Several days after the Tsarnaev brothers’ chaotic murder-spree ended on the deck of a boat in Watertown, the long assault on the idea of being Chechen is just getting started.
Here’s what we know so far. The brothers were Chechens by blood, but not by birth or biography. The older one, Tamerlan, appears to have spent no more than two days in Chechnya in his entire life. His brother had never been. From reports of the younger brother’s hospital confessions, it appears that the two didn’t have connections to overseas extremists; they may have just been murderers with wifi and access to angry imams on YouTube. Until we know for sure, though, the media is employing some impressive rhetorical jujitsu to tie them to the Chechen wars. As USA Today described them yesterday, they are “two brothers born near war-torn Chechnya”. Actually, it’s a 2000 mile drive from Kyrgyzstan to Chechnya, so you could just as soon describe them as being born near the white-sand beaches of Goa.
But we are talking about Chechens and we will be for the foreseeable future. Before we all get carried away in a flood of reports about the warlike nature of Chechens or the jihad baked into their blood, it’s worth pointing out that Chechens are people too. Their culture goes far beyond bloodfeuds or radicalization. I drew on my own time among them, and on the experiences of everyone from diaspora Chechens to foreign correspondents, for a list of Nine Things to Love About Chechens. Yes, there are more than nine, smartass, but this is a start.
They have the cleanest shoes on earth
The Caucasus are, for much of the year, a series of mud republics. Chechens live on the mountains or just below them, so when the snows thaw, or the rains come, the unpaved streets of their villages melt into a deep muck. Rather than give in to these conditions, however, Chechens became even more fastidious, particularly about their shoes. When I first lived in Moscow during the first Chechen War, Russian security toughs were rumored to be racially profiling Chechens, not by their skin color, which can be as light as the Slavs’, but by their shoes. Inexpensive black shoes that were impeccably shined could be enough to get you stopped for a document check. But what Russians saw as the tell of a possible militant always struck me as a testament to Chechen self-respect, even in the face of poverty, or mud.
They make good dates
Central Asia and Russia specialist Eugene Huskey remembers the time in 2000 that Ilyas Akhmadov, at the time the foreign minister of the self-styled Ichkeria (independent Chechnya), came to Stetson University in Central Florida to give a lecture: “We went out before the event in my canoe, and as we floated aimlessly on the St. John’s River, Ilyas admitted that he felt a sense of relaxation for the first time in a decade–a decade that he’d devoted to fighting in and working for Chechnya. He quickly added that to be relaxed was to experience a sense of guilt because others he knew were not so fortunate. The next day, he did something that no other visitor from the communist or post-communist world had ever done while our guest in Florida: he paid for my meal.”
Their folk dance is a complete, complex gender drama
Oliver Bullough, author of the upcoming Last Man in Russia, says the traditional Chechen dances offer a surprise: “The man stamps and struts, while the woman glides. At first you think it is chauvinist, that the man is having all the fun, and that the woman is a chattel or an accessory for his enjoyment. But the more you watch and understand, the more you realise it is far more complex than that. The woman, by ignoring the man completely and dancing to herself while he flashes with all his macho art, can make him look ridiculous. By acknowledging a dancer who is enthusiastic but not skilful, she can make him glow with pride. It is a subtle and impressive interplay between the sexes, enjoyed by both men, women and even this spectator who has never been brave enough to join in.”
Their prayer circle: not what you think
If there is a religious battle going on in Chechnya, it’s a battle of old versus new. The ancient and mystic traditions have, under pressure of war and politics, been squeezed by radical, severe imports from overseas. But still, the true Chechen form of Islam lives on. In a village near where Yuri Kozyrev took the picture above, he and I were welcomed into a mosque for a ceremony that was as far from the austere Sunni worships I was used to as possible. There was the zikr—the prayer circle—and a lot of singing. It was intense, emotional, personal, and warm.
