Through a recent conversation about Russian politics, I learned about Masha Gessen’s 2015 book “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy,” about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, the brothers behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Both had been written off as radicalized Chechens whose newfound religious zeal caused them to avenge their Muslim brothers, but Gessen sought to find a deeper, more logical answer as to what turned these men from aimless youths into terrorists.
In this, I believe she failed—more on that later— however, Gessen does take us on an enthralling albeit miserable journey along the way, beginning in Chechnya after WWII. Josef Stalin, who’d become increasingly paranoid about certain ethnic groups, forced thousands of Chechens from their ancestral home of Chechnya to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Many died along the way; the survivors were left to eke out a bleak existence in a land that was as foreign to them as Chechnya would be to most Americans. Chechnya still hasn’t recovered.
This forms a legacy of displacement that began with Tamerlan and Jahar’s grandfather—who, as young boy, was part of the forced migration—to their own family as they fruitlessly wandered the post-Soviet landscape, seeking a home in Central Asia, then Dagestan, and finally, asylum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tamerlan, the eldest boy, was the one whom the Tsarnaevs predictably placed all of their hopes. He fulfilled that role by spying on his younger sisters to make sure they weren’t dishonoring the family (woe to the Romeo who was caught holding younger sister Ailina’s hand—Tamerlan was also a boxer), but was a huge letdown in most other ways. His promising boxing career never took off; he wound up delivering pizzas and dealing drugs; and his early marriage and newborn daughter cemented his future as a shiftless ne’er-do-well. Tamerlan was not quite American, not quite Chechen (since he’d never lived in Chechnya)—not quite anything, really.
Jahar, the baby, on the other hand, was the surprise success—I would compare him (very roughly) to Henry VIII, whose father ignored him in favor of eldest brother Arthur; Arthur, who chronologically was the next in line for the throne, wound up dying in his teens. Young enough to have forgotten much of his family’s miserable Russian travels, Jahar embraced American culture—he spoke accent-less English, was described as “the boy everyone loved,” wrestled in high school, wrote about cheeseburgers on Twitter, and basically lived the life of your average American teen. He also got a $2,500 scholarship to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he enrolled with the intent to become a dentist.
But somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Whether it was a domino effect, i.e. the Tsarnaev sisters entered into quick and doomed marriages and were saddled with infants while still teens; Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the Tsarnaev mother, changed overnight from a miniskirt-wearing cosmetologist into an observant Muslim who covered her head and was fired for refusing to work with male customers; and Tamerlan went to Dagestan on the pretense of renewing his Russian passport, even though by this time he no longer had a Russian passport (only an American one). It’s during this trip that Tamerlan allegedly became “radicalized.”
It was also during this time that Jahar was frittering away his future, as so many young people do who think they have forever to get somewhere. His grades plummeted, his scholarship was rescinded, and he started dealing and using pot. A lot.
By the time Tamerlan returned six months later—again, for reasons that are unclear—the FBI would have you believe he was now a jihadist. And that his younger brother—who by all journalistic accounts idealized Tamerlan all out of proportion—sought to follow suit as a way to make a name for himself, and also impress his oldest sibling. (Although Tamerlan never became the star his parents had hoped he’d be, as the eldest boy, he still carried tremendous weight in the household.)
Gessen, though laying the groundwork for all the whys that led to the Boston bombing, cannot come up with a definitive answer. I believe it’s because the answer eludes her—there was never a “smoking gun”—and so therefore she has to create her own. Also missing in “The Brothers” are any anecdotes about the relationship between the actual brothers; nothing about Jahar cheering on Tamerlan during his Golden Gloves fights, or conversely, Tamerlan doing the same during Jahar’s wrestling matches (which, according to Gessen, were only attended on Jahar’s behalf by the Tsarnaev’s Irish-American landlady). There’s no mention of Jahar following Tamerlan around like a “puppy dog,” to reuse a commonly-written description about him. There is no why.
That’s not to say “The Brothers” is not a worthwhile read. It is an excellent introduction into how a comparatively small moment within Russia’s gigantic history—the Chechen displacement into Central Asia—had repercussions decades later in Boston. It also explores how the bombing reached all the way to Jahar’s friends. In a story not widely covered, these friends, who recovered his backpack after they realized he was one of the bombers, took it out of Jahar’s dorm room and threw it in a dumpster—not to cover up his role in a terrorist bombing, but because they were afraid police might find marijuana in there. These “dumb kid” choices led three of them to face brutal FBI interrogations, extended time in solitary confinement, and, for one friend, over a million dollars spent by his father on his defense. (He was looking at 25 years in federal prison for obstruction of justice. Also, he was a Chechen.)
It’s these stories that take the book to unexpected places, and make it a more compelling story. But by the last couple chapters, “The Brothers” veers into strange territory, that of conspiracy theories. In her continuing pursuit of “why,” Gessen latches on to several of these, including one which asserts that the FBI were behind the bombings, and another that Tamerlan was a pawn in the FBI’s terrorism unit, where they intended to use him as an informant until he went rogue and murdered three men in a drug deal gone wrong. (These killings were never fully investigated—which Gessen postulates is because the FBI did not want word to get out that one of their informants was the murderer.) And while Gessen refers to herself briefly throughout the book—she and her brother, novelist Keith Gessen, were Russian immigrants—her fingerprints are all over the final chapters: American law enforcement is corrupt; Russians and Muslims are marked by the FBI as guilty until proven innocent; Russia and America are essentially the same corrupt county, only America is worse because they lie about freedom and opportunity for all.
Since Gessen places herself at the end of her book, I will do the same at the end of my review. If there is any evidence that the brothers were possibly set up by the FBI, I think it lies in the bomb itself. While both Tarnaevs were intelligent, I do find it hard to believe they were capable of building a pressure-cooker bomb set to go off by remote control. I don’t care how many YouTube videos could’ve shown them how. There are plenty of videos that can show me how to replace a transmission—that doesn’t mean I’d be able to do that, even if I watched every single one. THAT piece of evidence does not tie for me, but oddly, Gessen hardly ever mentions the actual bomb. Perhaps there was a third bomb-maker, just like conspiracy theorists would have you believe the Kennedy assassination involved a second shooter. Most likely, we will never know.