Fundamentalism and the Chechens' fighting history

The ancestral home of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has long been a land of fighters, but it took on the character of an Islamic jihad in the 1990s.

Clara Germani
Chechen fighters celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops from their republic in August 1996.
Clara Germani
Russian soldiers, accompanied by a man showing a Koran, ride a tank amid Russia's withdrawal from Chechnya in August 1996.

The Chechnya from which the Tsarnaev family traces their roots became in the 1990s a battered and violent place undergoing an ideological shift.

Already, it was home to a warrior culture, down to the very bone.

Throughout the mountain towns of the Caucasus, gymnasiums were full of wiry teens and young men learning to box, wrestle, and practice Asian martial arts. Speed bags hung from trees the way basketball hoops decorate American driveways.

Caucasians were heavily overrepresented in the combat sports on Russian, and before that Soviet, national teams.  It’s not surprising that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a boxer and the younger Dzhokhar a wrestler.

For at least two centuries, Chechens and their neighbors have been fighting to throw off the yoke of Russian domination. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, that fight heated up again.

Chechnya was pummeled brutally in the process. The main city of Grozny was largely reduced to rubble. People hand carried their water in buckets even to high-rise apartments. Few windows were left unshattered. Gas flares from ruptured pipes created huge torches on block after block. Garbage piled up on empty or pulverized lots and cows grazed through it. In the buildings where families still lived, they spray painted “zhivoot” – living – on the outside walls, hoping to dissuade Russian soldiers from blowing it up.

But through all that the Chechens radiated toughness. The young men kept to the mountains, coming down to buy rifles from demoralized and poorly paid Russian soldiers – and then to attack them with their own guns.

But by the time the Russians agreed to withdraw their troops from Chechnya in 1996, a change was visible in Chechen attitudes. The region had been Muslim for centuries, but Islam was moving more to the center of the Chechen fight. A few Arabs – some of them veterans of the war against Soviets in Afghanistan – came to set up madrasas to teach a fundamentalist, Wahhabi version of Islam. It made some rapid inroads, dividing mountain villages with sometimes murderous results.

When the Russians withdrew their tanks from Chechnya, long lines of them rumbling out of the mountains, men who appeared to be Arabs, with long beards, black flags with Arabic characters, and Korans held open for all to see, rode on the gun turrets.

The nationalistic flavor of the Chechen war seemed to be taking on the character of an Islamic jihad.

In the years since, Chechens have once again been suppressed by the heavy hand of Russia and in retaliation, Chechens have claimed credit for a series of horrific acts of terror against Russians – including the massacre of schoolchildren at Beslan, the taking of an entire Moscow theater audience hostage, and a series of apartment building and subway station bombings with scores of fatalities.

From the days of Catherine the Great to the early 1990s, Russian soldiers showed a grudging respect for the great warriors of the Caucasus who fought, soldier to soldier, for their independence.

One can only imagine what the legendary Shamil – a Caucasian hero of the 19th century – would think of the last decade of attacks on children and other noncombatants.

• Marshall Ingwerson was the Monitor's Moscow correspondent from 1995 to 1997.

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