Chechnya. Kyrgyzstan. The Caucasus: A Primer on the Complicated Region the Tsarnaev Brothers Come From

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 19 2013 12:17 PM

Chechnya. Kyrgyzstan. The Caucasus.

A primer on the complicated region the Tsarnaev brothers come from.

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing is reintroducing the American public to the confused ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political history of the Caucasus region

Photo provided by FBI via Getty Images

The hunt for Boston Marathon terrorist suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev is reintroducing the American public to the confused ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political history of the Caucasus region. A few questions and some answers.

What Is the Caucasus?

Roughly speaking, the region is the land mass between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The isthmus between these bodies of water is bisected by an east-west mountain range. The generally arduous terrain, as well as its location at the intersection of Turkic, Persian, and Slavic cultures, gives it a very fractured and diverse ethnic landscape. On the south side of the mountains are three independent states—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—that were politically organized as constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Entities on the north side of the mountains—among them Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia—were organized as subordinate political elements of the Russian SSR and thus became part of the post-Soviet Russian Federation. This northern area contains many non-Russian ethnic groups and several associated independence movements.

Where’s Chechnya? What’s a Chechen?

Chechnya is in the North Caucasus and is a province (“republic”) of Russia with a population of about 1.3 million people. Its primary inhabitants are Chechens, a predominantly Muslim population with their own language. Chechnya was the site of two brutal wars in the 1990s, the first of which established de facto Chechen independence from Russia and the second of which essentially crushed it. The conclusion of the Second Chechen War was followed by a prolonged insurgency that saw a nationalistic battle take on increasingly Islamist overtones. As a result of the conflict, many Chechens were displaced and now live in nearby regions.

How About Ingushetia? Is that the same thing?

The Republic of Ingushetia is directly to the west of Chechnya. It was never a center of regular warfare the way Chechnya proper was, but there was significant spillover fighting. The Ingush ethnic group is considered distinct from, but closely related to, the Chechens. In recent years there’s been substantial insurgent violence in Ingushetia.

And Dagestan?

Dagestan is directly east of Chechnya and like Ingushetia was a site of spillover violence during the Chechen Wars. There is no Dagestani ethnic group. Instead, the plurality of Dagestan’s residents belong to a predominantly Muslim ethnic group known as the Avars. Over the past year, Dagestan has been the most violent place in the region with assassinations of moderate religious leaders playing a prominent role in Islamist efforts to polarize the area.  

What’s the Connection to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan?

The Tsarnaev family seems to have lived for some years in Kazakhstan before coming to the United States and Dzhokhar appears to have been born in Kyrgyzstan. That’s not an unusual trajectory for Chechens displaced by the war. Many Caucasian Muslims joined an anti-Soviet insurgency during World War II, and following its defeat in 1944, Stalin forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of people—mostly Chechen—often to Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. Most returned once given permission to do so in 1957, but the experience left Chechens with family and personal connections in Central Asia, so many fled there during the wars of the ’90s. Chechen refugees were not well-treated in Kazakhstan  and often border-hopped back and forth between there and Kyrgyzstan on temporary permits while seeking the ability to settle elsewhere. Chechen refugee have tended to relocate much more often to Western Europe than to the United States.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.