Tue April 30, 2013
NPR Story

An Intimate Portrait Of The Tsarnaev Family

Originally published on Tue April 30, 2013 12:58 pm



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As the investigation continues into the Boston Marathon bombings, countless questions remain about the two prime suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This past Sunday, the Washington Post ran a long profile that offers a complicated portrait of the family.

At first, the piece says in its first paragraph, Anzor and his wife, Zubeidat, and their two sons seemed energetic and brimming with initiative. Anzor, a mechanic, fixed up cars. His wife turned a cut-rate apartment in affluent Cambridge into an improvised salon. The boys, quote, "took to their new home with gusto."

A few sentences later: But over the past four years, even as members of their extended family found their piece of the American dream, the Cambridge Tsarnaevs' experience in their new land curdled. If you have questions about what happened, give us a call. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we want to hear from athletes and coaches. What's changed now that NBA player Jason Collins has come out of the closet? You can email us now, talk@npr.org. But first a closer look at the Tsarnaev family. Marc Fisher is a senior editor at the Washington Post. With the help of nine reporters from Boston to Dagestan, he wrote "Portrait of a Faded American Dream," which ran on Sunday, and he joins us now from studios at the newspaper. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARC FISHER: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And that story you wrote about the Tsarnaevs doesn't start with the two bombing suspects, it starts with their father, who came to this country in 2002 in search of a better life.

FISHER: That's right. He came after his siblings had come several years earlier, and they had had great success in this country. They were making six-figure salaries, they had executive positions, and so when Anzor and his wife and children came, I think he was expecting to follow in their footsteps.

He went to Boston because he had friends there, and he had - and his wife had both had advanced education, college, and professional school in Russia, in Kyrgyzstan, but they had - when they got here, they weren't able to work in those fields. Rather, he ended up doing auto mechanic work, fixing up broken-down cars, and his wife worked in a spa doing facials.

And so they - like many, if not most, immigrants, they had this humble beginnings in this country, and yet they were filled with hope. But within a decade after their arrival, their family had dissolved into a level of dysfunction and tragedy and trauma that really colored their view of this country and their experience as immigrants.

CONAN: And eventually both parents would return home at different times for different reasons, and as you point out, return to a home that was never a home.

FISHER: Well, this is the thing. The Tsarnaevs are Chechens, who are a Muslim people who live in the northern Caucasus. This is an area of the world that has been fought over for centuries by Russians, by the Persian Empire, by the Ottoman Empire, and the Chechens in more recent history had suffered a collective trauma when Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, expelled them from their homeland near the end of World War II.

And many died, and those who survived ended up scattered through Soviet Central Asia, and the Tsarnaev clan ended up 2,000 miles away from home in Kyrgyzstan. Now the - they had some success there, but in the end, they as a group decided to emigrate because of the violence and the rebellion that's been going on between the Chechens and the Russians over the last couple of decades, a very difficult scene there.

And many Chechens are spread around the world in a diaspora that has clusters in places such as Toronto and in various places in Europe. And for the Tsarnaevs, the United States was, as had been for so many generations of other immigrants, the golden door, and the - Aznor's brothers made it big here. And so he hoped to do the same.

CONAN: Why did he decide to move to Cambridge, the Boston area, as opposed to the Washington, D.C., suburbs where his brothers, as you point out, were prospering?

FISHER: Well, he had some friends who had settled there, and he thought that being near them would be helpful, and he thought there would be work there. Boston did somewhat better than perhaps some other parts of the country in difficult economic period, and he just thought this was a good place to start.

He did have the two brothers in Montgomery County, Maryland. He had a sister up in Toronto. And he did not want to be exactly where they were. The family had some divisions within it, among siblings, going way back. Anzor's wife was not particularly well-liked by Anzor's siblings, and one of the issues there was religious devotion, and his wife had a level of religious involvement that some others in the family were not comfortable with.

In addition, some of the others in the family felt that she was not - that she spent money too freely. And so there were these kinds of internal family dynamics.

CONAN: And it's hard to say - that's like any family.

FISHER: Like any family, exactly.

CONAN: Yeah, and - but these tensions grew more serious over time as the gap between the brothers began to grow ever wider.

