Masha Gessen is the first journalist to fully lay bare contemporary Russia, “a country where political rivals and vocal critics are often killed, and at least sometimes the order comes directly from the president’s office”. Gessen wrote these words in The Man Without a Face, her 2012 book about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, which she worked on in secret for fear of retaliation. A remarkably prolific author, publishing at a rate of about a book a year, she’s already well into a second book about Putin, she says, which focuses on the last three years of his regime.
The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy by Masha Gessen – extract
Her writing has established her as Putin’s most eloquent critic and the de facto translator of Russian politics for western readers. Gessen’s working characterisation of Russia combines John le Carré-esque espionage, Chekhovian tragedy and straight vaudeville: as more and more of Putin’s opponents turn up dead or in prison colonies, the Russian leader remains a feckless bureaucrat lacking in personality. When Gessen finally meets him in the Afterword, in the closing scene of The Man Without a Face, set in September 2012, Putin has no idea who she is, despite her growing status as one of his more prominent detractors. He tells her, “I like kitties and puppies and little animals.”
Her latest work, The Tsarnaev Brothers, is about the Boston Marathon bombing, executed by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on 15 April 2013, which killed three people and injured hundreds more, 17 of whom lost limbs. After a manhunt that shut down the city of Boston, Tamerlan was dead, shot by police and then run over by his younger brother as he tried to escape. Dzhokhar was found four days after the bombing, hiding in a boat in a backyard in nearby Watertown. A federal jury sentenced him to death earlier this month.
The book begins by tracing the Tsarnaev family’s movements between 1985 and 2012, from locations in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kalmykia and Istanbul to Boston and elsewhere, though they have become predominantly associated with Makhachkala in Dagestan – “a backwater”, as Gessen describes it, in the North Caucasus. They were rovers, endlessly looking for a place to belong and never finding one. Their problems were constant, but the real tragedy, Gessen argues, began with the Russian apartment bombings of 1999, which killed nearly 300 people. Putin, the former KGB lieutenant colonel and recently named successor to then president, Boris Yeltsin, blamed these events on Islamist Chechen rebels. The first Chechen war ran from 1994 to 1996, and the Tsarnaevs, recently relocated to Chechyna, were present for its beginnings. The war left hundreds of thousands of people dead or displaced.
When the conflict ended, the North Caucasus remained unstable, and the accusations of Putin were enough to catapult the region once again into turmoil – and Putin to national popularity. As the second war raged on, centred in Chechnya and Dagestan (the Tsarnaevs were now back in Makhachkala), evidence began to accumulate, according to Gessen, suggesting the Russian secret police had arranged the bombings for the purpose of bolstering nationalist fervour and securing Putin’s public reputation. By this time, Putin’s power was solid, and he was steadily remodelling Russia as an authoritarian state. This went largely unnoticed because, after 9/11, the country “got to reframe Chechnya, and the continuing bloodshed in Dagestan, as part of a war it was now fighting alongside the US – the war against radical Islamist terrorists”, Gessen writes. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaev family made its way to Boston.
The story is personal for Gessen because, up to a point, much of it mirrors her own experience. While writing The Tsarnaev Brothers, her life was uprooted in a more direct way by Putin when she was forced to relocate from Moscow to New York. Members of the president’s cabinet were making public threats against her family. “When I was touring with the Putin book,” she tells me in a coffee shop in New York, “people would ask me why I was still staying in Russia. And I would say, ‘Well, it’s my home, you know – you can leave, but I’m staying.’ And all sorts of other applause lines. And then they made it clear they were after my kids. And that was it. That was a no-brainer.”
