Tsarnaev brothers’ background runs deep into history

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Ruslan Tsarni, in Montgomery Village, Md., is an uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers.

By David Filipov Globe Staff 

The brothers who are suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings are ethnic Chechens, but the connection of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the long and bloody conflict in the southern Russian republic is unclear.

Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region in the Caucasus mountains, on Russia’s southernmost border, has a centuries-old tradition of defying Moscow’s rule. Lightly armed Chechen separatists who fought off the Russian Army in the mid-1990s often referred to a warrior tradition that lived in every Chechen.


But the Chechen people have also suffered for their resistance to Kremlin rule. Forcibly pacified by czarist forces in the late 19th century, Chechens were brutally repressed for resisting Soviet rule following the October Revolution in 1917. A failed uprising during World War II led to the mass exile of tens of thousands of Chechens to Central Asia. To this day a Chechen disapora lives on in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic where the Tsarnaev brothers were born, say US officials.

Family members said that the Tsarnaevs did not spend any time in Chechnya after the region declared itself independent in 1991. But Tamerlan evidently wanted people to think he had a connection: He told a newspaper in 2004 that he had been born in Grozny. In 2011, Dzhokhar contacted a history professor at UMass Dartmouth who teaches a history course on Chechnya to learn more about Chechen history.

Moscow resisted Chechnya’s claims to independence and in 1994 sent troops and tanks to quell the rebellion. Instead, Russian forces were badly bruised by the outnumbered, lightly armed rebels. The “small, victorious war” the Kremlin had promised became a drawn out, bloody campaign.

The rebels’ defiance at first found favor in the West, especially as the brutality of Russia’s onslaught — tens of thousands were killed in the bombardment of the capital, Grozny — became clear. But as the war dragged on, atrocities committed by the separatists, including a hostage-taking at a maternity ward, soured Western reactions. And as radical Islamic factions grew stronger, the notion of the secession of Chechnya became less palatable. In April 1996, President Clinton compared his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.

But Russia was unable to defeat the rebels and was forced to agree to a peace deal in August 1996. Moscow withdrew its forces and agreed to autonomy for Chechnya, but not full independence. The arrangement fell apart immediately. Hostage-taking groups and other criminal gangs took control, and in mid-1999, Chechen fighters entered the neighboring region of Dagestan to declare an Islamic state and called on Muslims in Russia to take up arms against the government. Later that summer, hundreds of Russians died in explosions that authorities blamed on Chechen separatists.


Vladimir Putin, prime minister at the time, sent in forces again and retook Grozny in an assault that leveled the city. Western criticism of Russian tactics and human rights violations in Chechnya petered out following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the subsequent US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The hostage-taking of an entire theater in Moscow in 2002, which led to more than 100 deaths, and a hostage-
taking in southern Russia in 2004 that left more than 300 hostages dead, many of them schoolchildren, further muffled any external criticism of Russia’s crackdown.

Chechens reportedly fought on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Chechen groups were added to the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

In the past 10 years, Moscow has consolidated its control over Chechnya, with the help of a local administration that has also been accused of repression and the slayings of several prominent journalists and human rights activists.

Though some sporadic violence continues in Chechnya, said Simon Saradzhyan, a researcher at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the radical Islam that fueled the separatist movement has migrated to neighboring, predominantly Muslim regions in the Caucasus.

These include Dagestan, where the Tsarnaevs’ father now lives and which both brothers visited last year.


“[The Tsarnaevs’] ethnicity doesn’t matter very much here,” said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“They don’t have a history of fighting in the mountains against Russian troops.”

Jonathan Saltzman and Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report David Filipov can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.