FISHER: Right, and as - the Tsarnaev parents, Aznor and his wife Zubeidat, ran into financial trouble, they were on welfare for some years, they were received - they had a Section 8 housing voucher that allowed, that paid for a portion of their rent, and they had trouble. She lost her job at the spa and started taking people into her apartment for - where she had a bit of an informal salon where she did facials, and he did work on cars in the middle of the street in front of his apartment and made a little bit of money that way.

But this was a family that was really running into trouble. Zubeidat, the mother, was arrested for shoplifting and accused of trying to steal up to nine dresses from a Lord & Taylor store in Massachusetts. Their daughters turned out to be a source of friction, or there was friction between them and the parents. The two daughters moved to New Jersey. One of them was arrested and charged with intent to distribute marijuana. The other had married a non-Muslim, which caused additional friction for the parents.

And Aznor was diagnosed with cancer and felt that it was - that he was not long for this world. And so even before we get to the two sons, this is a family in crisis.

CONAN: A family in crisis, yet the sons, at least at first, seemed to be the shining stars of the family, fitting right in.

FISHER: Well exactly. Tamerlan, the older son, came here after finishing elementary and part of middle school in - back home, and so he had a real dual identity. He really felt that he was a Chechen. His younger brother Dzhokhar was I believe only eight years old when he arrived here, and so he really was Americanized, if you will, much more quickly.

He didn't have an accent when he spoke. He fell in with a group of friends at school who were from every possible background you can imagine. In Cambridge, both boys went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which is a public school with students from 75 countries. So it's a, you know, a classically American sort of setting.

And both boys had friends there. There's this famous quotation now from Tamarlan, the older brother, about how he had no friends in America. Well, his friends beg to differ, and quite a number of them told us that he was a very sociable, happy kind of guy. He had a tough side to him, he did have a temper, and there were instances along the way.

He was arrested at one point for - when his live-in girlfriend at the time called the police and said that he had been beating her, and he told the police that he had indeed slapped her and expressed some surprise that that was something you couldn't do in America. So there was this tough side to him. He was a boxer and a very successful one, but there was no sense among friends, acquaintances, schoolmates, boxing mates, that these were guys who were deeply alienated from the society.

CONAN: In fact the younger brother, Dzhokhar, as he became co-captain of the wrestling team, he became a leader amongst his mates.

FISHER: And very well-liked. He was a joker. He was someone who partied a lot. He was not very big on studying. His parents were often encouraging him to study harder, and he resisted that. But he was very popular, as you say, among his...

CONAN: We're talking with Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, who's joining us from a studio at that newspaper. We've had a little glitch on the line there. In the meantime, we will read a little bit from his very interesting piece, "The Tsarnaev family, a faded portrait of an immigrant's American dream," as we try to reconnect.

The Tsarnaevs are Chechens, a Muslim people of the northern Caucasus, a mountainous region fought over through the centuries by the Russian, Persian and Ottoman empires. In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who suspected the Chechens of conspiring with the Nazis, expelled nearly the entire population of 400,000 to Central Asia; about 70,000 died. Many of those who survived, including the Tsarnaev clan, were forced 2,000 miles east to Kyrgyzstan - he mentioned that part of the story earlier.

In Cambridge, both boys attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public school with students from dozens of countries. Classmates portray Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, known as Jahar, as fun guys who soaked up American pop culture and hung out with kids from sons of Harvard to grandsons of Portuguese furniture makers.

Guive Rosen, 23, who was in several classes with Tamerlan, knew him as a very goofy kid, a gentle-giant sort of person. He liked to talk, always had his arm around your shoulders. Rosen knew that Tamerlan was Muslim, but that was by no means a defining part of his persona. It was a very minute detail about him, Rosen said. He didn't impose any religious things on you; he never talked about it.

When Uncle Ruslan visited Anzor's family in 2005, he chatted with Tamerlan about his future. The teenager talked about an engineering degree, perhaps followed by one in law. When - he had everything in him for a happy life, Ruslan said. He and Tamerlan took a walk around the neighborhood; the uncle was pleased to see people all over happily greeting his nephew.

A neighbor who lived next to the Tsarnaev family for five years said the older brother stood out in the early years for his flashy clothes and his devotion to fitness. He used to be more dressed like a pimp, kind of Eurotrash, said the neighbor, who declined to be named for fear of being associated with terrorists. Trying to be fancy, but cheap looking in pointy-toed shoes and mustached track suits - excuse me, matched track suits.