Gessen and her wife, Darya Oreshkina, have three children, the oldest of whom is adopted. They were being targeted with the Russian gay propaganda law, which effectively makes “non-traditional sexual relationships” a criminal offence. Vitaly Milonov, a politician and the propaganda law’s loudest supporter, delivered thinly veiled warnings on Russian TV about gay couples with adopted children, mentioning Gessen by name. And so, as she was writing The Tsarnaev Brothers in the autumn of 2013, the author was helping her own family make the transition to the US, reflecting on their own “traumatic experience of immigrating” as she considered that of the Tsarnaevs.
Her outspokenness has led to Gessen acquiring a few detractors. In a review of The Tsarnaev Brothers for the New York Times, Janet Napolitano, the former US secretary of homeland security, called her a “conspiracy theorist” for raising the question of the true nature of Tamerlan’s relationship with the FBI, which had questioned him as a potential terrorist two years before the bombing. Gessen calls Napolitano’s characterisation “interesting”, saying: “I just raised a question.” Still, it’s not the first time Gessen has faced the accusation. Russia being a paranoid country, there are plenty of conspiracy theories about her there, too. Some Russians, she says, actually believe that she works for the FSB – the organisation the KGB became after the end of the Soviet era – and was “turned” during her meeting with Putin in 2012.
“I really can’t abide conspiracy theories, because I believe that everything in the world stems from idiocy and incompetence,” she says. “That’s certainly true of most of what’s happened in Russia under Putin. I think very little of it was pre-planned. And I think that, for the most part, is the explanation for what’s happened in the Boston bombing.”
Her career has made her the enemy of idiocy par excellence. She’s grown bolder, too. As she works on her new book, which looks at how Putin has “retrofitted totalitarian ideology” on to the country he governs, she travels frequently back to Russia. She has no fear – only displeasure. She describes her home for the majority of her life as “such an awful place”.
“The idea that this mediocre man, who doesn’t have a plan, doesn’t have a strategy, who is running around waving his nuclear weapons, is a real threat? That’s really nuts! But it’s what’s happened,” she says.
She loves Moscow, she tells me, but it’s become hostile: there are nationalists wearing orange and black ribbons, the symbol of support for Russia’s mobilisation against Ukraine. She hadn’t noticed how noxious it was until she left. “My life was too comfortable there,” she says.
When I ask her if she received any significant threats before her decision to leave Russia for good, she responds with comic matter-of-factness: “I got death threats all the time. I didn’t take them particularly seriously. The problem with death threats is you’re right not to take them seriously.” She pauses very briefly. “Until you’re dead.”
My life as an out gay person in Russia
Gessen, who has both Russian and American passports (she became a US citizen in 1989), was born in Moscow and moved to Boston with her family in 1981, when she was 14. In Moscow, her parents were members of the Jewish intelligentsia at a time when many of their social circle was already moving to the US. She struggled in adolescence, though, attending college at the Cooper Union in New York but dropping out before graduation because she was already working full-time as a journalist, mostly for gay publications such as Boston’s Bay Windows and New York’s Next Magazine. In March 1991, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, she returned to Russia for the first time. She was on assignment for the magazine Ms. about the first Soviet Independent Women’s Forum, which happened to be held in the town of Dubna, outside Moscow, where Gessen’s grandmother still lived. She moved back permanently in 1994 and stayed for 20 years, doing a variety of journalism jobs – some of them inevitably for publications Putin was trying to influence, as he had taken over the media industry – but keeping a foot in America, gradually revealing the corruption of Putin’s Russia in the mainstream US press.
