Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s worldview was shaped by a jarring, unsettled childhood

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Marco Werman: Lawyers for Dzhokhar have argued that it was the older of the two Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan, who was the mastermind behind the marathon bombings. Some see Tamerlan’s past as particularly troubled.


Masha Gessen: This is a kid who’s been dragged around and promised a better life his entire life. Every couple of years, he’s uprooted and taken somewhere else.


Werman: That’s Masha Gessen. In her new book, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, Gessen says no single major event explains Tamerlan’s transformation into a terrorist.


Gessen: They had the worst timing and the worst luck. He was born Kalmykia as a baby, he was moved to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, then as a small child he moved with his family to Chechnya, they planned to build a home there just as the war was starting. So, they fled Chechnya and they went back to Kyrgyzstan. Then they started talking about coming to America. In order to come to America, they went first to Dagestan. They landed in Dagestan just as the war in Chechnya spreads to Dagestan. Then they finally come to the United States right after 9/11 as Muslim immigrants, and discover that they are a suspect and distrusted group here too. But I think that probably the really bad stuff happened after he graduated from high school. He started going to Bunker Hill Community College. He dropped out. He was delivering pizzas. He had become a drug runner. And he had been destined for greatness.


Werman: I’m wondering is the whole identity of Chechen, Chechen-American, is that a red herring? Because they didn’t live through the worst horrors of that war. They weren’t there.


Gessen: The major part of Chechen identity is the absolutely devastation deportation that Chechens were subjected to in 1944. When Stalin declared that they had collaborated with the Nazis, they rounded up Chechens--and several other ethnic groups in the caucuses, but the Chechens were the largest--stuffed them into cattle cars and sent them across the country with no food supplies, no warm clothes. At least a third to a half of the people either died enroute or very soon after landing. That’s as powerful a narrative as, say, the Holocaust narrative for Jews.


Werman: Masha, you were born in Moscow and came to the US when you were 14. I’m curious to know how your own journey came into play when you thought through the story of the Tsarnaev brothers.


Gessen: Part of what drew me to the story was that not only was a teenage Russian-speaking immigrant in Boston but I’d covered both of the wars in Chechnya, I spent a lot of time there. Being an immigrant really helped to understand the story. When you get here, especially when you get here as a kid to some well-intentioned community with a good high school, you’re supposed to explain to people who you are, and that’s a really hard thing to do. And of course the Tsarnaev brothers, and many other young Chechen people in the Boston area have told me the same thing, is they would tell people that they were Chechens and of course people had never heard of Chechens. So, they would say “Well, where is Chechnya?” and they would explain, and they in turn would say “So, you’re Russian?” They would say “Well, no I’m not Russian, because if I were Russian I wouldn’t have had to flee Russia. The whole point of my being here is that I’m not Russian.” Interestingly, Tamerlan did not persistently explain who he was. He actually started telling people that he was Russian and that his name was Timberland, like the shoe.


Werman: So, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is he a jihadist or is he just a lightweight--as his uncle said, he and Tamerlan were just a couple of losers.


Gessen: The lure of terrorism, it’s you can go from being a nobody to being part of an imagined community in one step. All you have to do is build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom, as the instruction famously said, and suddenly you’re a part of a larger army. You may not even know anybody in this imagined army, but you’re still a part of it. You have finally found your route to greatness, which is something that Tamerlan felt cheated of. And you also get to do something that is almost unimaginable, which is you get to go from being a nobody to declaring war on a great power, and the power accepts it, it accepts your declaration, and so someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who feel acutely disengaged with the state that has adopted them, or that they have adopted, can draw attention to themselves in this enormous way.


Werman: What do you still not get about this story, Masha?


Gessen: This story is partly about the gap between a normal immigrant story of bad luck, marginalization, disconnection, dislocation--all these things that pile up, there are hundreds of thousands of people that they pile up for, possibly millions, and only one or two of them, although in different countries--I mean, we have seen immigrants like this in Sydney, in Paris, in Copenhagen just this past winter, remarkably similar stories in some ways--but only one or two of them will go on to build a bomb or pick up a gun. What happens in that moment? What is the shape of that logical hole between just having lots and lots of bad luck and feeling disenfranchised and becoming a terrorist?


Werman: Ma sha Gessen’s new book is called The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Masha, thank you very much.


Gessen: Thank you.


Werman: You’re tuned to The World.