I found out about the Boston Marathon bombings while I was at work. I read the New York Times during my downtime. Generally nothing noteworthy happens, but this time something did. An explosion at the Boston Marathon. Who bombs the Boston Marathon?! I thought to myself, rather shocked. I kept hitting “refresh” on the Boston Globe, wanting to know more. It is an awful crime.
After I went to bed last Thursday, my husband stayed awake and finished his work. It was very early in the morning when he joined me, admitting that he was following news in Boston surrounding the pursuit of the suspects. Huh? Oh, they found them? I’ll read about it in the morning.
Over my breakfast, I read the news and it said that the suspects were of Chechen origin. Chechen?!
I was dumbfounded.
In summer 2008, I received a scholarship from the US State Department to learn Russian in Russia. It was all-expenses paid immersion program; I effectively won the lottery. The State Department felt it was wisest to send us to cities that were considered more “provincial”, knowing that residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg recognize foreigners easily and often spoke English. The point of the program was to spend eight weeks speaking only Russian. I spent that summer with about twenty other Americans in Asktrakhan, in south west Russia, being mistaken for a horrendously socially awkward Russian until my accent gave me away as foreign.
A week after I left Astrakhan, Georgia and Russia went to war after Georgia invaded South Ossetia and the territories claimed independence. It was part of a longer dispute regarding the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was one piece nationalism, one piece power and control. Russia is huge, and as far as I am aware Astrakhan was never directly affected by this war. If you are curious, your family sleeps sounder when you are not in a foreign country which is at war. My parents, and their friends, looked at a map, saw how close Astrakhan was to the Caucuses, and breathed a sigh of relief that I was sitting at their kitchen table reading The Post Standard’s comics.
Violence has been common in that territory. In addition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there are the issues regarding Chechen nationalism and Russia’s grip on the country. The Beslan hostage crisis was fresh in my memory despite its incidence was four years prior. My Russian professor regularly lamented the botched handling of the Dubrovka Theatre hostage crisis, where the Russian militsia killed hostages in an attempt to disable the hostage takers. It is a long standing dispute, and it was always over there, in the Caucuses, far away from home. The violence was a reminder of a easily forgotten form of American privilege- we live in a mostly peaceful place.
Five years later, my first reaction after reading the ethnic origin of the Boston suspects was disbelief. The second was, “Oh my god. Not here too.” My third was confusion: the United States and Russia are not exactly close, trusting friends. There is no reason for Chechen nationalists to alienate the United States – those weary of your enemies are potential friends. The US has been critical of human rights abuses in Russia, and Russia has been critical of anything it can be of in the United States. When Russia tries to say, “Look, this ethnic group is dangerous, let us enact some more repressive rules,” this attack would provide fuel to the fire and hand Russia a potentially powerful ally it did not previously have. Chechen terrorism in the United States just does not make sense, unless you are the sort of person who believes that Muslims like killing people.
When I was in Russia, I stayed with a family that was half ethnic Russian and half ethnic Tatar (a minority which tends to be Muslim). That was not unusual among the host families, and we were told by our teachers that Astrakhan was unusually diverse. Remember: Russia is a multi-ethnic society. While around 80% of citizens in the Russian Federation are ethnic Russians, there are over 160 other ethnicities of migrants and indigenous peoples. Astrakhan was located not far from the Caspian Sea, from Kazakhstan, and the Caucuses. It seemed all the marshrudka drivers (think Econoline sort of vans operating on bus routes) were from the Caucuses. In Russia, the most common faith is Orthodox Christianity and the second is Islam. With that said, it appeared that most people observed their faiths with a fervor you’d expect from the average American Methodist – a part of their lives, but one piece of many. Muslim women didn’t usually wear hijabs, considering it old fashioned. My host family’s observed neither the Christian nor Muslim side of their heritage. This was familiar to me, as the lack of zealotry and enthusiasm resonated with my experience with interfaith families and general practices of religiosity at home. This is to say, if someone suddenly became religious, it is easy to see where that would be weird. It is also to say that formerly Soviet citizens seem to have many stories of moving from place to place.