We're going to try to reconnect with Marc Fisher at the Washington Post, and stay with us, we'll be back after a short break. If you have questions about what happened to the Tsarnaev family and their pursuit of the American dream, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Today Marc Fisher of the Washington Post on his portrait of the Tsarnaev family, the suspected Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, also their parents Anzor and Zubeidat. It ran in the Bay Newspaper over the weekend.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a team effort reported by Aaron C. Davis, Jenna Johnson and Carol D. Leonnig in Boston; Tara Bahrampour in Massachusetts and New Jersey; Dan Morse in Washington; Michael Rosenwald in Rhode Island and Will Englund in Moscow; Kathy Lally in Dagestan and Stephanie McCrummen in Toronto. Researchers Alice Crites and Julie Tate also contributed to the piece.

If you have questions about the Tsarnaevs, give us a call, the number 800-989-8255. Or you can send us email, talk@npr.org. You can also send us a question via tweet, @totn. Marc Fisher is back with us from the studio there at the Washington Post.

And Marc, there is no question in anyone's mind that it was the older brother, Tamerlan, who, well, became disillusioned first.

FISHER: That's correct, and the great remaining mystery is exactly what caused this radicalization. It was not a single moment, that's clear. Everybody we spoke to saw that this was an evolution, that over the course of two or three years he became first more involved in Islam, that that was initiated, it seems, by his mother, who thought that one way to get him back from the effects of what she saw as American popular culture, the smoking, the drinking, the partying, the flashy clothes...

CONAN: And you're talking smoking marijuana is what he was smoking.

FISHER: Yes, apparently. And so she thought that if she sat down and read the Quran with her son that he could be brought to a more serious place, that he could be better grounded and that he could have the values that she held dear. And so they would do this on a daily basis. He began praying more frequently, and then enters a different character known as Misha.

This is someone who others in the family, the uncles for example, say came to the Tsarnaev apartment and would spend long hours, deep into the night, discussing Islam with Tamerlan. And there are those in the family who say that this was a transformative relationship and that Misha encouraged Tamerlan to think of himself as in a flavor of Islam that was more radical, that was more jihad-oriented.

It's not entirely clear. We don't have that entirely verified. Misha has since been identified as a software engineer in the Boston area who completely denies any role in any radicalization of Tamerlan. And so that piece of the equation is not entirely clear.

The next chapter takes place when Tamerlan spends six months back in the old country visiting his father, visiting other relatives in Dagestan. And there he does spend time going to a mosque that has been identified as a Salafi, fairly radical, sect of Islam. He does also - he's there at a time when there are several attacks by fundamentalist Islamic rebels.

And so where all this fits in with his own alienation, with the dissolution of his own family, with the dysfunction that he felt as someone who wasn't able to assimilate to America, his concern perhaps about his younger brother, we don't really know what kind of balance to draw out of all of these different factors, but they all do seem to be factors.

And I think most important in many ways is the way in which the family simply frayed and splintered with the sisters moving to New Jersey, the parents moving back to Dagestan, Tamerlan and Jahar being left alone in Cambridge, their source of revenue being quite questionable. Tamerlan's wife was working as a home health aide, but for the most part they really had very little to live on.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Again we're talking with Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. David(ph) is on the line with us from Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

DAVID: Yeah, I just have a comment and perhaps a question. Yeah, I lived in Kyrgyzstan for three years, and I lived in the former Soviet Union for about 17 altogether, and I just know the Chechens are - were looked at as very aggressive people by everyone there. A lot of the mafia would have a Chechen or two in their - as their security guards, and in the army I know that it was pretty much the Chechens against everybody else.

And in Kyrgyzstan, I know in Tokmok, it's a very diverse city and a lot of different people groups there. And I don't know what their relationships were with each other, but the whole aspect of them growing up in Kyrgyzstan I haven't heard talked about much. A lot of it's about being Chechen. So I have just a question about why that is, that there's not as much talk about their time in Kyrgyzstan.