Of The Tsarnaev Brothers, she says “the one thing that I absolutely brought from personal experience is what happens to you when you go back to the place where you lived as a child. That sense of being ambushed by a feeling of home – that’s very particular to people who didn’t leave of their own volition. I talked to people who went back to the place they were born 40 years after leaving and they’d describe the same thing: I felt at home. I felt like everything was as it should be.”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev returned to Dagestan from the Boston area in 2012 and felt, Gessen writes, “as if his body had been plugged into its place in a puzzle”. The accepted narrative about Tamerlan is that he went back to the region where he grew up, “received training”, to steal a phrase from US congressman Michael McCaul, and became a follower of radical Islam as a result. Gessen’s book revises this theory. “It’s really difficult and scary to consider the possibility that there’s sort of a small agency involved in such big tragedies,” she says. The so-called “radicalisation narrative” perpetuated by the FBI and the house committee on homeland security involves a terrorist organisation – Isis, for instance, or al‑Qaida (“or whoever is getting good PR at the moment”) – actively recruiting the disillusioned and guiding them through the steps to becoming a violent fundamentalist. “It seems that it happens the exact opposite way,” Gessen says. “You have someone who wants to volunteer, wants to join something, and build on it, and be great and belong. The essential difference between the radicalisation narrative and what I’m talking about is who does the wanting. And the fact that these horrible things stem from the desires of small, unhappy people – it doesn’t sit right.”
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The younger one — the one their father described as “like an angel” — gathered around him a group of friends so loyal that more than one said they would testify for him, if it came to that.
The older one, who friends and family members said exerted a strong influence on his younger sibling — “He could manipulate him,” an uncle said — once told a photographer, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.”
A kaleidoscope of images, adjectives and anecdotes tumbled forth on Friday to describe Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the two brothers suspected of carrying out the bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and gravely wounded scores more.
What no one who knew them could say was why the young men, immigrants of Chechen heritage, would set off bombs among innocent people. The Tsarnaevs came with their family to the United States almost a decade ago from Kyrgyzstan, after living briefly in the Dagestan region of Russia. Tamerlan, who was killed early Friday morning in a shootout with law enforcement officers, was 15 at the time. Dzhokhar, who was in custody Friday evening, was only 8.
In America, they took up lives familiar to every new immigrant, gradually adapting to a new culture, a new language, new schools and new friends.
Dzhokhar, a handsome teenager with a wry yearbook smile, was liked and respected by his classmates at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where celebrities like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had walked the halls before him. A classmate remembered how elated he seemed on the night of the senior prom. Wearing a black tuxedo and a red bow tie, he was with a date among 40 students who met at a private home before the event to have their photos taken, recalled Sierra Schwartz, 20.
“He was happy to be there, and people were happy he was there,” Ms. Schwartz said. “He was accepted and very well liked.”
A talented wrestler, he was listed as a Greater Boston League Winter All-Star. “He was a smart kid,” said Peter Payack, 63, assistant wrestling coach at the school. In 2011, the year he graduated, was awarded a $2,500 scholarship by the City of Cambridge, an honor granted only 35 to 40 students a year.
For Tamerlan, life seemed more difficult.
A promising boxer, he fought in the Golden Gloves National Tournament in 2009, and he was noticed by a young photographer, Johannes Hirn, who took him as a subject for an essay assignment in a photojournalism class at Boston University. “There are no values anymore,” Tamerlan said in the essay, which was later published in Boston University’s magazine The Comment. “People can’t control themselves.”
Anzor Tsarnaev, the brothers’ father, who returned to Russia about a year ago, said in a telephone interview there that his older son was hoping to become an American citizen — Dzhokhar became a naturalized citizen in 2012, but Tamerlan still held a green card — but that a 2009 domestic violence complaint was standing in his way.
“Because of his girlfriend, he hit her lightly, he was locked up for half an hour,” Mr. Tsarnaev said. “There was jealousy there.” Tamerlan later married and had a small child. He was interviewed by the F.B.I. in 2011 when a foreign government asked the bureau to determine whether he had extremist ties, according to a senior law enforcement official.
Yet Dzhokhar admired and emulated his older brother.
Peter Tean, 21, a high school wrestling teammate, said that he thought Dzhokhar’s intense interest in rough-and-tumble sports came from a desire to be like his brother.
“He’s done these violent sports because his brother’s a boxer,” Mr. Tean said. “He really loves his brother, looks up to him.”
