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Tsarnaev Brothers' Roots Grounded Them In Different Worlds


There's been a lot of speculation about the Tsarnaev brothers and the reasons behind Monday's bombing. The American press has made much of the suspects' Chechen heritage.


LYDEN: But some of the boys' family have insisted it must be the American in them that inspired this, like their uncle speaking yesterday to reporters.

RUSLAN TSARNI: No. They've never been in Chechnya. This has nothing to do with Chechnya.

LYDEN: Julia Ioffe says the truth is probably a little of both. She, too, is a Russian immigrant. She left that country when she was 7 years old. Now, she's a reporter for The New Republic where she wrote an article yesterday called "The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America." She joins me now in our studios. Julia Ioffe, thanks for coming in.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: So for many of us, when we heard that these young people were of Chechen descent, it was surprising for some people to learn about Chechnya's relationship with Russia. Explain to us how difficult that history has been.

IOFFE: It was part of the Soviet Union, and that's probably when the most bloody phase of their history was. The wars in the '90s and the early 2000s were a radicalizing experience both for Chechens and for ethnic Russians. Ethnic Russians now view them as an enemy inside their borders. On the other side, in the Muslim North Caucasus, it was a radicalizing experience because what was originally a quest for national independence quickly became a more internationalist Islamic insurgency.

We should be clear that there really isn't much violence and terrorism in Chechnya now, and that is because of Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a handpicked president by the Kremlin. He has people assassinated outside of Russia's borders that go against him. So he kind of holds that republic together. The violence and the terrorism has spilled over into neighboring Dagestan, which is where the Tsarnaev brothers spent a little bit of time and where their father is now.

LYDEN: So does that Chechen cultural background help explain the parents' belief that this was a government setup?

IOFFE: It explains more the mentality. So the Tsarnaev brothers' aunt spoke in Toronto yesterday. She said this was a setup. This was a fabricated case, and I know because I was a federal prosecutor in Kyrgyzstan. And apparently, the boys' father was also - also worked in the security apparatus.

When you work inside a system that actually does fabricate cases against fellow citizens, I think like most people they project what they know - the reality they know onto the reality that they're not presented with.

LYDEN: But these young men were also in this country for a full decade, although it seems that they adjusted very differently to the experience. Dzhokhar, the younger brother, relatively well adjusted by nearly every account from his friends and classmates. Tamerlan, a lot less so.

IOFFE: I know this in part from my own experience and from observing immigrants in the Russian community in the U.S., especially older people. The older people were when they came, the more they inhabit in their minds a world they left behind. A lot of Russian immigrants in the U.S. watch Russian television (unintelligible) via satellite. They read Russian newspapers. They know about things that even when I was living in Moscow I didn't know about.

I would come home, and relatives would ask me about ballet openings and new books that had come out, like things that living in Moscow I wasn't aware of and they knew from across the ocean. So, you know, they inhabit this dual space where every day, they're working and interacting with Americans, and they inhabit an American reality, but some part of them mentally is still there and probably inhabiting a place that doesn't exist.

LYDEN: As a Russian immigrant yourself, have you ever felt that sense of it can be difficult to connect even when you want to?

IOFFE: You know, I feel totally at home, totally American here. But there are certain things - you know, you grow up in a basically Soviet Russian home - and there are certain things that you don't quite understand about Americans, about how they will break down a check at a restaurant, like down to the nickels. And to a Russian, it seems very stingy. A Russian will go like, you know what, I'll get it. You get it next time.

The funny thing is, is that I thought I was very Russian until I moved back to Russia at 27. And then I realized the problem that people like my parents' generation have who were more like the Tsarnaev uncle. They don't want to have anything to do with Russia. They're American now. They live here. But as much as they want to be friends with Americans, there's a limit to how close they can get because their whole frame of reference, their world view is just a little bit different.

You know, they read different books growing up. They watched different movies growing up. They have different jokes. They have different sensibilities. When I moved back to Russia, I realized that I was actually quite American and that people there were like, what is "Seinfeld?" What is "Saturday Night Live?"

LYDEN: That's Julia Ioffe whose article "The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America" can be found online at newrepublic.com. Thank you so much, Julia.

IOFFE: Thank you.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.