Bullough describes the zikr he witnessed in a Chechen enclave in Kazakhstan as “the single most emotionally powerful ritual” he ever saw: “Chechens have lived in Krasnaya Polyana (not the Russian ski resort but a collective farm with the same name deep in the steppes of Kazakhstan) since 1944 when Stalin deported their nation en masse for supposed treachery. There they have been left unmolested by government and Islamist alike to cherish the Sufism of their ancestors. Starting with drums and chants, with participants seated, the zikr climaxed into a standing circle of clapping and cries. Several women, who took as full a part as the men, were sobbing loudly with the effort. No place and no ritual could be better designed to make you rethink the ‘Muslim equals terrorist’ rhetoric of so much of the web in the last few days.”
They eat chicken liver, just like Jews
So this may not be a huge plus for everyone—I’m aware that some people do not enjoy the densest, most flavorful of all organ meats. But when I was reporting from the Chechen villages in the Pankisi Gorge in 2011, there was nothing nearly as comforting as stopping at a roadside restaurant and finding a food that I had grown up eating with the Jewish side of my family. As I’ve written on Roads & Kingdoms before, Christians eat this dish too. All three faiths share this food like we share Abraham. We are People of the Book. We eat chicken liver.
I’ve been talking with Beslan Makhauri, a news anchor with the late, lamented PIK TV in Tbilisi, since the news broke. He lives with his family in Toronto, where there’s a lot of disbelief in the Chechen community—one of the aunts of the suspects lives there, and had the rather wild conviction that the brothers were being framed. It’s possible you’ll hear a lot of that in the coming weeks from Chechens, even as the trial kicks in and evidence mounts. It’s worth remembering, though, two things: many Chechens (like the brothers’ uncle) accept their guilt and are as angered, if not more so, than the rest of us and 2) the other Chechens are still thinking of their old country, where they actually were framed for atrocities committed by the government.
That has been one price of the long wars with Russia. Makhauri’s favorite singer, Liza Umarova, is an example, though, of the protest against it all—the violence, the war, the silent acquiescence of the international community as Chechnya was destroyed. It’s post-Soviet balladry, so forgive the electronic keyboards and other sonic tchotchkes, but her voice is clear and strong on songs like her anti-war anthem Wake Up Russia or her ode to Grozny The Blind Accordian Player. “They are anti-war songs, full of melody and meaning,” says Makhauri. “This is the Chechen state of mind.”
I caught up with Simon Shuster, longtime TIME Magazine correspondent, by email from Khasavyurt, where he was not with Chechens, but with Kumyks. Wikipedia them. But his time in Chechnya inspired “deep admiration” for the way that Chechens worship their elders. “Never have I seen teenage boys wait on their fathers and uncles with more care and devotion than in a Chechen home. When an elder walks into a room, all the younger Chechens stand in unison and offer their seat. And it’s not out of fear or subservience but pure and simple respect.”
Forget the backwards baseball cap that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wore at the marathon or the flat cap he wore in surveillance videos during the manhunt. Forget even the traditional Chechen lambswool hats. In the mind of author and Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal, it’s the Chechen “fondness for fedoras” that really counts. It’s true: look at this photoseries from Thomas Dworzak and you’ll see a shot of Dzhokhar Dudaev, the first president of free Chechnya, in one of his many fedoras. It’s not just a fashion statement; the Chechen love for fedoras says a lot about how the Caucasus are a crossroads of sorts, where east and west and south meet the north, looking dapper all the while.
The Widow Dudaeva
Kozyrev and I met Dudaev’s widow Alla in her spacious apartment in Tbilisi, where she served strong black tea and told us stories about her former life as the first lady of a doomed country. She was there when the missiles hit her husband. She had seen terrible things, and whether through advancing age or simply the pain of what she had lived through, she had a slightly airy, moonstruck quality about her. She showed us a huge portfolio of her paintings—she was trained in Soviet times as an artist—and talked about her mystic revelations. But there was something so charming about her, so open and wounded, that in the end, you couldn’t help but realize what we should all keep in mind these coming months: these are the Chechens, as brittle and beautiful, as human, as you or I.