Liz’s note: I don’t usually post content on Saturdays, but my friend Susan has written what I think is an important contribution to the conversation about the Boston bombing suspects that I think needs to be shared now, not later. Omid Safi has some great points in his article about approaching discussions about the suspects, but Susan, an expert on Slavic history and culture, points out here the problems of trying to erase the bombers’ ethnicity from the story. It’s totally inappropriate to say that these young men committed these crimes because they are Chechen, but it’s also important to recognize that they are the victims of war. To erase their Chechen identity is to erase the fact that these men, while victimizing others, were childhood victims of a terrible war.

Guest post by Susan Vdovichenko, PhD
Slavic and Eastern European languages, literatures, and cultures

“The Boston Bombers are white guys.”

Facebook, Twitter, blogs, pundits – everybody is now trying to figure out what that means.  They’re white Muslims.  It’s a fact.  I could almost hear the sigh of relief across the liberal side of the internet when they found out.  White.  Or, Caucasian.  So White.  Yes?

Yahoo News explained it as such: people had expected a dark-skinned Muslim, but instead, “But the actual bombing suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are ethnic Chechens who have lived in the United States for a decade. Their roots are tied to the Caucasus region — quite literally, they are Caucasian.”

All day, my head has been tilted to the side, like those videos of pugs.  “Quite literally, they are Caucasian,” is true.  But that doesn’t contradict the picture of an ethnic minority, and, quite frankly, most people who use the word Caucasian to mean “White” have never met somebody from the Caucusus.

Chechens aren’t White.  Well, nobody’s white, not white in the way a piece of paper is white.  But Chechens aren’t White in the way that they would not check the box “white” on a census.  If there were such a box.  But there isn’t usually such a box, instead, it says “Caucasian,” which almost none of us are.

To say that the Tsarnaev brothers are White, to say that they “went to Matt Damon’s high school,” to gloss over their ethnicity because in America we see them as White – sure, it allows people to turn the spotlight off of Arabs (for the time being), but it also completely erases a critical part of their identity.

The Tsarnaev brothers’ history is murky, at best, although there has been a ton of speculation about what their lives were like – what sports they played in school, the jobs they held and how often they showed up late, when their Muslim faith became important to them. I can’t tell you about any of that, but what I can tell you, what seems to be missing entirely from the conversation, is what it means to be Chechen.  What it means to be Chechen in Chechnya, what it means to be Chechen in Russia, what it means to be Chechen in America.  They have been painted as “White Muslims” – as though their ethnicity, since it is Caucasian, has nothing to do with anything.

The older brother was 26.  This means that when he was born, in 1987, Chechnya was about to get into a war that lasted from 1988-1994.  This was mostly fought outside of Chechnya, in Ajerbaijan, but the Caucasus aren’t that big – it would be like living in New Jersey and sending soldiers to war in Washington DC.

Soon enough, war came home.  The First Chechen War was with Russia, from 1994-1996, and it ripped the country to bits.  “Although there are no accurate figures for the number of Chechen militants killed, various estimates put the number at about 3,000 to over 15,000 deaths. Various figures estimate the number of civilian deaths at between 30,000 and 100,000 killed and possibly over 200,000 injured, while more than 500,000 people were displaced by the conflict, which left cities and villages across the republic in ruins.”  This in a country smaller than New Jersey and with a population of 1.3 million.

At the time of the start of this war, Tamerlan was 7.  Dzhokhar had just been born.  The conflict ended.  Yeltsin wanted Putin to gain power.  There was a series of questionable bombings in Moscow which were blamed on the Chechens, and gave Putin the support to invade again.  There is some evidence that Putin was behind those bombings (John McCain famously believed that Putin ordered them), but most people who had the nerve to say that have ended up dead.

The second Chechen war started in 1999.  It was officially ended in 2009.  “Unofficial estimates range from 25,000 to 50,000 dead or missing, mostly civilians in Chechnya.” Again, this in a country smaller than New Jersey and with a population of 1.3 million.

At some point, the Tsarnaev family escaped to Kyrgystan.  Maybe before they had seen the worst of the war, maybe after.  How much trauma does a 7-year-old need to see before it becomes important?  How much does a kid need to hear about their homeland and their family members being destroyed before it matters?

At some point after that, they escaped to America.

To be a Chechen in Chechnya in the 1990s was to live through circumstances that most of us cannot imagine.  In 2006 Sultan Alimkhadzhiyev, Chechnya’s deputy health minister, said the Chechen children had become “living specimens” of what it means to grow up with the constant threat of violence and chronic poverty. “Our children have seen bombings, artillery attacks, large-caliber bombardment. They saw houses, schools and hospitals burning. They lost parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors. And they still see tanks and armored vehicles every day in the street. (…) A state of panic. Children are feeling constant fear, a premonition of tragedy.”

