Boston bombing suspects: What the Kyrgyzstan connection means

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

The Tsarnaev family history, now that young brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar are suspects in the Boston marathon bombing, is getting an awful lot of scrutiny. One of the details, as reported by The Washington Post, is that the family lived for a time in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, where Dzhokhar may have been born.

The Tsarnaevs are reportedly of Chechen origin, and while the details of how they got to that far-away Central Asian state is not known, the story of Chechens in Kyrgyzstan is a revealing one, a microcosm of the much bigger and more complicated story of Chechnya under two centuries of Russian rule.

In the early 1940s, long before either of the Tsarnaev brothers was born, as German troops pushed into the Soviet Union, separatist Chechen rebels saw their opportunity to win long-sought independence from Moscow, according to Tony Wood’s definitive history, “Chechnya: The Case for Independence.” But the insurgency was brutally suppressed and, toward the end of the war, Joseph Stalin approved a plan to have about 400,000 Chechens forcibly relocated elsewhere in the Soviet Union’s sprawling empire, undermining the entire idea of a regionally distinct Chechen identity. The Chechens, after all, could not declare independence if they were scattered across Eurasia.

Many of those Chechen families ended up on the Central Asian steppes, in Soviet republics we today know as the independent states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In 1957, they were allowed to return home to Chechnya, but many fled back to Central Asia during the First Chechen War of 1994 to 1996 or the Second Chechen War of 1999 to 2000.

And what about the Tsarnaevs? Kyrgyzstan officials say that the family lived in the small town of Tokmok near the Kazakh border, The Post’s Kathy Lally reports. The officials say that the Tsarnaevs left Kyrgyzstan about 12 years ago for Dagestan, a Russian territory in the Caucasus adjacent to Chechnya, and then moved to the U.S.

To be clear, it’s not known for sure whether the Tsarnaevs ended up in Kyrgyzstan as part of the mass deportation of the 1940s. But the legacy of that incident is significant for the larger Chechen story, part of a long and painful history of dispossession that is itself crucial for understanding the conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan, whatever impact it did or did not have on the young Tsarnaev brothers.