The Times Literary Supplement

May 29, 2015

‘The Tsarnaev Brothers’

Masha Gessen

The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy

274 pp. Scribe. Paperback, 14.99 [UK Edition] 978 1 922247 50 6

If he weren’t accused of killing four innocent people, including an eight-year-old boy, you might almost pity Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The alleged lead bomber of the Boston Marathon in 2013 was worldly enough to gain asylum in America but didn’t realize the GPS in a car he commandeered after the bombing was allowing police to follow him, leading to his death in a shootout. He was a championship boxer from Russia who supported himself in Boston by selling drugs, a nowhere man with a bleak future. This tale of immigrant ambition gone wrong is well-told by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. She has little to add about the bombing itself, yet the backstory of family dysfunction and dislocation stretching back to Stalin makes this an important work on the psychology of sectarian violence.

Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar (recently convicted of the bombing) followed their Chechen father to Massachusetts as boys. Tamerlan, sixteen when he arrived, was soon steered by a family friend into professional martial arts, a Chechen tradition and central theme to this story, but unsuitable for gaining American career credentials, says Gessen. The Tsarnaevs were not exactly model immigrants. The younger brother won a scholarship to university where he became known as a campus dope dealer. Tamerlan was arrested for assaulting a woman, possibly preventing him from getting a US passport. Eventually most of the family straggled back to Dagestan, which, in the Putin years, was afflicted by police brutality and a “dangerous undercurrent of tension” as radical Islam gained favour, writes Gessen. Their mother ditched the revealing dresses she once liked and took to black headscarves, and Tamerlan associated with a group called the Union of the Just. Gessen is circumspect on whether he was radicalised in the familiar sense, but he had clearly found a cause more meaningful than boxing.

Tamerlan returned to Boston nine months before the bombings. Here Gessen’s account takes a puzzling turn. She speculates on whether the FBI’s contacts with him before the attack meant they had something to hide after it. The FBI deny trying to recruit him, but even if they had, so what? She asserts they were the first bombings in the name of Islam in the United States since 2001, overlooking the strikingly similar Times Square attempt in 2010, foiled only by a faulty ignition. And she says little about the relationship between Tamerlan and his younger brother, who was sentenced to death by a federal jury against overwhelming public opinion in Boston, which wanted life in prison. The younger brother’s lawyers asserted he was dragged into the plot by his domineering sibling, an argument rejected by the jury but which Gessen’s book would seem to support.

–Roger Atwood