In case you haven’t noticed, these kids – the Boston marathon bombers – these are the kids he’s talking about.

In a speech to the United Nations Commision on Human Rights, on March 24, 2000, US Secretary Madeleine Albright said: “We cannot ignore the fact that thousands of Chechen civilians have died and more than 200,000 have been driven from their homes. Together with other delegations, we have expressed our alarm at the persistent, credible reports of human rights violations by Russian forces in Chechnya, including extrajudicial killings. There are also reports that Chechen separatists have committed abuses, including the killing of civilians and prisoners.”

To be a Chechen in Chechnya in the 1990s is to revile the Russians, who destroy everything.

The Tsarnaev family went to Kyrgyzstan at some point, then back to Dagestan, which is near Chechnya.  Here’s the thing about Chechens outside of Chechnya:  they are as reviled as the Russians are inside of Chechnya.  This is where the idea of “white” is confusing to me: in Russian, Chechens (and other Caucasians) are referred to derogatorily as “black-asses” – darker skinned, dark haired, swarthy people that are recognizable on sight as “the other.”  They were not White, not when they were in Russia.

The cycle of hatred between ethnic Russians and ethnic Chechens was vicious.  The wars, the human rights atrocities, the bombing, and then the terrorist attacks.  The biggest one was in Beslan, where Chechen terrorists killed 334 grade schoolers, a hostage situation that lasted 3 days and was covered by the media in real time.  Chechens outside of Chechnya were abhorred.

And then America.  They came to America in the early 2000s, when the older brother was in his late teens and the younger brother just 10.  To be a Chechen in America is to be…a Russian.

My husband is Ukrainian, and when we were in my hometown for the first time, he received the nickname of “Gorbachev.”  You know.  Gorbachev.  The Russian.  Because Russia and Ukraine are…the same.

And Chechnya and Russia are…the same.

And somebody who is an ethnic minority in Russia is just another Russian here in America, where people can’t fathom the kind of atrocities that Chechen kids lived through, and worse – can’t be bothered to care.

When somebody in their late teens is transplanted to an entirely foreign culture, the transition can be very hard.  It is harder to learn the language, and the person will never be able to speak without an accent.  Their identity has been formed, but that is totally thrown out of whack upon arrival.  A younger person, say 10-year-old Djokhar, would have had it much easier.  The language comes quickly, it becomes possible within a few years to blend in, to accept the culture.

According to a paper presented at the National Conference of State Legislators, “Most children of immigrants fare well, but immigrant teens can face unique challenges related to language proficiency, cultural and social adaptation and poverty.”

I don’t have any idea why these young men did what they did.  It’s a horrible situation, all around, and I can’t stop thinking about how excited everybody probably was when they realized they were going to America, the land of prosperity, where everybody has a car and a computer and nobody ever goes hungry, where bombs are something that happens somewhere else, where you can go to the store without fear.  The future was wide open.

We can’t just say “oh, they’re white, let’s focus on the Muslim thing.”  Their history, regardless of what kind of sports they played, is important.  Their identity, regardless of how white they look to us, is important.  Their trauma is a global failure.   As Americans, we are particularly good at being ignorant about 90% of the world – this isn’t about Chechnya, it’s about a foreign guy who liked to box and said he had no American friends.  But that attitude – all that matters is America and the rest of the world is a homogenous mass of “not-America” – that’s the kind of attitude that makes it so difficult for ethnic minorities from other parts of the world to ever be able to be understood here.

Don’t believe me? The Ambassador of the Czech Republic felt compelled to make this statement earlier today:  “The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities – the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.”  Czechs, Chechens, Chicagoans, they’re all the same, right?  All Russian probably.  Except not.

The world failed an entire generation of Chechen kids, and then we went ahead and erased their trauma.  And we continue to erase it.  We have to learn to ask questions, to make distinctions, to look beyond how American or non-American somebody is.

I’m relieved that the bombers turned out to be “white” – fewer excuses for people to detain Arabs and mistreat innocent people.  I’m also disappointed that they turned out to be “white” – because they aren’t.  And when we call them White, when we pretend like they are a couple of kids from an affluent Boston suburb, when we ignore their ethnic identity and the reality of America where you’re either us or them – we perpetuate the problem.  We make it so the next generation of war-scarred kids who only by the grace of God have a chance to escape, to make it to a better life – we make it so that these kids, too, will never be understood.