In the next few days after the Boston bombings, I found myself with the unusual experience of having first hand experience with some of the points that were being tossed around the media.
Some of it was pretty trivial. I have actually visited the birth city of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Elista, if the Russian wikipedia is accurate about the location (which borrowed from a Kyrgyz press release). It’s a city known for having the largest Buddhist temple in Europe.
When NPR described “Jahar” as a “nickname” for Dzhokhar, I shook my head. No, that’s not a nickname, that’s his name. It is actually a closer English spelling of how “Джохар” sounds. ”Дж”, transliterated into “Dzh” is the closest thing you get to a “J” sound in the Cyrillic alphabet, and “х” is more of a hard “h”, like in Hanukkah, which is transliterated into “Kh”. The emphasis is on the second syllable. The Cyrillic alphabet bulldozed over whatever ethnicity the first name is from (Internet suggests it’s the Hindi Johar?), and then the Cyrillic to English transliteration was just as awkward.
Something similar happens with my surname. I have two visas from the Russian Federation, and my surname is spelled differently on both of them, despite the fact the Russian Embassy had my passport and the first visa when issuing the second. They determined the spelling. My surname has a “c” with a “k” sound. On one visa it is a “k”, and on the other visa it’s “c”, which is the Russian “s”. Sometimes the Roman “c” is transliterated into “ц”, which is the “Ts” sound. There are three different ways to transcribe my surname, if you are a person who is unfamiliar with how it’s spoken. My visas were applied for with the same passport, information, etc.
It is with that background that I heard others criticize the FBI for what appears to be a lack of clairvoyance. Senator Graham claimed the FBI failed to note a trip the elder brother took to Russia because one of a misspelling of his name on the Aeroflot manifest. As I said… that would be easy to do. The US government clearly knows exactly when I have left and returned – I have an RFID chip in my passport and heck, they paid for my trip the second time around. Does the Russian FSB? Who knows.
I flew on Aeroflot once, from St. Petersburg to Moscow and then I took a connection to Volgograd in 2008. Aeroflot is the legacy airline of the former Soviet Union, and the Russian government is a majority owner. My memory is not filled with recollections of competence. The aged planes seemed to have more duct-tape than one would find preferable and they failed to transfer our entire group’s luggage from the St. Petersburg leg to the Volgograd leg. Oops. That they would misspell a name does not surprise me.
Russia suggested Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a threat and holding what they considered extremist views. Let’s have a chat about what can constitute “extreme views” in Russia. It can mean a variety of political dissent. Russia sent two women to prison for two years for the crime of cussing about Putin in a nearly empty church. When they say someone is a threat, and don’t elaborate, does that mean that they are a dissident journalist or someone who had the gall to protest against Putin? Heaven forbid you try to run for office against the ruling party. Think about that the next time you criticize President Obama or former President Bush, or when you write about your anti-capitalist tendencies. Russia does not protect freedom of expression as it is protected in America. Now Russia has disclosed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was discussing jihad with his mother, but without knowing that prior, what was the FBI to do?
Turns out the younger brother had a Vkontakte account. (So do I.) What’s not mentioned is that his wall hadn’t been touched since March 2012, and it doesn’t seem like a particularly active account, at least not prior to gaining infamy. Anyone can post on the walls of folks in VK. Some of the articles’ description, like how the younger brother valued “career and money”, do not acknowledge that it was an option chosen from a drop-down menu of generic orientations. Other options include “Family and children” or “art and beauty”. This article states that his last post was from “19 March”, leaving the reader to believe it was a month ago, when on VK it says “19 March 2012. Come on. VK suggests he logged in the night before he was captured, but what does that really mean? I logged into my account last week.
It was weird. Generally I do not have much familiarity with some facet of the world being discussed in the media, and almost never more than the journalists reporting on it. It seemed like the nuance and context went out the window in a quick and dirty attempt to fill air time.
I share this experience for the reminder it gave me: be a skeptical consumer of the media. Be a little cynical of all of the media, even NPR, even the outlets that you generally trust with the perspectives that land most comfortably on your eyes and ears. They probably are not quite getting the entire picture.