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Boston suspects’ family story a portrait of faded American dream

First Published Apr 27 2013 07:16 pm • Last Updated Apr 27 2013 08:01 pm

America, the golden door, had already welcomed two of his brothers when Anzor Tsarnaev crossed the ocean with his family in 2002. Anzor’s brother Ruslan, who had immigrated just a few years earlier, already had a law degree and was on his way to an executive job and a six-figure salary.

And at first, Anzor, his wife, Zubeidat, and their two sons, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, seemed as energetic and brimming with initiative as their relatives had been. Anzor, a mechanic, fixed up cars. His wife turned a cut-rate apartment in affluent Cambridge, Mass. into an improvised salon, offering facials at attractive prices.

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The boys — who authorities believe are the Boston Marathon bombers, responsible for killing four people and injuring more than 250 — took to their new home with gusto. The older one, Tamerlan, was sociable, even showy, dressing sharply, honing his body to become an Olympic boxer. He married an American WASP, daughter of a well-to-do Rhode Island family.

The younger boy, Dzhokhar, was almost instantly as American as they come: He fell for a blond beauty and won her over. He made the high school wrestling team and was popular and empathic enough to be named captain. He partied hard and studied when he had to.

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. Money grew scarce, and the family went on welfare. Zubeidat was accused of stealing from a department store. Anzor’s business, never prosperous, faded.

When the mother found solace in a deepening religiosity, the father, icy to such devotion and ill with cancer, went home to Dagestan, a place that was never really home to start with.

And the boys underwent transformations so dramatic that some friends could barely recognize them: Tamerlan in his early 20s embraced a harsh, separatist brand of Islam and in a couple of years went from wishing his neighbor a merry Christmas to angrily attacking a Muslim grocer for advertising a Thanksgiving charity food collection. The change in Dzhokhar, now a college sophomore, became apparent only in the past few weeks, and even then seemed to be tacked on to his existing lifestyle rather than displacing it. Less than two weeks before the marathon, Dzhokhar, previously known to friends as a stoner always up for a beer and a blunt, told a college friend that he no longer cared about his classes, that religion and God were the only true things in life.

No manifesto accompanied the marathon bombings, and investigators are only now piecing together an accounting of the Tsarnaev brothers’ path to terror. But in interviews with relatives, friends, neighbors and business associates in four states and three countries, a portrait emerges of a family in a losing battle against its people’s troubled past, against its own internal dysfunction and discord, and against conflicting interpretations of its ancient faith.

The Tsarnaevs are Chechens, a Muslim people of the northern Caucasus, a mountainous region that has been 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.


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There, according to family members, the Tsarnaevs settled in a modest detached house in the small city of Tokmok, where they and a small community of other Chechens held tight to memories of their beloved home.

"Our nationality preserves cultures and traditions, regardless of where we live," said Leila Alieva, 25, an ethnic Chechen schoolteacher who was a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev when they were children in Tokmok. "We’re very strict about it."

Chechen women generally wear head scarves and eschew pants and short skirts. They avoid being seen with men other than relatives, and they are expected not to look a man in the eyes.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Tsarnaevs raised cattle, goats and sheep. "We were pretty much farmers in an urban area," said Ruslan Tsarnaev, an uncle of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar who lives in Montgomery Village, Md. and goes by the name Ruslan Tsarni.

Through more than seven decades of communist rule, religious practices were harshly restricted. The Chechens in Kyrgyzstan never had their own mosques, Alieva said. She doesn’t recall the Tsarnaevs going to mosque at all, though many Muslims prefer to pray at home.

The Tsarnaevs, restless and homesick, briefly moved back to Chechnya in the early 1990s but soon returned to Tokmok, where Alieva recalled Tamerlan as a good student, both in academics at Gymnasium No. 1 and on the accordion at music school.

As early as elementary school, Tamerlan was serious about boxing. He attended a sports academy and won several "degrees," or trophies. "He was always No. 1," she said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the strictures of a totalitarian state vanished, and in the resulting vacuum, some young Chechen Muslims, brought up with stories about injustices inflicted on their people through the centuries, were drawn to a black-and-white version of Islam imported via recorded lectures and sermons, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

But the Tsarnaevs were driven more by the quest for a good living than by religious devotion, and when Ruslan immigrated to the United States in 1995, he quickly built a life that proved magnetic to the rest of his family. With a big house on a cul-de-sac in Montgomery Village and a salary in 2005 of $216,000, plus stock options, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Ruslan was a shining model of what an immigrant could do in America.

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