FISHER: Well, the time in Kyrgyzstan was very important to them. There are - we've spoken to relatives of the family who still live there and who say that the Chechens were accepted there and that they were - it did feel like home to them. On the other hand, there are a great many Chechens who say that life in the diaspora has been a constant sense of being disaffected and not quite belonging.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, when the totalitarian state collapsed, and many Chechen Muslims, especially young people, who had been brought up on these stories about Chechnya, a place they'd never really been to, and they'd been brought up with these stories about injustices that had been inflicted on their people, and so they were drawn, many of them, to a very black and white, concrete version of Islam that at the time was imported from Saudi Arabia via recorded cassette tapes and videotapes. And that led in part to this Chechen jihadi movement that we've seen develop in recent years.

CONAN: The Wahhabi, a strain of Islam. Thanks very much for the call, David.

DAVID: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an email question, this from Nora(ph) in Oakland: On what grounds was the family granted asylum in the U.S., and what caused the parents to leave the boys behind when they decided to return to Dagestan? Dzhokhar would have been very young when his parents left him here.

FISHER: Well, we haven't gotten the full documentation of that asylum request and its granting, but we can - we know from other cases during that time that quite a number of Chechens were granted asylum in this country because they were, indeed, living in a very difficult situation, where there was conflict, armed conflict, between Chechen rebels and the authorities in Russia.

And so it was not unusual for Chechens to be granted asylum, and in fact in this family's case, the other siblings had settled here five or so years prior, and they had done extremely well, and they were not a burden to society. They were making their own way, and so I'm sure that factored into the decision to admit this family, as well.

Then as far as the other end, going back home, it was the father who went home first because he had cancer, and he said that he wanted to die in his homeland rather than in America. But there was also friction between husband and wife, and in fact they filed for divorce and got a divorce around the time that the father returned to his country, and that divorce stemmed in part from the father's unhappiness with the wife having turned to Islam in a much deeper way than he was comfortable with.

She began covering her hair, she changed the way she dressed, and he was not at all happy about this, nor was he happy that she had taken Tamerlan along with her on that path to deeper devotion. And so the father saw his son ending his boxing career and moving away from the things that the father had hoped and worked with him on.

And so he returns to Dagestan, and then later Zubeidat, after she was arrested for shoplifting and after they had lost their Section 8 housing voucher, and the financial situation of the family was really fraying, she returned, as well, and they've apparently reconciled and are back together.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ron(ph), and Ron is on the line with us from Cleveland.

RON: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RON: You know - well my question was how the two brothers had supported themselves and financed these activities, and then a comment did come through about that. But that's what my question is.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people have questions about that.

FISHER: Yeah, and it remains a real puzzle. We have pieces of the puzzle. We know that they were receiving welfare payments from the Massachusetts Health and Human Services Agency. We know that they had help in the form of a Section 8 housing voucher. We know that Tamerlan's wife, Katherine Russell, worked as a home health aide. In fact her relatives say she often worked 60 to 80 hours a week, and Tamerlan would care for their young daughter while he was not working.

And yet even with those factors, we're still missing some of the financial piece. It's not clear how the apartment was entirely paid for and how Katherine and Tamerlan survived.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Ron.

RON: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: And that other character you mentioned, the wife, this is a fascinating story in itself, the blue blood from Rhode Island who ends up in this atomizing family.

FISHER: Yeah. It is indeed a fascinating piece of the puzzle. Katherine Russell grew up in a family that is quite well-to-do in Rhode Island. Her grandfather was a significant Boston businessman; her father, an emergency room doctor. And she graduated from high school, moved to Boston to attend Suffolk University, where she met Tamerlan at a nightclub and instantly fell for him. We talked to a family intimate who said this is a guy who was tall. He spoke other languages.

He was handsome and worldly. And she fell for him to the extent that not only did they become boyfriend and girlfriend, but they decided to marry, and she decided to convert from a nominal Christianity to Islam. She began covering her hair and very much was with the other Muslim women in that community in Cambridge in prayer and being with the Tsarnaev family.

Very interesting that her family says she had absolutely nothing to do with any of this political transformation or radicalization nor with the bombings. But as we saw yesterday, the FBI came to the Russell house and collected materials and interviewed folks there. So, that is still an open avenue of investigation.

CONAN: And at that same time when she was going through that, Tamerlan, who had been, you know, those matched track suits and the pointy shoes, the flashy dresser, he changed as well. It was, though, his younger brother, Jahar, as he was known to his friends, who went to college at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and, well, seemed to still be the party kid.

