The following piece was contributed by Montana-based journalist and writer, Thomas Goltz, a Caucasus and Central Asian region specialist, and contributing editor to The Essential Edge. It offers some exceptional background and insight as to who the Chechens are and what might have motivated the Boston Marathon bombers.
Livingston, Montana, April 20, 2013 — When a local newspaper here in Montana called for my views on a 19 year-old wrestler named Jokhar Tsarnaev with the confusing pedigree of being a Chechen from Dagestan who was born in Kyrgyzstan who had also spent some time in Moscow, and what his motivations for the Boston Marathon terror attack may have been, I tried to use my background as some sort of resident “Chechenologist” to help out.
Answering the second part of the question-“why”–was easy: I do not know, aside that there must be a link to the following complex answer to the first part–a psychological portrait of the collective Chechen identity as defined by generations of anger, despair, trauma and an abiding obsession with honor and revenge.
To start with what is not obvious to many Americans, the Chechens are not Russians but a distinct national and lingual group indigenous to the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, where they have lived since before recorded history. Rather like Native American peoples known by names given them by the white man and whose sad history in the 18th and 19th centuries is a strange and cruel mirror of the experience of the Chechens at the hands of Russian imperialism, the very name “Chechen” is not what the Chechens call themselves. They are the “Noxchi,” which translates more or less as “The People.”
During the so-called on-again-off-again Murid wars of the 19th century, the Chechens were the backbone of Muslim tribal resistance to the Czarist expansion south, and earned the reputation of being fanatical, fearless Sufism-inspired warriors. After the resistance collapsed with the capture of Imam Shamil (an event somewhat akin to the surrender of Souix/Lakota Chief Sitting Bull), many of those fearless warriors brought their skills into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where they were stationed in problematic border areas, such as the Balkans and the Arab lands of the Levant, where they became known under the generic name of “Circassians,” a term that also includes other related North Caucasus mountaineers such as the Ingush, Abkhaz and Adagei who were also driven into Ottoman exile by the czars.
To this day, the palace guard of the king of Jordan are all Circassians; in Syria, they are (or were) concentrated in the Golan heights, but are now attempting a reverse migration to their ancestral lands in Russia, even while undetermined numbers of their “cousins” from Chechnya-in-Russia take up arms along side Jihadists against the secular regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chechens (like many of the 150-odd new “nations” in the USSR, many manufactured from whole cloth) maintained a low-boil resistance to Soviet rule and collectivization. But it was also thanks to Joseph Stalin and his commissars that a Chechnya was first defined as an “Autonomous Republic,” a territorial entity replete with borders, a Soviet-style official “culture” and other attributes of (Soviet-style) national “statehood.”
Many other marginal peoples in the USSR did not fare so well, and were thus absorbed into larger non-Slavic nutshells whenever Stalin sneezed.
For the Chechens, that sneeze came on February 23-24 1944, when Stalin and his fellow Georgian henchman Lavrentii Beria accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazi Wehrmacht, dissolved their Autonomous Republic and sent the new non-people sent into exile in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Transportation was provided aboard boxcars chillingly similar to those that brought European Jews to Hitler’s death camps.
In the case of the Chechens, an estimated half of the 478,479 people sent into exile died in route.
The “Vysl,” or “Deportation” thus became the defining event in the Chechen collective memory, as resonate as the Trail of Tears of the Seminoles or the Retreat of the Nez Perce.
And there in exile in Gulags and collective farms in what are today the (mainly Turkic-speaking) independent Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Chechens honed their reputation of toughness and fearlessness.
Kyrgystan, a nearly Himalayan redoubt on the borders of China and Afghanistan, is where Jokhar Tsarnaev was reportedly born (other reports now say that he was born in Chechnya but moved there because his father had political problems at home) and where some 20,000 Chechens remain to this day, having opted not to return to their North Caucasus homeland after having been rehabilitated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957.
Those Chechens who did return to Kremlin-fiat restored Chechnya did so with a collective bad attitude as well as new skill set: organized crime and a reputation for ruthlessness. Although maybe apocryphal, it is said that the Chechen version of Russian Roulette is to pull the pin of a hand grenade, and set it on a table. The last one to duck wins.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the Chechens also excelled in the Soviet security services: (again like Native Americans), a disproportionately high percentage of Chechens rose to officer and even general rank in the Red Army, the police and KGB. General Jokhar Dudayev (presumably the man Jokhar Tsarnaev was named after) achieved the rank of Air Marshal in the Soviet Air Force, and commanded a squadron of nuclear bombers based in then Soviet Estonia.
