As more is learned about the background of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged suspect in the Boston bombings who is now the subject of an unprecedented manhunt, the teenager’s ethnic Chechen heritage has led to a frenzy of speculation. It’s important to note, however, that it’s not even clear how much time Tsarnaev — who, according to his uncle, immigrated as a young child to the U.S. from the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan — ever spent in Russia’s restive North Caucasus and how formative the region’s troubles were in his adolescent mind. There’s still no concrete evidence linking him and his now deceased older brother Tamerlan to organized jihadist activity.
But their role in the current crisis has reminded the world of the recent history of violence that has plagued their ancestral homeland, which is a republic in the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly, Ramzan Kadyrov, the barrel-chested strongman who has been Chechnya’s leader since 2007, rejected the attention, posting this statement on his Instagram account, translated by Foreign Policy:
Any attempt to make the connection between Chechnya and [Tsarnaevs] if they are guilty, [is] in vain. They grew up in the United States, their attitudes and beliefs were formed there.
But the peripatetic life of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his relatives hint at a wider story. The Chechen diaspora that lives in Kyrgyzstan is largely a relic of the brutal population transfers authored by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who distrusted the mostly Muslim Chechens, fumed at their resistance to his collectivization policies and suspected Chechen collusion with the Nazis. Starting in 1943, some 350,000 to 400,000 Chechens were forcibly deported to the eastern hinterlands of the Soviet Union; according to one account, one-fifth of that number died in grim conditions in Siberia and the Central Asian steppe. After Stalin’s death in 1953, tens of thousands made their way back home, but the memory of that exile still shapes the Chechen national imagination.
In the post-Soviet era, Chechnya’s first rebel leader came from the Kyrgyz diaspora. Dzhokhar Dudayev unilaterally declared independence from Russia in 1991, though few nations recognized the fledgling Chechen state. Between 1994 and 1996, Russian troops fought a bitter, bloody war with Dudayev’s forces. Some 100,000 people died during the conflict (including Dudayev, who was killed in a Russian missile strike), but the dogged Chechen guerrillas emerged victorious, maintaining de facto independence until hostilities flared up again in 1999 following alleged Chechen involvement in a series of deadly bombings in Russia and a Chechen incursion into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan.
This time, the Russian offensive was spearheaded by the country’s new Premier, a former KGB chief named Vladimir Putin. Russian planes pounded Chechnya’s cities and towns. Grozny, the Chechen capital, fell in February 2000 to Russian forces; by then, much of the city was a smoldering pile of rubble. Thousands died, while the fighting displaced hundreds of thousands more.
The brutality of the Russian campaigns turned what was a largely secular struggle into a pan-Islamist cause. Arab fighters flocked to the Chechen banner. Certain Chechen warlords cultivated links with jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda. Some reports suggest that Chechen fighters later joined the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as radical militant groups fighting against Indian rule of Kashmir. There’s evidence that Chechen fighters are also on the ground in Syria. But others contend that the extent of the Chechen presence in many of these conflicts is overstated. Military analysts often tag foreign fighters as “Chechen” even when they’re from other corners of the former Soviet Union.
Despite Russia’s ruthless efforts to quash rebellion, a low-level insurgency still simmers in Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Chechen militants have exacted a heavy price over the years. In 2002, Chechen gunmen seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, taking hundreds hostage. The Russian commando raid that followed led to more than 120 deaths. In 2004, alleged Chechen and Inghush fighters captured a school in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia. The resulting three-day hostage crisis ended with the deaths of nearly 400 people, many of whom were children. In 2010, two female suicide bombers detonated themselves in a Moscow subway station, killing 39.
Meanwhile, the reports of human-rights abuses in the Caucasus committed by agents of the Russian state — including forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings — are legion, forming a veritable checklist of how to wage a dirty war. Under Kadyrov’s ironfisted rule, journalists have been abducted and activists murdered.
Kadyrov — whose father, once a leading rebel, allied with Moscow in 2000 and was later assassinated — maintains his vice-like grip over the republic with (now President) Putin’s blessing. A loyal satrap, Kadyrov has so far managed to guarantee his people’s fealty to the rulers in Moscow. In the March 2012 presidential election, a staggering 99.76% of Chechen ballots cast were for Putin — a result that echoes the sham votes of the Soviet era.
Eager to show that his war-torn republic has turned a corner, Kadyrov has invested state funds into massive building projects, which include the Putin Towers as part of a new skyline in Grozny. Kadyrov has also amassed a fortune for himself; a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks chronicled his appearance at a wedding in Dagestan, where he freely distributed $100 notes and nuggets of gold. Hollywood stars like Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme were flown in for his multimillion-dollar 35th birthday party in 2011.
But the disaffection of many ordinary Chechens is palpable. Increasingly, experts warn, young men in the North Caucasus have started to turn away from the region’s long-standing tradition of Sufi Islam in favor of the more puritanical Salafi creed imported from the Middle East. Judging from Tamerlan’s YouTube feed, the Tsarnaev brothers may have subscribed to Salafist dogma, which could suggest that their apparent campaign of violence this week in the Boston area had a jihadist motive. But as their irate uncle urged the press on Friday morning, the brothers’ alleged actions didn’t represent the “Chechen ethnicity” in any way. They have coped with enough bloodshed already.