The Tsarnayevs I Know

Today the subjectiv is pleased to present a special guest post from a friend of the blog, Rachel Atwood, who informs us with an unique perspective on the Tsarnayevs and immigration.

Photo by Brian Cribb

Photo by Brian Cribb

When news broke that the suspected perpetrators were Chechens of Kyrgyzstani origins, a huge pit formed in the bottom of my stomach. As more and more details of the young men’s lives came forth, my eyes involuntarily welled up with tears. The truth is, I know many Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayevs, some of which are near and dear to me, none of which would dream of harming innocent people enjoying a festival of international unity through sport, the spirit’s determination over the body’s rejection of pain, lives turned around in their tracks by this pinpointed healthy pursuit, and overall celebration of camaraderie- of that I am sure.

Who are these people, you ask? Generally speaking, I call them my friends. Specifically, they are young men of post-Soviet origins. They are practicing Muslims up at 5:30 expressing devotion and deference to Allah, a god responsible for every grain of that which we call existence in the universe. They love war-themed video games, feats of brute strength, and can rattle off statistics on MMA fighters till the camels and sheep come home. They are fiercely loyal to their family and good friends–the two being largely interchangeable for those who reciprocate such loyalty.

Having little experience with women outside of their mothers, sisters, and other female relatives before marriage, many can be quite awkward around women in social settings. In large part it isn’t their fault–it’s something they were not encouraged to learn. Some are fresh off the plane, others (like the Tsarnayev brothers) arrived over a decade ago. Some came as children; many more as students. Many opt to bond together in preservation of their common cultural roots, rather than dive full on into assimilation, for fear of losing an identity they’ve grown up celebrating, as well as for basic human instinct: we like what we know.

Tamerlan’s declaration of “not having a single American friend” is of course the most extreme example, but admitting that you have a hard time forming close bonds with someone you cannot easily relate to, or share a worldview with is far from unreasonable or cause for alarm. In theory, when one lives in a foreign place, there’s impetus to learn about the local culture and experience it firsthand, but at the same time, facing difficulty in doing that is a normal human response. To all who scoff that these boys must learn to “Americanize” if they want to live in America, I invite you to consider a large group of Americans who historically move to other countries and have no intent on assimilating to local culture: the US military.

Photo by Rooey202.

Cabbage soup: The favorite meal for 70 years. And not by choice. (Photo by Rooey202.)

The Tsarnayevs and their kindred were born in the collapse and aftermath of the Soviet Union, a symbolic sea-change unmatched in the following decades worldwide. More than 70 years of world order had come to an end, and the endless possibilities the future promised were matched tit-for-tat with bottomless uncertainties. The Soviet system was entrenchment incarnate, where upward social mobility went to die a long, lingering death in a labor camp.

At the same time, your corner in a communal apartment, redundant factory job and rations of watery grain cereal and boiled cabbage were relatively reliable, all in all. This era also symbolized the end of the Cold War and the final, mind-blowing realization for the first time: they were on the losing side. There was only one superpower that remained standing. As the facade of Soviet realism was stripped away and replaced by the would-be “wild west” of Russia and her newly-independent neighbors in the ‘90s, the appeal of the United States as a land of freedom, fortune and opportunity for all grew ever more enticing–much as it had a century ago for disenfranchised residents of Czarist Russia and her neighbors in Eastern Europe. This appeal was likely most pronounced among ethnic minorities of Russia and her newly-independent neighbors.

For centuries literature has painstakingly reminded us all of the depth and fortitude of the Russian soul. Creative licenses aside, there is something to be said about the commitment of a sizable portion of the Russian populace to the future well-being of the Motherland. For them, the desire to stay connected to the Russian Federation and her future all but courses through their veins: in pre-9/11 rhetoric that concern would be called patriotism–nothing more, nothing less.

Image by Mikhail Koninin

The end of the Soviet era was not kind to all. (Image by Mikhail Koninin.)

