Time for Chechens to Speak Out

04/22/2013 02:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Chechens have a history in Boston. In the early 2000s, Boston welcomed dozens of Chechen refugee families. One of the Chechnya's best-known doctors, the surgeon Khassan Baiev, moved to Boston in 2001. Initially a plastic surgeon, he became a trauma surgeon during the 1990s war and fled Russia after receiving threats from all sides -- including from fighters he treated under the Hippocratic oath and who then charged him of collaborating with Russians and "unbelievers" in a crude show trial.

Baiev has eloquently written about his first years in Massachusetts -- in fact, the entire last chapter of his memoir, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire (New York, 2003) is devoted to what it was like to be Chechen in Boston. Despite his initial worries about how he would be received by Boston's Russian community, Bayev was embraced by them and felt surrounded by well-wishers. He was later able to bring his family. By 2003, Zara, his wife, started driving lessons and job training, his young daughter was in a Boston Head Start program and the middle kids started reading Harry Potter in English. Baiev wrote of the summer heat in Boston and of his delight in discovering Boston's association with the American Revolution. The book ends with the hopes aroused by his Americanizing and American-born children. They live in Boston, but have extended family in Russia and Chechnya, uncles and aunts who walk around bragging about having American nieces and nephews. "Who knows," Baiev writes of his youngest daughter, "she could become the first Chechen-American senator?"

I know that many of my Chechen friends are afraid now that such hopes are dashed forever. They are fearful of being tainted with a broad anti-Chechen or anti-Muslim brush. Going out took quite some courage on the day after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured in Boston. I want to encourage them. Many Americans are quite able to make a distinction between singular perpetrators and an entire nation, and now is the time for Chechens who don't approve of violence to speak out. Take an example from the Boston suspects' uncle, who has gone into detail about his nephew's radicalization and has not been afraid to show emotion.

Chechens always tell each other and anyone who wants to hear, "Being Chechen is hard," "it's not easy being Chechen." That is because gaining respect among other Chechens requires a daily presence and frequently involves making an effort to seem superior and strong, especially when one feels weak, and in particular when non-Chechens are around. However, many Chechen families are troubled by PTSD, by nightmares, and by depression. Khassan Baiev started seeing a psychologist in America. This is a courageous and highly unusual admission on his part, since mental illness is stigmatized and PTSD is something that is rarely talked about in Chechen families, despite its obvious presence after the two wars.

Afraid of retribution, several generations of Chechens have now been silenced. Many among the older, soviet-educated generation were embarrassed by the Chechen leaders' cheap macho posturing, and they did not share the belief that Russia was engaged in "genocide." But they found it difficult to speak out amongst their peers in the nationalist euphoria in the 1990s, because their position was reduced to being "pro-Russian."

Many Chechens of all ages and genders felt extremely guilty about the wave of violence against Russians living in Grozny. They were horrified by the bloody terror events that Chechen terrorists brought to Russia's cities in the early 2000s, like the theater hostage taking in Moscow, and a whole series of young "Black Widows," ostensibly the wives of young fighters who had died, who blew themselves up in busy shopping and traffic areas, taking innocent lives with them. My Chechen friends cried and were utterly distraught when they saw on television, along with the rest of Russia, how masked Chechens made hostages of more than 1,000 terrified little kids and their teachers in a school Beslan in September 2004.

Most of them did not speak out, though. People who would rush online to denounce outbreaks of anti-Caucasian violence or anti-Chechen discrimination in Russia found themselves unable to come out and clearly condemn Chechen terror. They grew silent, keeping guilt, fear and shame about being Chechen to themselves. When I asked about terrorists like Shamil Basayev directly, Chechens reacted as if his name were "cancer," an illness that you are not supposed to name out loud in Chechen families, and denounced him as "not-Chechen."

One obvious reason for the silence is that everyone still has relatives in Chechnya, and speaking out against violent people is dangerous, much more so than speaking out against Russia or the Russian leadership. Fear, silence and denial have prevented Chechen associations from emerging abroad. Tens of thousands of Chechens have started to live in Austria, France, Norway and Germany -- but there is no single "Chechen diaspora," much less so in the U.S., where only a few thousand live. The refugees are extremely traumatized and distrustful. They have deep generational and ideological differences that they are afraid to express clearly -- even to each other, within families.

Older refugees obsessively read the Russian press and torment themselves with negative, stereotypical representations of Chechens that they encounter there, while younger people drift to a mix of hip-hop, fashion, and, for some -- radical Islamist sites. They're flashy, built up with music videos, and they offer personal empowerment in the form of fighting "unbelievers." It sounds simple, precisely to youngsters who did not grow up in Chechnya, or who experienced violence vicariously, though their families' stories, but did not witness violence themselves.

Growing up in Boston did not automatically make the Tsarnaev brothers Americans. They remained exposed to a confusing and toxic mix of information, unsure what "being Chechen" is supposed to mean. We know that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, went in search of his Chechen identity in America, going so far as contacting Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches a course on the Chechen wars. Tellingly, according to Williams, Dzhokhar sought the names of field commanders and war lords, illustrating that even contact with a scholarly perspective provides no guarantee of enlightenment, if one approaches such information with a mind that is closed (or closing) to more nuanced views. It is doubtful that the brothers knew of the book written by Boston Chechen Khassan Baiev, and if they did, I can imagine them being derisive and dismissing the older man's description of seeing a psychologist and suffering from trauma.

Person after person who I called after the Boston attacks started out by saying the suspects "are not Chechens," "they are Avars," "they are wanna-be Chechens from Dagestan," and similar such things. It reminded me of the reaction to Basayev's name a few years ago. Chechen President Kadyrov has announced "Chechnya has nothing to do with it" and for once, even people who usually resent his violence and uncontested power seem to agree. Chechens argued online yesterday, saying the Boston suspects "were set up," "I deny it" -- until there was a backlash, and a few intrepid Chechen bloggers started to point out that the "complete denial that the terrorists might be Chechens does not help."

"Something went horribly wrong" (Anne Applebaum, on Sunday) with two young Chechen men who grew up in Boston. It may be similar to what goes on among Pakistanis in Coventry or Algerians in Paris; the suspects may yet turn out to have had training and sponsors, but none of that makes it any less of a Chechen issue. Yes, liberal-minded and straight-thinking Chechens do exist. Please, my Chechen friends, stop clicking on Russian websites and speak up.

The author teaches Russian history and a seminar on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Vassar College, and has written extensively on the Chechens in Kazakhstan. These observations come from living and traveling among Chechens in Kazakhstan, Russia, Europe and the U.S. since 1996.