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Posted on 23 Jan 2020 in Non-Fiction |

MASHA GESSEN The Brothers: The road to an American tragedy. Reviewed by Kurt Johnson

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Masha Gessen explores the world of the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, and the multitude of theories attempting to explain how this tragedy occurred.

It’s not often that the world demands a journalist write a book. Masha Gessen’s best friend told her in no uncertain terms that she must write a book about the Tsarnaev brothers – the terrorists responsible for the 2012 bombings at the Boston Marathon. That friend should be rewarded with a nice bottle of something, for the end result, The Brothers: The road to an American tragedy, is about as good a match between an author’s lived experience and subject matter as can be imagined.

Gessen is ideal because she has lived and worked as a journalist within the three worlds concerned: she was born in the Soviet Union, schooled in America, and then emigrated back to Moscow, where she witnessed the USSR’s disintegration and transition to the gangster-style politics of modern Russia.

Usually when American-born journalists look beyond their shores and confront one of their country’s two major postwar preoccupations — communism and terrorism — they must shake off their domestic prejudices and penetrate the caricatures that populate the machine-gun news cycle. It is a process where colour and texture are discarded. When Gessen spoke about returning to Russia in a 2015 podcast, she talked about feeling at home at once. The dust, she said, smelt so familiar. Details like this come from experience, not research.

So too does the brothers’ story begin in the Soviet Union, in Stalin’s exile of their ancestors, the Chechens and Ingush, from their ancient homeland to the fringes of the Union in the final bloody years of the Great Patriotic War. Gessen’s recounting is gripping and tragic as she describes how the Chechens were banished, then, after Stalin’s death, allowed to move anywhere within the USSR but their homeland, and finally, when they are permitted to return, they are bombed to hell in the two bloody Chechen wars. The Tsarnaev family are victims of their people’s dislocation. The brothers are born in Kyrgyzstan, then move to Dagestan, and finally to the US as young refugees.

Gessen’s strength as a writer is exactly as her friend predicted. She evokes the fragmented immigrant reality – faultlines that run as much between generations as between the new and old worlds. Gessen is consummately qualified to discuss this subject, yet her normally marching prose lapses into wistful poetry, her steely-eyed determination softens, and what emerges is the person who can be nostalgic about the smell of dust in a Russian cafeteria. It becomes clear that Gessen is putting herself into the Tsarnaevs’ story, a decision that adds colour from her personal palette to their story:

Television news combined with their landlady’s conversation and Cambridge’s progressive civics and history lessons, never formed a coherent picture, much less the kind of flow of information that allows immigrants… to inhabit the same story as the people among whom they live. Information continued to come in scraps as it does for newcomers. Each scrap is tried on for size as a theory of everything, the more crudely it simplifies reality the better it is suited for that purpose.

As the book progresses, we learn about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and come to see them as a negative space within their struggling immigrant family’s constellation. Gessen sketches out their context with accounts from their parents, teachers, roommates and friends. Yet the brothers themselves are strangely absent. The more the author outlines their silhouettes, the wider the chasm becomes between Gessen’s brothers and the men responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. Like the Chechen–American community, Gessen appears supremely reticent to take any official version as given.

The reason for this becomes apparent after the bombing. In the final chapters of The Brothers, Gessen relays a series of byzantine conspiracy theories that explain why the brothers may not be responsible. She admits that while the theories are probably not true, they explain why those within America’s Chechen community, traumatised by their oppression within Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and then in America, have learned to distrust official explanations outright, always regarding power and authority as the real perpetrators of violence.

Official oppression arrives in the form of the FBI, whose investigation into the bombing casts a wide net, rounding up and questioning members of the Chechen community in Boston and elsewhere. In numerous cases those interrogated, followed and intimidated are peripheral at best. The echo between Stalin’s deportations in 1944 and the FBI’s unofficial policy of deporting non-American citizens is subtle, though too disproportionate to be considered equivalent. One wonders exactly what an investigation might entail if not questioning the close-knit community that surrounded the brothers. Far from racial profiling and intimidation, the investigation seems to be earnest, more the product of a faulty model of terrorist cells than Soviet-style collective punishment. You wonder if Gessen would be writing about official incompetence instead had the FBI neglected to question the community.

Conspicuous by their absence are the  stories of any of the five killed or the hundreds injured in the bombings. Perhaps Gessen is counting on American readers having been saturated with image after image of the torn and the bloodied. She is happy to critique the FBI’s methods and their radicalisation theory, and to propose vague motives for Tamerlan as a critic of American foreign policy. However, some description of the victims, even as cursory as the one I have just given, would have provided a motive, if not a justification, for the FBI’s overreach as they tried desperately to uncover a terrorist cell that simply didn’t exist, and resorted to more and more extreme measures.

Of particular note is the 11 September 2011 Waltham triple homicide in which three people were killed, their throats slit, the scene strewn with money and drugs. One of those killed was very close to Tamerlan, who left town immediately afterwards and did not attend the funeral. For two years nothing happened, then after the bombings and Tamerlan’s death, Ibragim Todashev, another Chechen, was interrogated and shot by an FBI agent whilst writing a confession to the killing. Many shapes can be made by joining these dots – either Tamerlan and fellow Chechens ceremonially executed Americans on the tenth anniversary of September 11 or the FBI murdered the only living witness after forcing him to write a confession. Or something else entirely. We are left with a series of blanks to fill with our own prejudices.

The final question remains: what right does a reader have to demand a journalist weave facts into a final and cohesive reality? It certainly is unsatisfying to arrive at the end of a book with more questions than when you began. Yet one must respect Gessen’s relentless honesty and discipline, her refusal to fabricate, instead presenting every possible scenario, no matter how incredible. More worrying, however, is her reluctance to apply the same critical eye to the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers as she does to the FBI and the Watertown PD. Her willingness to omit the human cost of the bombings themselves, to explain them away as products of the Chechens’ historical trauma, their dislocation within American society, or a wider conspiracy, means the Tsarnaevs are always given the benefit of the doubt.

It’s interesting to note that the most credible explanation for FBI overreach is the institutional trauma wrought by September 11, and their failure yet again to prevent a major act of domestic terrorism. In its aftermath there was immense pressure to create a story that matched the FBI’s model of terrorist cells operating in American society. That The Brothers does not succumb to that same pressure testifies to Gessen’s immense strength as a journalist.

Masha Gessen The Brothers: the road to an American tragedy Riverhead Books 2016 PB 320pp $32.00

Kurt Johnson is a journalist and author of The Red WakeA hybrid of travel, history and journalism, Random House, 2016.

You can buy The Brothers from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.