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The Bombers’ World

Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times
From left: Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the parents of the alleged Boston bombers, and Patimam Suleimanova, their aunt, at a press conference, Makhachkala, Russia, April 25, 2013

If you were to run into eighteen-year-old Baudy Mazaev on a multicultural Boston street, you’d probably take him for a Portuguese or an Italian; in a pinch you might guess his family origins to lie somewhere farther east. He has straight black hair and an aquiline nose and a build that attests to a long and successful stint as a high school wrestler. Nor does his speech provide any particular clues to his ethnicity: he has the distinctive accent of someone who has grown up on the banks of the Charles River.

Baudy is a native-born American, but like many Americans from immigrant families he also has another identity: he’s a Chechen. His parents, Anna and Makhmud, come from Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, a small province (about the size of Vermont) in Russia’s North Caucasus. That gives the Mazaevs a special place in Boston’s astonishingly rich mosaic of ethnic groups.

Though Boston’s population of Russian-speaking immigrants numbers in the tens of thousands, all but a small number of them are Russian Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union back in the 1970s and 1980s. By contrast there are only a handful of Chechens in the area; those in the know speak of seven or eight families. Makhmud (who prefers to go by the name “Max”) and Anna moved to the United States in 1994, the same year that war broke out in their homeland: Chechen nationalists had declared independence, and the government in Moscow sent in its forces to repress a rebellion that has never quite stopped since.

Soon after his arrival in the US, Max Mazaev, who had worked as a urologist at a hospital in Grozny, learned that he wouldn’t be able to receive accreditation to practice his specialty in his new homeland (he was in his forties, too old to requalify), and so he shifted to nursing—a line of work that he soon transformed into a solid family business. Today he and Anna run two social centers for elderly Russian-speaking émigrés. I met up with them at one of their venues in the Boston suburb of Newton, a big, well-lit space that, when I arrived, was decorated with multicolored balloons and bore an inscription on one wall that read, in Russian, “Happy Birthday.”

“We’re the first [Chechen] family who lived in Massachusetts,” Anna told me with pride. And for that reason it was only natural that they saw themselves, like so many other immigrants, as part of a support network for members of their own ethnic group who arrived later. In 2002 they welcomed a new family to the community: the Tsarnaevs. “They seemed like a really nice family,” she says. “The kids were really sweet.”

The Tsarnaevs arrived in the US after a brief stay in Dagestan, another Russian republic that abuts Chechnya, but they had spent most of their lives in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, where Anzor Tsarnaev, the father, had worked for a while in the local prosecutor’s office. But when a new war broke out in Chechnya in 1999, Anzor said, the Kyrgyz authorities (perhaps under pressure from the Kremlin) purged the government’s ranks of anyone with a Chechen background. Anzor lost his job, and for a time, he said, he was even thrown in jail, where his guards subjected him to beatings. It was this abuse that served as the basis for the family’s (ultimately successful) application for refugee status in the US.

Helping the Tsarnaevs adjust to American life proved a challenge. The Mazaevs did what they could, but the family never quite seemed to get it together. Anzor, whose English was limited, earned money by working as an unlicensed car mechanic. He was generally friendly, but his behavior was sometimes erratic—perhaps because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that he attributed to his maltreatment back in Kyrgyzstan. He received psychiatric therapy (as another Tsarnaev family friend confirmed to me), and suffered from severe headaches and intense abdominal pain (probably psychosomatic in origin, since doctors were unable to find the cause). In 2009, he got into a fight at a Russian restaurant called Novy Arbat. Someone hit him on the head with a bottle, fracturing his skull.

The mother of the family, Zubeidat, seemed to have problems of her own. “Zubeidat was always jumping from one idea to another,” Max told me, noting that she never quite managed to settle down. The Mazaevs helped to get her a job as a home caregiver, but she soon decided instead to seek a career in the beauty business. She attended a cosmetology school in Woburn, Massachusetts, and earned some income giving facials at the family home, a third-floor apartment they rented on Norfolk Street in Cambridge. For a while she also tried her hand at translating legal documents from Chechen and other Caucasian languages into English, and even attended a few lectures at Harvard. But nothing ever seemed to work out for her. In 2011 she was arrested after shoplifting $1,600 worth of clothing at a Lord and Taylor’s department store. That was the same year that she and her husband filed for divorce.

The family’s younger daughter, Ailina, had a tendency to get into fights. The older son, Tamerlan, was a community college dropout who dreamed of starting a musical career; he was also a talented boxer who had a habit of undermining his own prospects with displays of arrogance.

As a child, Baudy Mazaev bonded with the Tsarnaev’s younger son, Dzhokhar, who was a year older. The two spent long hours playing together. In high school, they wrestled on opposing teams (Dzhokhar at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Baudy at Boston Latin). As the two grew up, they “drifted apart,” says Baudy, though they remained friendly. Dzhokhar, unlike his older brother, was a good student whose affable nature won him many friends. Despite their quirks and their all-too-apparent difficulties, the Tsarnaevs seemed to be okay. “Especially Dzhokhar,” says Anna Mazaev, who begins to weep at the memory. “He was such a sweetheart.”

