National Geographic News
May Day in Grozny.

A young man carries a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin for a celebration ceremony in Grozny, Chechnya, in 2009.

Photograph by Mikhail Galustov, laif/Redux

Anna Kordunsky

for National Geographic News

Published April 19, 2013

The two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings—one of whom is dead, the other provoking a massive manhunt across Boston on Friday—are Chechens who were raised in Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan before immigrating to the United States, according to news reports.

While nothing has yet been found linking brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed by authorities, and 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Chechen terrorist organizations, their ethnicity has once again directed attention to Russia's Caucasus region. (Read "Chechnya: How did it come to this?" in National Geographic magazine.)

The area occupies Russia's underbelly, situated between the Caspian and Black Seas, and has been a cauldron of ethnic and nationalist discontent for centuries.

First subdued by the tsars in the 19th century, the Caucasus are a patchwork of peoples, languages, and cultures that have always stood distinct from their Russian rulers.

From Georgians in the west to Azeris in the south to Chechens, Dagestanis, and Circassians in the north, the region is riven with boundaries of uncertain provenance.

As the early-19th century French diplomat Jacques-François Gamba wrote of his travels through the territories, "I could never quite determine if these limits were established by politics or by invasions, or if they naturally separated two peoples who have nothing in common in terms of language, traits and character."

Longtime Outsiders

Among these many peoples, Chechens and Dagestanis (an umbrella term for Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, and Lezgins, and other ethnicities) acquired a reputation for rebelliousness and violence. During the Russian campaign to subdue the Caucasus and secure the route to Transcaucasia from 1817-1863, Chechen and Dagestan fighters under Imam Shamil waged a decades-long guerrilla campaign against the Russian colonizers.

The brutal war decimated the Chechen population in the Caucasus, reducing its numbers from an estimated one million in the 1840s to 140,000 in 1861.

Over the course of the next century, Islamic Chechens and Dagestanis continued to be viewed with a wary eye by Moscow. That suspicion reached its apogee during World War II, when "Chechens were deported from Chechnya on Stalin's orders. . . and were forced to settle in Central Asia," so concerned Stalin was of their separatist tendencies, said William Pomeranz, a Russian and Caucasus expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in an interview.

An estimated one quarter to one half of the population died in transit to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Though "rehabilitated" in 1956 and allowed to return to their lands in 1957, Chechens and Dagestanis remained outsiders in Soviet society.

Post-Soviet Rule

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 rekindled a sense of strong national identity in Chechnya, whose population is today about 95-percent Muslim, according to official Russian statistics.

Chechnya's defiant declaration of sovereignty brought on a crackdown from Moscow, sparking the first of two full-fledged separatist wars fought over the decade. The clash lasted from 1994 to 1996, causing a massive loss of civilian life and reducing the republic's capital city of Grozny to ruins.

"The Chechen were essentially ungovernable in the early 1990s," said Pomeranz. "Chechnya's story of the early 1990s is that of separatism and violence."

A fragile peace treaty signed with Russia in 1996 failed to bring stability and Chechnya plunged into political disorder.

A second wave of Russian military action lasted from 1999 to 2000—the years when the Tsarnaev family lived in the neighboring state of Dagestan. Dzhokhar, the younger brother, attended primary school in the city of Makhachkala, according to his page on the Russian social networking website VKontakte.

Ongoing Friction

Moscow has since gradually re-established its authority over Grozny and the rest of Chechnya, bringing in both the security forces to maintain control and the funds necessary for post-war reconstruction.

Tensions have continued to simmer under the surface, however, boiling over as sporadic acts of large-scale violence, such as the 2004 hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, that claimed 330 lives, many of them children.

In Moscow, militants from Chechnya and the North Caucasus region were behind the bombing of the city metro in 2010, in which 40 people died, and the 2002 hostage-taking crisis in a Moscow theater that resulted in 129 hostage deaths.

In Russia, the memory of these acts breeds mistrust between ethnic Chechens and the dominant Russian majority. "Russia has enormous ethnic diversity, but there remain ethnic populations that are very much outsiders—and Chechnya fits that role too," said Lincoln Mitchell, professor at Columbia University's Harriman Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

It remains unclear how much time Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent in Chechnya as children before their family immigrated to the United States in 2002 and 2003, or how strong their bond was with the North Caucasus.

The brothers appear to have grown up in Kyrgyzstan, not Chechnya, although the family temporarily lived in Dagestan before their move, and the brothers' father continues to live there, according to the Associated Press.