However, it’s unlikely many ethnic Chechens were left with such a sense of allegiance to the legacy of the double-headed eagle, and newly-minted white, blue and red cloth blowing in the wind. Describing Russian relations with Chechnya and most of the North Caucasus region throughout history as tenuous and volatile is to apply euphemisms generously. More than most any foreign peoples engulfed by the Czarist Russian Empire, Caucasians viewed Russia as an invasive occupier, exploiting local wealth, and enforcing a particular brand of governance both foreign and abhorrent to local people and their way of life. Regimes have changed over the centuries, but sentiments with much less rapidity.

Thus, the Tsarnayevs and my friends alike felt no allegiance to the Russian state, and had few qualms about leaving it for good. From afar, the United States appeared as a shining bastion of freedom and democracy, the “land of opportunity” where anyone could achieve success based on hard work, regardless of his position at birth. A place that projected the image of “winner” on the global stage, and still welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” at the foot of her Lady Liberty seemed little shy of Shangri La.

Photo by Kev Gilmour.

Photo by Kev Gilmour.

With this endearment and enthusiasm came great expectations–at times, too great. As immigrants, a century passed discovered by the droves, all that glitters is not, in fact, gold. With inside exposure to the injustices, greed, hypocrisy and corruption at play in the Unites States, high hopes were quickly dashed and often replaced with deep skepticism, cynicism and distrust. This acute cynicism was further cemented in the aftermath of 9/11, which saw increased persecution of fellow Muslims both at home and abroad from private citizens all the way up through the highest ranking officials in the land. The invasion of Iraq and subsequent slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Iraqi Muslim civilians was enough to shatter any remaining faith in the fairness and humanity of America’s brand of justice.

It does not surprise me in the least that the Tsarnayevs subscribed to Alex Jones’ conspiracy logic. While we hate to admit it now, many Americans disillusioned with the Bush administration’s heavy-handed, trigger-happy and short-sighted governing style questioned the validity of the official report of what happened on 9/11. For these young Muslim immigrants, the skepticism that grew into the “truther” movement seemed to carry that much more weight: if this regime cares so little about causing death and destruction to many, many thousands of innocent people overseas for want of political gain, who is to say it would not sacrifice 3,000 of its own to start the fireball rolling? If heinous actions hold no consequences for those at the top, what is to keep them from annihilating any and all which are not to their liking? With such complete disillusionment so fully entrenched, it becomes all too easy to doubt the veracity of any reality that isn’t parked directly in front of your own eyes.

For the most part, my friends’ investment in government conspiracy theories subsided in the years following 9/11, for which I’m most grateful–conversations were quite unbearable by that point. In part, the ability to let go of these sensationalist ideas suggests a minimum level of sanity and rationality and the ability to think critically. We all love to paint in black and white–there’s got to be a “good guy” and “bad guy,” the pure of heart and the completely diabolical. This simplicity can have an intoxicating effect, to which one can grow addicted if left unchecked.

Possessing a deep feeling disillusionment and disenfranchisement from your world is not, unto itself, indicative of terrorist tendencies. On the contrary, I dare say anyone who does not ever feel like a ghost helplessly watching the ongoing dismantling of their vision of the world is the abnormal one whose safety and sanity might well be called into question. We each try to navigate through our lives the best we can, in hopes of somehow leaving this place in better shape than how we found it. For those forever identified as “outsiders,” the challenges of belonging, blossoming and bequeathing something of substance and value to future generations are greater still.

Truth is, I really don’t know what caused the Tsarnayevs to act as they did–in all fairness, no one really does just yet. It is my point just to remind the distraught masses of the shear individuality of these boys and their choice of conduct. As their exotic and foreign-sounding background gives many the impression that it is closely tied to their destructive and disastrous behavior, I am here to tell you that their blood and life stories are not so entirely unique.

It is for their many brethren–in their defense–I now speak. This previously little-known minority in America (post-Soviet Muslim immigrants) may present life philosophies and choices peculiar in the eyes of your average blue-blooded American, but on whole they are lovers of civility and peace, and should, in turn, be offered as much.

Enjoy the veal!