At the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Dzhokhar began to struggle academically. According to a university transcript reviewed by The New York Times, he was failing many of his classes. The transcript shows him receiving seven failing grades over three semesters, including F’s in Principles of Modern Chemistry, Intro to American Politics and Chemistry and the Environment. According to the transcript, Dzhokhar received a B in Critical Writing and a D and D-plus in two other courses.
San, 22, a former classmate at the university who would identify himself only by his first name, said that Dzhokhar had told him he was having trouble in some courses.
“He was talking about how he wasn’t doing as good as he expected,” San said. “He was a really smart kid, but having a little difficulty in college because going from high school to college is totally different.”
San said that he would be willing to testify on Dzhokhar’s behalf.
“I feel like all of his friends would do that,” he said.
In Cambridge, where Dzhokhar lived in the third-floor unit of a caramel-colored wood-frame triple-decker on Norfolk Street, the brothers were often seen together. It is a multicultural neighborhood where hardware stores and butcher shops are mixed with cafes and Brazilian and Portuguese restaurants. Neighbors said that people were constantly coming and going at the apartment and that they were uncertain who lived there and who was just visiting. Sometimes they saw people from the unit in the backyard. Tamerlan was fond of doing pull-ups on the trellis, they said.
The brothers’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni, 42, said that on the night before he was killed, Tamerlan had called Mr. Tsarni’s older brother. “He said to my brother the usual rubbish, talking about God again, that whatever wrong he had done on his behalf, he would like to be forgiven,” said Mr. Tsarni, who lives in Montgomery Village, Md., outside Washington. “I guess he knew what he had done.”
Both brothers had a substantial presence on social media sites. On VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social media platform, Dzhokhar described his worldview as “Islam” and, asked to identify “the main thing in life,” answered “career and money.” He listed a series of affinity groups relating to Chechnya, where two wars of independence against Russia were fought after the Soviet Union collapsed, and a verse from the Koran: “Do good, because Allah loves those who do good.”
Their father said that Tamerlan would take his younger brother to Friday Prayer, but dismissed the idea that Dzhokhar had become devout, saying that they sometimes caught him smoking cigarettes.
“Dzhokhar listened to Tamerlan, of course, he also listened to us,” he said. “From childhood it was that way. He had his own head on his shoulders, he was a very gifted person. He had a gift of kindness, calmness, fairness — you understand, goodness? For him to do what they’re saying, it doesn’t it doesn’t fit him at all, it is not possible. Not at all.”
In Kyrgyzstan, the Tsarnaevs were part of a Chechen diaspora that dates back to 1943, when Stalin deported most Chechens from their homeland over concerns they were collaborating with the invading Nazi Army. Most returned to Chechnya in the 1950s, after the death of Stalin and lifting of the deportation order, but some stayed. The deportation was a searing, and in some cases, radicalizing experience.
Adnan Z. Dzarbrailov, the head of a Chechen diaspora group in Kyrgyzstan, said in a telephone interview that the Tsarnaev family lived near a sugar factory in the small town of Tokmok, about 40 miles from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The last member of the family left years ago, he said. He described them as “intelligentsia” and said that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s aunt was a lawyer.
Yet that history does little to explain how the brothers became wanted criminals in a horrific act of terrorism, their images captured on grainy surveillance tape and broadcast across the nation.
Gilberto Junior, who owns an auto body shop in Somerville, just saw them as “regular kids,” even if they had a taste for expensive cars.
So it did not especially alarm him when Dzhokhar rushed in on Tuesday, the day after the bombing, and said he needed his car immediately, never mind that the repairs had not been done and the white Mercedes wagon had no bumper and no taillights.
The younger Tsarnaev brother seemed nervous, he said. He was biting his nails and his knees were bending back and forth a bit; it occurred to Mr. Junior that he might be on drugs.
“At the time I didn’t think about anything,” Mr. Junior said. “How could I judge him? I knew that he was nervous.”