FISHER: Oh, absolutely. I mean his friends talk about him as someone who was chill, which, as one of the friends says, it was kind of a cliche you would say about someone who smokes marijuana. He was on an intramural soccer team. He lived in the dorm with friends. There are lots of pictures of - or of him on Facebook and Instagram of him hanging out at parties. He was doing poorly in school. His grades suffered quite considerably. He had started out as an engineering student and then told his friends that he wanted to be a doctor, and he switched over to a biology major.

But he was struggling in school. And then just recently, just literally within a few weeks of the bombings, there are friends who say that he began to have some surprising conversations in which he said - he expressed real dismay with the sort of normal path of getting to success. And he said everybody cheats. And he basically said that the only things that mattered in life were religion and God, and therefore, he didn't care about his classes anymore. He had basically stopped studying.

And so this was a change that his friends noticed. They didn't connect it with any kind of political transformation or radicalization. They didn't see any signs of any alienation that would be so deep that it would lead to this kind of a crime, but they did see that significant shift in the way he talked about himself and his values.

CONAN: We're talking with Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, who along with a team of reporters wrote a long profile of the Tsarnaev family that ran in the newspaper this weekend. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And another email question, this is from Tim: I still haven't heard anyone say what exactly was that got the Russians interested in the older brother? Anyone know? Had to be something.

FISHER: Well, it did have to be something. There has been some reporting that there were phone conversations between the mother and Tamerlan that may have raised eyebrows among the Russian authorities. The - Tamerlan's six-month visit back to see his father in Dagestan certainly raised some questions among the Russian authorities. Ostensibly, Tamerlan had gone back there to update his passport, but then he never collected the new passport. So that may have raised an alarm.

He was also seen going to a mosque that was associated with a Salafi movement, a radical jihadi sect in that country. And so, again, that's something that the Russian authorities would be watching very closely and may have been attracted by that, and they then notified the FBI and asked the FBI to look into this fellow. That was done. Zubeidat Tsarnaev told us that FBI agents came and talked to her on a number of occasions and asked her many questions about her son and his beliefs.

And she thought that they were watching him very closely. The FBI has said no. They did a brief investigation, saw nothing that indicated any bent toward violence, and moved on. So where the truth lies there is not entirely clear as yet. We're hoping, of course, that that will come out as the investigation continues.

CONAN: There is also - and you pointed in the piece to many tensions within the family amongst the siblings, as well as the tensions between the husband and wife, and yet, there's something you don't draw. There was the older siblings of the family who prospered, came to the United States, what, five or six years earlier, at a time when, well, life was a little easier. The economy was doing very well. By the time Anzor gets here, the economy is much more difficult. Do you think - how much do you think their money difficulties played into this?

FISHER: Well, I think that's a very important factor, and clearly, this was a family that was suffering on many fronts. Whether the money problems led to the dissolution of the family and the daughters leaving the area and then the parents leaving the area, we don't know. But, you know, it's a chicken or egg sort of thing. The siblings - Anzor's siblings say they have a very judgmental view of this. And Uncle Ruslan, the very colorful character who...

CONAN: Yeah.

FISHER: ...termed the Tsarnaev sons, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, losers, he strongly believes that he and his other siblings put their minds to the task and made their way in a new land, and that Anzor's family somehow didn't have that within them. That is one branch of the family's perspective.

CONAN: Right at the end, it is Tamerlan who calls the other uncle and tries to reconcile. Just after the bombs, before everything goes south.

FISHER: This is a very tragic moment. Literally at the very end of Tamerlan's life, after the bombings and just hours before the shootout that would end Tamerlan's life, he calls his uncle in Maryland, Alvi, and says nothing about the bombings, but just calls to apologize. He says, I want to have an uncle and I love you. And Alvi told us that he said back, I love you, too, Tamerlan. Now, we can just be a family. And then Tamerlan asked for his Uncle Ruslan's number. He says, I just want to make peace with him, but they never made that call. And Ruslan's conclusion is that we all think we know each other, but, in fact, we don't.

CONAN: Marc Fisher of The Washington Post. You can find a link to his piece at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And thanks very much today.

FISHER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines and history when he announced on the cover of Sports Illustrated that he's gay. We'll survey reaction around the country. When we return, we'd also like to hear from coaches and athletes. What changes now? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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