From Bishkek to Boston

A brief history of the Chechen diaspora, Islamic radicalism, and the possible link to the Boston bombing suspects.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

One clue to the motivations behind the suspected terrorist acts by the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston may lie half a world away, in their membership in the marginalized Chechen minority population that lives in the post-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, located in Central Asia just a few hundred miles north of Afghanistan. Chechens have lived in small numbers in Kyrgyzstan since World War II, when approximately 70,000 people were deported to what was then known as the Kirgiz Republic of the USSR. Like other deported Caucasian peoples, including the Ingush and Meshkhetian Turks, the Chechens were regarded by Stalin as unreliable citizens in the Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany.

The fate of Chechens in the late Soviet period lacked the tragedy of earlier decades and centuries. It was an era of relative stability where an official policy of "friendship of the peoples of the USSR" minimized tension between ethnic groups. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were born and raised in the far more troubled era that followed, when the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed a new emphasis on nationalism, and ethnic minorities such as the Chechens found themselves uninvited guests in new post-communist states, like Kyrgyzstan, that were trying to reassert a new national identity based in good measure on the core ethnic group, the Kyrgyz.

In the 1990s, most of the Russians and other ethnic minorities — including the Chechens — left Kyrgyzstan, but a second, and far smaller, wave of wartime Chechen refugees arrived in Kyrgyzstan. These were wounded Chechen rebels who had fought against Russian federal authorities in the First Chechen War (1994-1996). They came to this small Central Asian country to seek treatment in health sanatoriums on Lake Issyk-Kul in northern Kyrgyzstan. Despite this new influx of refugees, the Chechen population continued to dwindle, to the point that today there are less than 2,000 Chechens in Kyrgyzstan.

Before their family’s departure from Kyrgyzstan in 2001, the Tsarnaev brothers reportedly lived in the small northern Kyrgyzstani city of Tokmok, about 20 miles east of the capital of Bishkek. This city, like most others cities in the north, was populated by Russians and ethnic Kyrgyz; it sits in one of the most Russified and least religious areas of the country. The biographical information provided by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on his Vkonkate page (the Russian-language equivalent of Facebook) indicates that he spoke Chechen, as well as Russian and English. And in this facility in Chechen and Russian he was typical of his generation. The Chechens in Kyrgyzstan did not lose their own traditions or language, which were transmitted by the family in the absence of Chechen-language schools. The Chechens in Kyrgyzstan were also more observant Muslims than their Kyrgyz neighbors, a nomadic people to whom Islam came late. Although recent years have brought reports of radical Islamist groups operating on a small scale in the south of Kyrgyzstan, they were virtually unknown in any region of Kyrgyzstan when the Tsarnaev family was in the country. They were not  raised, therefore, in a community where radical Islam was in the air.

Although the Chechen separatist movement from Russia acquired links to radical Islam in the second half of the 1990s, it began as a national liberation struggle with little religious coloration. Only as the war deepened and offers of aid poured in from the Middle East did one witness the hijacking of a nationalist movement by those of a fundamentalist bent. One may surmise that the Tsarnaev brothers were well aware of this history, and their knowledge of the Chechen language would no doubt have made accessible sources on the Internet that associated radical Islam with the liberation of Chechnya — or Ichkeria, in the language of Chechen rebels. However, for Chechen separatists, it is Russia and not the United States that has traditionally been the enemy.

To have been brought up as a Chechen in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s would have meant confronting stereotypes — Chechens were known as successful businessmen who were often at odds with the law. There were unconfirmed reports that immediately prior to the First Chechen War, the rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudaev — himself a member of a World War II refugee family from neighboring Kazakhstan — flew to Bishkek to develop the drug trade, using Kyrgyzstan as a trans-shipment point between Afghanistan and Chechnya. More recently, several Chechens have been involved in high-profile criminal groups, some of which were reportedly founded by refugees from the First Chechen War.

In the last few years, as part of a broader movement to indigenize the culture and economy of the country, criminal groups composed of ethnic Kyrgyz have marginalized the Chechen-led mafia, and a major Chechen criminal kingpin in Kyrgyzstan, Aziz Batukaev, was sentenced to 17 years in jail in 2006 for numerous crimes, including the murder of a Kyrgyz parliamentarian. The Batukaev case reappeared in the news over the last week with his early release from prison and flight to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The official explanations for his release pointed to his poor health, but there is much speculation in Kyrgyzstan that officials were bribed to secure his release.

Although many Chechens returned to their homeland following the collapse of the USSR, the Tsarnaev family seems never to have gone back to their native republic, and instead has remained in a diaspora of Chechens — who may be compared in some respects to Palestinians, another refugee nation where a sense of historical injustice fuels outrage against the existing order. Like most diaspora peoples, there is a highly developed sense of community among co-ethnics living around the world.

It is too early, of course, to know whether or how the status of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as outsiders, in Kyrgyzstan and the United States, contributed to their acts of violence in a host country. Living at the margins of domestic or international society, with doubts about one’s identity, may lead some persons to seek a radical cause to fill the void, but the reality is that millions of others occupy similar cultural ground without resorting to violence.

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