‘You’re always one step from the abyss’: Masha Gessen on the Tsarnaev brothers

In The Tsarnaev Brothers, journalist Masha Gessen turns her attention to traumatic events that have taken place on the soil of her adopted home. The book tells the story of the Boston bombers, and explores the theme of split identity in immigrant America – as well as the disastrous consequences of social dislocation.

In this edited transcript from Gessen's conversation with Maxine Beneba Clarke, Gessen describes the complex series of events that led the Tsarnaev family to the United States, in failed pursuit of the American dream.

Maxine Beneba Clarke: What drew you to writing about the Tsarnaev brothers?

Masha Gessen: I had lived in Boston when I was a teenager. My family had originally moved to Boston. And that sort of made [the story of the Tsarnaev brothers] seem like a story that I was uniquely positioned to write – because I had covered both of the wars in Chechnya, I'd studied terrorism, and I'd been a teenage Russian-speaking immigrant in Boston. Which probably was the most important part of what drew me to the story and what made me feel like at least I knew which questions to ask about the story. 

Masha Gessen, on the Tsarnaev brothers

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast.

The premise of the book [The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy] is quite simple. It says on the blurb that two homemade bombs go off in the Boston Marathon and, in the subsequent manhunt, they find out that the two brothers that are at the core of this come from Chechen background. So did you instantly know when you heard this that this was material you definitely wanted to work with and that it would be a book?

At the time, I was running a media company and we were busy covering this – so I wasn't thinking that it might become a book. My oldest friend (who was somebody I was friends with in Moscow and then in Boston when we both emigrated, and then in Moscow when we both returned and now we're both living in the States again) called and I said, ‘I can't talk – I'm busy coordinating the coverage’. She called back three days later and she said, ‘Well, I know you're not calling me back but I have something really important to tell you: you have to drop everything and write a book about this.’ I thought, ‘Oh. Of course, obviously.’ And the reason it was so obvious to her was the same sort of connection to Boston and the experience of being an immigrant teenager. 

And the story [of the Tsarnaev brothers] starts back in in Chechnya. There's a long history of family migration and of displacement, starting with the brothers’ father and his family's displacement from Chechnya. Which is so important and so integral to the book, the fact that there was so many different migrations. Did you travel to Chechnya or to Dagestan to interview subjects?

Yes. I travelled to Chechnya once, and three times to Dagestan before I got anywhere – it was pretty hard to report there. I also travelled to Kyrgyzstan, where the brothers spent most of their childhoods before that immigrated to the States. And I know Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan sound alike but they're actually very, very far apart. 

From left to right: father Anzor Tsarnaev, mother Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, eldest son Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and uncle Muhamad Suleimanov. (Reuters)

For those who possibly aren't aware of the history of the displacement of the Chechen people in 1944, could you perhaps elaborate on the circumstances in which the Tsarnaev family found themselves? 

February 23rd, 1944 is a day that's very important for Chechen people, wherever they are now – and it's very important for them to have it commemorated so I'm glad to be talking about it today. On February 23rd, 1944, all the Chechens in Chechnya (which is a part of the North Caucasus) and several other smaller ethnic groups who also live in that region were rounded up without warning, loaded onto cattle cars and sent across the Soviet Union to Central Asia, because Stalin had decided that they had collaborated with the Nazis. Over a million people were shipped that way. They had not been told to take warm clothes; they had not been told to take food. So as many as half of them actually died on route. By the time they arrived at their destinations, there was a typhoid epidemic on the trains, so a lot of people were dying as they disembarked.

They were called special settlers and the local Soviets (local councils) were told to prepare for their arrival – to prepare to shelter them and feed them – but at the same time, they were told that they were enemies of the people which was a little bit of a mixed message. So the local authorities obviously did not think that it was proper to shelter and feed people. The rations that they were supposed to prepare for them were less than the hunger rations at Auschwitz. Just think about that moment in history. This is just a few months before both American and Soviet troops started liberating Nazi concentration camps, and over a million people are being transported by train across the Eurasian continent and dumped into the Steppes with no food and no shelter. Probably about half of the people who survived the journey died within a couple of years of arrival, and the miracle of it is that any of them survived [at all].

They keep doing what immigrants do, which is to look for a place where they can build a life for themselves and their children and be safe and be calm and feel right about themselves. And it never works.

Masha Gessen

But some people did survive. They lived in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – so, two Soviet Central Asian republics which are now independent states – and not until 1956 were they are allowed to go back home. And even that they were allowed to do with a caveat: they were allowed to go home, but they were not allowed to reclaim their homes. So they had to promise to go back to Chechnya and start from scratch again. Many people did and many people didn't.

