sports blog by andy shenk

Two Reflections on Boston

In Dagestan, Musings on April 24, 2013 at 5:27 PM

1. The two bombing suspects’ ethnicity has been under intense scrutiny in the media. We now know that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are of mixed ethnicity. Their father, Anzor, is Chechen and their mother, Zubeidat, is Avar, one of the many Dagestani ethnicities.

Tamerlan, 26, and Dzhokhar, 19, grew up in Kyrgyzstan, where their father’s family had lived for generations following the mass Chechen deportation of 1944. The family moved to Dagestan around the turn of the century, before emigrating to the United States in 2002 (Tamerlan did not arrive in the United States until the following year, at the age of 17). Tamerlan had Russian citizenship and Dzhokhar Kyrgyz citizenship upon arrival in America. At the time of the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan was still a Russian citizen, while Dzhokhar had recently gained American citizenship. Their parents, meanwhile, returned to Dagestan in 2012.

We have a case, then, in which two brothers, one American and one Russian, are accused of setting off multiple explosives at the Boston Marathon. Why is their Chechen-Avar ethnicity important? After all, the many Dagestani and Chechen who have won medals at the Summer Olympics in wrestling, judo and boxing are referred to as Russians in the American media.

Their Avar blood, in fact, has not been discussed in depth¹, but Chechnya, both within Russian and without, immediately invokes images of the bloody Chechen wars, fought between the separatist Chechen republic of Ichkeria and the Russian Federation between 1994-2009, as well as the various terrorist acts committed by Chechen and Dagestani separatists within Russia since the early 1990s. Racial profiling of men from the North Caucasus region of Russia, where Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan are located, is common in Russia, with their skin tone easily distinguishable from that of the dominant Russian ethnicity. Coupled with Islam’s prevalence in Dagestan and Chechnya, people from that region face significant stereotypes within their own country.

Once the news broke on Friday morning that the two Boston Marathon suspects had Chechen blood, the media went into a frenzy breaking down any possible terrorist connections in an effort to sate the public demand for answers. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar are almost certainly guilty, but any connection to past Chechen violence has yet to be proven. For the millions of Americans following the national media, however, descriptions of Chechen civil unrest and reminders of various Chechen hostage crises, placed these two half-Chechen, long-time American residents, as well as other Chechen-Americans, in an exceedingly unfavorable light. While the term ‘Russian’ is complicated², it would have been far more responsible of the media to solely refer to Tamerlan as a Russian citizen with American residency and Dzhokhar as a naturalized American citizen until connections to terrorist organizations in the North Caucasus could be demonstrated.

2. Five people have died as a result of the Boston Marathon bombings, including one suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Hundreds of people were injured, including at least 13 victims with lost or maimed limbs. The fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX on April 17 killed at least 15 people, with hundreds injured and 140 homes destroyed.

Public sympathy, sadly, for those affected by the West explosions has been miniscule in comparison to the support extended to the citizens of Boston in the last nine days. Indeed, people all around the world die violently every day³, most unnoticed and unnamed by mass media. One must hope that violence in our own communities, however “insignificant”, will be treated with the same outrage as the Boston Marathon bombings.

¹American experts appear to have forgotten about Dagestan’s most famous terrorist, Imam Shamil, an Avar leader in the 1800s who led a decades-long revolt against Russian rule in Chechnya and Dagestan. While Shamil was popularized by the Soviet Union as a national folk hero for standing up against Tsarist Russia, and is still venerated in Dagestan, he was considered public enemy #1 in the Russian Empire until his capture in 1859.

²The Russian language uses two terms, russkii and rossiiskii, to distinguish between ethnic Russians and Russian citizens of other ethnicities. Much like the Boston Marathon case, Russian media frequently refers to Olympians or other distinguished persons from the North Caucasus as rossiiskii (the term for Russian citizen), while terming criminals from the same region as kavkaztsy, dagestantsy, or chechentsy to denote their North Caucasus origins.

³Worldwide, approximately 1,400 people are murdered daily.  In the United States, the number is approximately 45.

  1. Thanks for this post Andy. I was wondering, do you think you and Bekah would have any interest in co-writing a post about Boston? I think it’s significant that Bekah and the Tsarnaev brothers were probably the only folks who’ve lived in Dagestan at the race. At the same time, I don’t think it’s worth writing if the cautions out-weigh the benefits.

    • I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m not sure I would have anything else to add at this point.

      I don’t know what Bekah’s thoughts are on the subject. I would be very interested to talk more about it with her.

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