Anna is not the only person who knew Dzhokhar and who now speaks of him in the past tense. The nineteen-year-old is, in fact, still alive; he is now residing at Federal Medical Center Devens, a hospital prison some forty miles outside of Boston. But for the Mazaevs—as for so many of the other people who had contact with him—it is almost impossible to reconcile their past experience of him with the crimes in which he is now implicated. He and his brother stand accused of orchestrating the horrific April 15 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon that killed three and injured over 260. One of the dead was Martin Richard, an eight-year-old boy who was standing at the spot where the terrorists placed one of their bombs. The bombs, made from commercially available pressure cookers, were filled with nails and ball bearings intended to cause maximum carnage. Many of the victims lost limbs.

Anna and Max Mazaev were returning from a vacation in Mexico on the day that the FBI released photos of its leading suspects. As they waited in line to clear passport control in the airport, the Mazaevs saw the blurry images, but it never occurred to them to connect the men shown there with the two boys they knew. “My first thinking was I hope they find the bastards and rip them to piece,” Anna recalls. “We love Boston with all our hearts. We’ve been here over twenty years. Everything about Boston very special to us.”

A few hours later, the Tsarnaev brothers reacted to the publication of the photos by going on a criminal rampage that took the life of a young campus security officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ended in a spectacular gunfight with police. The confrontation left Tamerlan, twenty-six, dead on a Watertown street. Dzhokhar (known to most of his friends as “Jahar”) managed to escape (inadvertently running over his brother in the process) and disappeared into the night.

By now the identities of the two suspects had become public. The Mazaevs couldn’t believe that the terrorist on the run was that same nice boy who had played with their own son. At 2:25 PM on April 19, Baudy sat down and sent a text message to his friend’s cell phone:

Jahar man if u can read this just turn urself in for the sake of ur parents, ull be so much safer there’s no reason for all of this just do it for everyone’s sake it’ll be better for u it’s time to seek repentance PLEASE JUST TURN YOURSELF IN AND DON’T MAKE IT ANY WORSE

We don’t know whether Dzhokhar ever saw the message. He was found a few hours later, bleeding from multiple wounds, underneath the tarpaulin of a boat parked in a Watertown resident’s backyard. The police took him into custody. It is hard to imagine that he will ever see freedom again.

The biggest question surrounding the marathon bombings, of course, is the one of motive: Why did they do it? I’m not entirely sure that we will ever have a satisfying answer. Given what we know so far, it seems likely that it was Tamerlan, the older brother, who instigated and planned the attacks—but he, of course, is dead. The imprisoned Dzhokhar has told investigators that the brothers undertook the bombings as retaliation against the US for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That sounds plausible enough on the face of things, in view of what we know about the politics of jihadi terrorists in other parts of the world. At the same time, there are many other details of the Tsarnaev brothers’ case that make it seem starkly unique, more of an outlier than something that can be easily slotted into a larger pattern.

Any analysis must start with Tamerlan. Conversations with those who knew him well yield a portrait of a man who was the lodestar of his family. His mother Zubeidat, in particular, seems to have adored him with an intensity verging on the pathological. During her press conference on April 25 in Dagestan (where she now lives), she startled journalists with expostulations about the beauties of his physique, comparing him at one point to Hercules. Both parents clearly viewed him as their greatest legacy to the world. The father, a former boxer, drove him hard to pursue a career in the sport, often riding along on a bike when his son trained. “He was at the top of the family,” Baudy recalls. “He was the biggest, the strongest, the one everyone loved. Everybody laughed at his jokes.”

Those who associated with Tamerlan recall that he could be charming or considerate when he felt like it—but they also tell of an intensely narcissistic personality whose actual achievements lagged far behind the standards demanded by his intense self-regard. He liked to wear crocodile-leather shoes and silk shirts, but he never found a regular job after he dropped out of Bunker Hill Community College; for a while he delivered pizzas. In 2009, he was briefly arrested for physically assaulting his then girlfriend. That spot on his record probably had a part in the subsequent delay in the decision on his application to obtain US citizenship, which then prevented him from competing in a crucial boxing tournament after the sponsoring organization changed the rules to ban noncitizens from participating. (Other accounts in the media suggest that his efforts to gain citizenship may have been impeded by a 2011 background check conducted on him by the FBI in response to a query from the Russian government, which seems to have suspected him of links to radical Muslims there.) He gave up boxing not long after that—perhaps to his own secret relief. Some of those who spoke with me told me that he was never really keen on the sport, which might explain his apparent reluctance to pursue a strict physical fitness regimen. Those who knew him well told me that he had dreams of becoming a singer or performer, though he doesn’t seem to have acted on them.

Glenn DePriest/Getty Images
Tamerlan Tsarnaev waits for a decision during the 2009 Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 4, 2009
  1. 1

    There is a Facebook page for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but it appears to be a fake, set up after his identity first became known. 

  2. 2

    See David Caruso, Michael Kunzelman, and Max Seddon, “Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, Mother of Bomb Suspect, Insists Sons Are Innocent,” Huffington Post, April 29, 2013. 

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