate him to do an
    Unthinkable act. It is good when I see people NOT give into mob violence mentality.

  33. I have a few other clues to add to this puzzle:

    I happen to know someone whose family was close to the Tsarnaevs, who basically characterized the situation as the parents abandoning their kids by moving back to Russia.

    The other tidbit which I saw mentioned in one article was the claim that Tamerlan would have qualified for the Olympic boxing team except the state screwed up his paperwork.

    Both of these things could have potentially contributed to his rage…

  34. I also got the impression that what the uncle was saying was that he was secular and Muslim just by culture, especially when he emphasised I am ethnic Chechen after confirming he was Muslim e.g yes all Chechens are born Muslims don’t mean we all follow it throughout life etc. Common mistake less informed people make is that they believe all Muslims are homogeneous in their level of adherence,devotion, and belief to Islam.

  35. Bazarov was a Russian — these two brothers are Chechens. In some ways, you can say all nihilists come out from under Bazar’s overcoat, but the Chechens had their own path and it is different than Russia’s of course. If you’re going to read for literature, at least use Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat rather than stories from Moscow.

    When the aunt says “enforcement” I think she merely means “law-enforcement,” or “pravokhranitelnyye organy” without some kind of coloratio to it. Not “enforcer” in the sense of sent like secret police or the mob. You imply with your deployment of the term that the father was some kind of thug in the pay of Kadyrov bent on keeping the diaspora in line in Kyrgyzstan — but he doesn’t seem to look the part.

    A man who has to greet an RT crew coming to interview them in a room where he’s sitting on his bed in modest clothing without fancy wrist watches isn’t somebody who has a privileged enough position to be what is claimed about him — it doesn’t track. Of course, we can’t know everything and maybe he is.

    During the RT interview, he makes an indirect reference to the fact that “even if you work in criminal investigation (ugolovka) or the MVD (interior ministry)” you can face discrimination as a Chechen in Kyrgyzstan. He delicately refers to the “nuances” when trying to get the Russian camera crew to understand what Chechens went through. His reference to those agencies sounds neutral. Maybe he had a job in one of them but it doesn’t sound as if he still has it.

    You’d have to build a better case for making him out to be a direct agent of Kadyrov, give that he was in Kyrgyzstan, having fled there after the 2nd Chechen war, then he went to the US, then came back — and spent a year in Chechnya at some point but also left it again to go to Kyrgyzstan — and then to Dagestan.

    That’s quite a trail for somebody who is supposedly in with Kadyrov. Now, he does say to Kavkaz Center that he’s a “supporter” of Kadyrov, but we just don’t know the particulars. We need to learn the exact titles, agencies, years of work, and places of work of these people.

    I continue to maintain that we should look at sports clubs, not prosecutor’s offices and Islamic groups. That’s where the KGB and its successors have always controlled young men, and the insignia on Dzhokhar’s Twitter is the main Dagestani football club, owned by a billionaire close to the president of Dagestan — a supporter of Putin. Sports clubs are how you move money and goods and people around outside the law in Russia. The older son was a boxer.

    If this family were made up of officials, even not very high-ranking, why don’t they show up in Russian-language searches of Google and other search engines? They didn’t attend meetings, speak to the press, win medals? That’s odd for them to have no footprint.

    There are several possibilities regarding the sons, who were separated from their father, although we know from Dzhokhar’s Twitter feed that he missed his father and quoted him (another clue that the “rebellion” theory may be all web). They could be “rebelling” against their father, but given the tight relationships between parents and children and more respect for elders in that society, even with the dislocations of emigration, they might have been working for their father or some other relative or person related to Kadyrov IF he is an “agent of Kadyrov”.

    But maybe they are recruits to a shadowy organization that hooks up somewhere else.

    My own hunch about this story is that it is not about Islam, and not about known Islamist terror groups, but about the state terrorism of Kadyrov, sanctioned by Putin, and is in retaliation for the Magnitsky List, the list under the Magnitsky Act just released by the US Senate and confirmed by the Administration about visa sanctions and asset seizures for figures charged with human rights abuses in Russia.

    Kadyrov is said to be on the classified portion of this list.

    So it’s different than your notion of the boys rebelling against their father in some personal drama from Russian literature not really related to extremist religion — which I fear you have contrived from an anti-American tilt as a prospect that would remove from the view the usual target of the US operations against terror. I’m not for doing this.

    When Putin or Kadyrov use Chechens or any terrorist groups as cat’s paws, they’re the problem, but then, so are those groups.

  36. The “family dynamic” suggestion is very speculative and personally I’m not sure I would accept it without more evidence. However, there is some back-story here that calls for explication. These are not working class Chechens–somewhere I heard or read that the father was a prosecutor, not a policeman/”enforcer”, despite his blue-collar status in exile. The brothers were apparently all lawyers back in the former Soviet Union. And, in contrast to the father, the uncle seems to done quite well in exile, living in a solidly middle-class suburb of Washington, DC. But there seems to have been some sort of violent break in the family–the uncles (and the aunt in Toronto?) apparently haven’t been on speaking terms with the father for years. The parents are divorced and both have moved back to the former Soviet Union. And these people seem to have very little actual connection to Chechnya–the parents live in Daghestan, but before their exile lived in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These people seem to be thoroughly Russianized–do they even speak Chechen among themselves? A lot of questions and few answers.

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