Violent history shaped Tsarnaev brothers’ Chechen homeland

Islam now a strong element in Caucasus insurgency against Russian rule

Russian president Vladimir Putin sent military forces back into Chechnya in 1999 and, after devastating air and artillery attacks that killed tens of thousands of people, rebel control was broken. Photograph: Michel Porro/Getty Images

Russian president Vladimir Putin sent military forces back into Chechnya in 1999 and, after devastating air and artillery attacks that killed tens of thousands of people, rebel control was broken. Photograph: Michel Porro/Getty Images

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 06:00


The young men suspected of the Boston bombings were born into a fiercely proud Chechen nation, whose identity has been shaped by centuries of bitter and bloody struggle with Russia.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are believed to have grown up in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan before moving to the United States, but they surely grew up hearing tales, both tragic and heroic, of their ancestral Caucasus homeland.

As tsarist Russia pushed south into the Caucasus mountains in the early 1800s, it encountered fierce resistance from several Muslim peoples, foremost among them the Chechens.


Stalin and Chechnya
Chechnya finally became part of the Russian Empire in 1859, but enmity simmered and occasionally flashed into violence for decades, until Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used wartime suspicions as a pretext for resolving the “Chechen problem” at a stroke.

On February 23rd, 1944, all Chechens were accused of collaborating with the German invaders, loaded into freight wagons, and transported to the bleak and freezing steppes of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The entire Chechen nation – more than 400,000 people – was expelled in this way. Anyone who resisted was killed.

So severe was the journey to central Asia, and the conditions once there, that between 150,000 and 200,000 Chechens are believed to have died between 1944-1948. Other, less numerous Caucasus peoples – Ingush, Kalmyks, Balkars, Karachais – met similar fates.

The Chechens were allowed to return home in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, but many found their houses had been occupied by more “loyal” Soviet subjects.

The chaotic 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union brought long repressed independence ambitions surging to the surface in Chechnya, and under the leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev the region declared itself a sovereign state.

President Boris Yeltsin ordered Russian troops into Chechnya in 1994, but they withdrew in humiliating defeat two years later.

His successor, Vladimir Putin, sent Russian forces back into Chechnya in 1999, and after devastating air and artillery attacks that killed tens of thousands of people, rebel control was broken.

Former warlord Akhmad Kadyrov was entrusted by the Kremlin to run Chechnya, and after he was blown up in 2004 his son Ramzan took over. Rights groups accuse his militia of kidnapping, torturing and killing its foes.

Over time, the Chechen insurgency has spread to neighbouring Caucasus regions and its drive for independence has been infused with a strong Islamist element.