It was Dudayev who led Chechnya’s break with Russia in 1991 at the time of the collapse of the USSR. He did not so much declare independence as announce that Chechnya never had been part of Russia at all. This attitude-and the fact that Grozny, the capital city, had become synonymous with organized criminal activity-invited Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin to “reassert constitutional authority” over the wayward, self-described “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” in 1994, which was also to serve as a distraction from serious domestic problems back in Moscow.
What was to have been a “small victorious war” did not go well for the Russians, ultimately ending in a humiliating cease-fire in 1996, after the loss of some 100,000 lives and the destruction of virtually all infrastructure in Chechnya.
The carnage was truly mind-boggling, and begs reference now to more contemporary battlegrounds such as Syria.
General Jokhar Dudayev did not survive the conflict. In murky circumstances and with continued allegations of US involvement in assisting the Russians find him, he was blasted into history by what is believed to have been a laser-guided missile honing in on his satellite telephone as he waited to speak with (allegedly) an American interlocutor working on a peace deal.
Despite its David versus Golaith victory over the Russian Bear, things did not go well for “independent” Chechnya. With Dudayev’s death, the tiny quasi-country slowly descended into complete lawlessness as well as an Islamic revival, thanks to the presence of al-Qaeda connected missionary/mercenary fighters from the Arab world, many of whom had trained up in Afghanistan.
One result was the opening of an immense fissure in post-war Chechen society: on the one hand were the nationalists (who practiced a traditional form of Sufi-Islam), while on the other were growing numbers of Chechens whose religious devotion to the concept of a modern, world-wide al-Qaeda-style Muslim Caliphate completely superseded their loyalty to the nation state.
When these so-called Wahabis/Salafists began exporting their fundamentalist ideology to the neighboring (Russian) Autonomous Republic of Daghestan, and then (allegedly) blew up an apartment complex in the central Russian city of Ryzlan, Yeltsin’s Prime Minister (and then replacement president) Vladimir Putin found cause to launch the so-called “second” Russo-Chechen war that arguably continues to this day.
Putin was assisted in this task thanks to major defections to the Russian side by significant Chechen clans, thus further dividing Chechen society into at least three groups: the Dudayevist nationalists, who continue their guerrilla war from forest hideouts in upper Chechnya; pro-Russian collaborators known as Kadyrovists (who are currently in control of the Russian-backed government in Grozny, and who participated on the Russian side during the brief war between Russian and Georgia in August 2008); and finally the al-Qaeda associated Salafists, whose war has expanded from the Caucasus Mountains to Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.
Finally, there is what we might call the Chechen “Fourth Estate,” made up of people so battered and bruised by the wickedness of fate that they left their homeland as refugees or emigres to try and start “normal” lives elsewhere-such as Boston, Massachusetts in the United States of America.
According to reports from friends, family and even wrestling coaches, this is the group to which the Tsarnaev family belonged-the “normal’s”…
At the very least, it can be stated with assurance that Jokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan actually belonged to one of the three other deeply belligerent estates cited above–although it is still not clear which part of that cruel and chaotic demi-world of pain and violence spread over multiple generations claimed their to-die-for allegiance.
And the Boston Marathon bombing?
What could be the point of pique that drove the Tsarnaev brothers to embrace their sleeper-cell (apparent) jihadist rampage?
Were they taking revenge for alleged American involvement in the assassination of Jokhar’s namesake, Air Marshal Dudayev?
That is as good a guess as any of the speculations I have heard going around the blogosphere today, even if the dates don’t fit: the Boston terror happened on April 15, 2013; Dudayev was killed on April 21, 1996.
I guess it will all come out if Jokhar Tsarnaev survives his wounds and the interrogation process can wring the truth out of him-and my suspicion now lies with the brothers having embraced the Salafi line of global jihad against the United States.
Myself, I am just filled with an immense sadness for all involved: the dead and the now legless runners and spectators of the Boston Marathon, as well as the soul-scarred citizens of the blighted state of Chechnya.
Thomas Goltz teaches courses on the Middle East and the Caucasus region of the former USSR at Montana State University, Bozeman. He is also the author of the unplanned ‘Caucasus Triptych’ of Azerbaijan Diary (1998/99), Chechnya Diary (2003) and Georgia Diary (2006/09) as well as other books and articles.