And the Tsarnaev family was one of those families that didn't. They stayed in Kyrgyzstan, but the dream of the homeland stayed with them. This is obviously a familiar narrative to many diasporic people around the world: this idea that there is a home for you, somewhere, and eventually either you or your children will make it back there. So that's the story that they grew up with. 

Masha Gessen at Northcote Town Hall

Masha Gessen at Northcote Town Hall

And so I guess what happens next is that Anzor Tsarnaev meets his wife, Zubeidat. And he says to her that he’s Chechen, even though he's grown up in Kyrgyzstan. They get married and there's a second level of displacement there because they’re both ethnic Muslims but from different backgrounds. She in a sense loses her family.

Exactly. It’s one of the many sort of tragic stories of their background. She is Avar and he’s Chechen – and Avars and Chechens are very closely related ethnic groups that speak languages that are fairly similar to each other, so they can generally understand each other and each other’s language. But one group was deported to Central Asia, and the other stayed. And so something that had been a brotherhood has this built-in enmity that's been imposed on them [as a result] of the conflict that’s been imposed on them.

They met in Siberia of all places, because Anzor was there finishing his military service and Zubeidat was there visiting her brother. They meet and one of the reasons they are attracted to each other is that they're notionally from the same place. Anzor has never actually been to the North Caucasus, but they get married thinking of each other as being sort of from the same place.

And then as soon as they go back to Anzor’s family, as a young couple in that situation would, they're not accepted because she is not because she is not Chechen – because she is Avar – and so after about six months they went to stay with his relatives in Kalmykia, which is a Buddhist Republic close to Chechnya, also in the Caspian Sea. That didn't quite work out and they went back to Kyrgyzstan and then they left Kyrgyzstan after the Soviet Union collapsed and went to Chechnya. And when they got to Chechnya, the war in Chechnya was just starting. And so they flee the beginning of the war and go back to Kyrgyzstan. After a few years back, they decide to go back to North Caucasus. And they go to Dagestan, which is next door to Chechnya and that's where Zubeidat grew up. The majority of people in Dagestan are Avar. But when they get there, it's when the war in Chechnya has spread to Dagestan. So they flee Dagestan to go to the United States. And they arrive in the United States a few months after 9/11 – so, probably the worst moment to become a Muslim immigrant in the United States.

It seems to be an extraordinary level of misfortune in terms of the migration and the time that it takes place, to Chechnya and to the United States and to a number of places. The Tsarnaevs end up essentially landing in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. 

Which I think just underscores [the fact that] there's no right place for them. They keep doing what immigrants do, which is to look for a place where they can build a life for themselves and their children and be safe and be calm and feel right about themselves. And it never works. 

And they end up in Cambridge in the States in the greater Boston area, and for a while it seems like they're chasing that great American dream. Anzor kind of starts to fix cars, Zubeidat starts thinking about getting a law degree or perhaps going to beauty school, and changes professions a few times, and Tamerlan and Dzhokhar seem to be kind of settling into life in America. So there’s about a decade there where they're surrounded in a sense by all the immigrant families and trying to make that great American dream happen. 

That chapter that covers the ten years of their life, in the United States, was really hard to put together because there are so many of sort of little events that happen, and I wasn't at first sure what kind of pattern was there. And then I realised it's a pattern of precariousness and little failures that just add up to big tragedy in the end. Tamerlan, the oldest brother, and Dzhokhar, the youngest brother. There are two sisters in between, so they settle in the States with four kids and things seem to start out pretty well for them.

You're always just one step away from falling into the abyss – that's what immigration is. And they balanced on that edge for a really long time and then they fell in.

Masha Gessen

They find an apartment in a house that has owned by this lovely woman. She's an old sort of Cambridge Massachusetts hippie. She wants to provide affordable housing, and she happens to speak Russian. She tutors the kids in English. She really takes care of the family. She becomes very much a member of their family, and they become members of her family, and they harbour these dreams together. One of their dreams is that Tamerlan, the eldest brother, will become an Olympic boxer. And it's not an absurd dream. It's actually perfectly reasonable: he's an insanely talented boxer who starts winning competitions the moment he enters them, and he wants to be on the U.S. Olympics team. But the year that he would try out for the team, the National Amateur Boxing Association decides that it will no longer let non-citizens compete. And so that dream goes out the window. And Zubeidat, she starts out as a home health aide, and then she goes to beauty school, and then she gets a job in a salon as soon as she graduates from beauty school, and things are looking pretty good.

And then the financial crisis of 2008 hits and the salon shuts down, for reasons that have nothing to do with her [...] Having been an immigrant kid, I recollected that sense of precariousness that you have as an immigrant. You're always just one step away from falling into the abyss – that's what immigration is. And they balanced on that edge for a really long time – and then they fell in.

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