Share this article

print logo

Review: Masha Gessen, ‘The Brothers’ about the Tsarnaevs

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy

By Masha Gessen

Riverhead Books

273 pages, $27.95

By Gene Warner


Maybe, just maybe, we’ve had it all wrong when it comes to finding the “black box” that will explain, beyond a doubt, what led the Tsarnaev brothers to their unspeakable act of terror that ripped through Boston – and America – two years ago.

Author Masha Gessen has tried, and she’s done the painstaking research, going back to the family’s roots in Dagestan, Chechnya and other parts of the former Soviet Union to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.

To her credit, Gessen provides the most logical explanation for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s ghastly deed, and it’s not the popular Muslims-come-to-America-and-become-radicalized theory that Americans seem to crave.

Since the Boston Marathon bombings, the author notes, American law enforcement and the press have focused on finding whoever radicalized Tamerlan or both brothers.

“The possibility that their actions were driven by simple ideas acquired without any concerted outside help, that ... Tamerlan ‘simply objected to U.S. foreign policy,’ like hundreds of thousands of other people but, unlike the overwhelming majority of them, decided to use a bomb to express his opposition – this terrifyingly simple idea was never on the table.”

The author deserves high marks for that point, especially when it might have caused a larger splash and sold more books to use her in-depth research to find a “smoking gun” – someone who radicalized the older Tsarnaev brother.

Gessen could have found that influence, when she traced Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s words and actions during his six-month stay back in his native Dagestan in early 2012. It was a time when he hung out with guys in their 20s and early 30s who spent their days talking about themselves, their religion and the injustices of the world. Many have speculated that that experience radicalized him.

But the author found no evidence of his having joined the Islamist struggle in Syria or the local guerrilla battles in Dagestan.

“In the end,” she writes, “it seems that most of what Tamerlan did during his six months in Dagestan was talk.”

That said, this is a pretty strange book.

Actually, two books.

The first details the Tsarnaev brothers’ roots, background and influences. We learn all about Tamerlan’s almost-Olympic boxing prowess and Dzhokhar’s charm and good grades, before Tamerlan, especially, drifted into a dead-end existence of delivering pizzas and smoking and dealing dope. Meanwhile, their family moved about a dozen times, dating back to the 1980s, mostly to and from various Soviet republics and Cambridge, Mass., always chasing their dreams.

But it all resulted in a “slow and catastrophic demise of a whole set of immigrant dreams,” the author states.

The second, actually darker, side of the book becomes almost a diatribe against the American government and public for their crackdown on and intolerance of young Muslims here.

For nearly 30 years, deportation has been the key threat used by American law enforcement against aliens suspected of supporting terrorism, the author says. And that’s remained so even after Sept. 11 showed that such attacks could be planned and directed from overseas.

“From a policy or strategic standpoint, deporting suspected terrorist supporters to countries that are themselves suspected of supporting terrorism makes no sense,” Gessen writes. “But it suits the bigger imagination of the War on Terror, in which terrorists are larger than life and have America under siege.”

The author persuasively argues in a compelling chapter, “Everyone Is Going to Jail,” that several of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth were over-prosecuted for their actions after they learned that he had become a suspect in the marathon bombings.

There’s a lot to chew on in this book. It succeeds in challenging some of our assumptions about the War on Terror. But Gessen, in this reader’s view, undermines her own credibility, in her heavy-handed verbal attacks on the U.S. government.

“The rhetoric and actions of the U.S. government and its agents, in their outsize response and their targeting of specific communities, have probably done as much to create an imagined worldwide community of jihadists as have the efforts of al-Qaida and its allies,” she writes near the end of the book.


For Tamerlan, she added, this vision offered a truer “and more realistic” path to greatness than any of his other attempts to find a meaningful role in American society.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.