En Em
En Em

The name "Tamerlan" is a derivation of Timur-e-Lang (Timur the Lame). He was one of the most brutal, vicious, cruel and barbaric Mongol invader whose hordes laid waste to Persia and the Middle East. He razed entire cities to the ground and butchered their entire populations. Compared to him, the Vikings were mere playboys. His capitol city was Samarkand in Uzbekistan. What's laughable is that he was also a patron of the arts!!

sean ellery
sean ellery

I completely and utterly fail to understand what the Boston bombing has to do with Nat Geo running a story on Chechnya. Seemingly it is only to inform the US public of yet another terrorist locality that they need to be worried about, and conforming to and supporting the culture of fear that pervades the USA.

If they were from Idaho, would Nat Geo be running stories on the ethnic makeup and social and development of Idahodians?

Nat Geo - stay out of  local politics and local current events. For an international magazine, this publication can be incredibly jingoistic

Jerry Howe
Jerry Howe

Now I am sympathetic to Vladimir Putin's issues with Chechnya. The two brothers succeeded in making a point, but not in the way that they had intended.

Dora Smith
Dora Smith

I saw something on the news many years ago, the last time Chechnya was in the news, maybe.   They said that Chechnya is a medieval society, and showed people cooking on outdoor fires over tripods, the way it was done on the steppes in 400 AD.   I recall looking into it at the time.  Chechnya gives new meaning to the word feudal.   I don't recall the details and am specifically reading to brush up, but there is some reason why Chechnayns are so terrifyingly unimaginable that Stalin, who may have been from there and thus was about the only person on earth who understood them, had only some sort of ultimate solution for them.

If these boys' family were from there, they'd have grown up with a subculture of us vs them and problems are solved unilaterally by violence.   Also it is coming through that the family was extremely disordered, with the mother a thief; this too is the legacy of coming from a society like that.

Lou Lorsch
Lou Lorsch

Those two are ETHNIC Chechens.  Neither brother ever actually lived in the country.   They -- like so many people in the North Caucasus -- were jihadist ideologues, not Chechen separatists.

tiks dharma
tiks dharma

The point is , no matter which nationality for muslims they consider themselves as Umma.  Brotherhood across boundaries. 

It may sound very genuine and harmless.  But cause lot of confusion and mistrust and eventually hatred.

That is the only religion, which does not end its beg/borrow/steal/kill tactics until whole world is converted.

Does it stop there, then it starts "True original arab muslims", sunnah, shia,

I cannot fathom the reality that, Islam being the latest religion in making, but it is much back ward thinking than religions in remote Amazon forests.

Dora Smith
Dora Smith

One other thing.   "Tripod" might not be the right word.  Three big tree branches were joined at the top over an open fire, with a big old kettle hanging from it.   It was an impressive sight, and unforgettable as an image of what ails Chechnya.    The same cooking method is portrayed in the movie, Attila.   It's early in the movie, just before the raid that killed Attila's father. 

Dora Smith
Dora Smith

That's terrifyingly unmanageble.  There's no edit button.

Godfrey Daniels
Godfrey Daniels

@Lou Lorsch For now, your final statement is an assumption.  After all the misinformation and jumping to conclusions of the past week, let's take a breath and wait for some real answers.




@Dora Smith Dora-Writing a lot of misinformation. Chechnya has a long history of fighting Russians butchery and treachery. They are Freedom Fighters for their homeland. Drop you ignorance, read, learn and stop writing garbage!

Bogdan B
Bogdan B

@Dora Smith Close but not accurate. Nice try to explain their actions by associating their image with Stalin. Stalin was born in Georgia (also part of the former Soviet Union). I dont think you can either judge an entire nation based on the actions of a few people. You wouldn't say at the present moment that all germans are sick in their heads because Hitler did what he did. Also,.. food for thought,... they are suspects, what if they prove to have little or no implications in the Boston's incident? I'm sure you'll find another smart explanation for whoever would be involved based on movies, news and so on.

Soso Chan
Soso Chan

@GIN BABA @tiks dharma 

at least in hell you know what you getting, right now only speeches that make no senses, no facts just claims, blind faith

Julia m
Julia m

@Bogdan B @Dora Smith Bogdan, thank you for pointing out the dangers of slipping into reductionism when it comes to (frightening, tragic) incidents like the one that happened in Boston.This article makes me nervous as it implicitly links the history of an entire culture with the actions of two individuals....can't have good bearing on immigration laws in the US or human tolerance in general. 


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