Democracy Lab

The Invisible War

Russians weren't paying much attention to their own war on terror. But that was before the attacks in Boston.

MOSCOW — The page on the Russian social networking site VKontakte features two images of a 19-year-old man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who's suspected of involvement in the Boston bomb attacks. One is a self-portrait, in black and white, that casts him as proud and ambitious. The other shows the young man hugging a male friend at a kitchen table, looking for all the world like two happy, ordinary teenagers.

The biographical information is sparse: Born on July, 22. Not married. Languages: Russian, English, and Noxçiyn mott (Chechen). Education: School Number One in the city of Makhachkala, 1999-2001, Cambridge and Latin School 2011, Boston. Religion: Islam. The most important goal in life: career and money.

The young man was a resident of Boston, but he inhabited an entirely different world online. On his page he links to several Russian-language sites frequented by radical young Muslims. His interests: "Everything about Chechnya," "Chechens," Mosques," and "Islam" -- as well as something called "the Corporation of Evil," which describes itself as "a magazine of sarcasm to mock your friends." The participants in the groups, who seem to consist primarily of ultraconservative Salafis from around Russia, discuss the issues that Muslims face there on an everyday basis, ranging from the lack of mosques in cities in Siberia or European Russia to the human rights abuses that have taken place in regions of the country where Islam is prominent. Even though he had lived in Boston for more than a decade, the younger Tsarnaev was still an active participant in the Russian Muslim community. But does that really explain why Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan (who was killed during a police shootout on Friday) would want to destroy the lives of people in Boston?

"There could be several reasons for Muslims to hold a grudge against America," Gulnara Rustamova, a human rights advocate for Salafi Muslims in Dagestan, told me. "Americans kill Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. That could be the motive for these young men."

The family of the two Tsarnaev brothers appears to have lived for a while in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan (a place that became home to many Chechens after Stalin deported them from their home republic in 1944). Later the family moved back to the North Caucasus, settling in Dagestan, a republic with a population of about three million that borders on Chechnya. The family emigrated from there to the United States in 2002.

Not long ago Dagestan was still a relatively peaceful place. But that began to change after Chechen guerrillas fought two disastrous wars for their independence from Russia -- the first from 1994 to 1996, the second starting in 1999. In the end, Russia used its military might to tamp down the rebellion, above all by persuading some powerful Chechen clans to switch to their side. But the Kremlin's indiscriminate use of artillery, airpower, and punitive raids ensured that the appearance of stability remained superficial. In reality the insurgency in Chechnya not only continued, but soon spread to other parts of the North Caucasus that are home to large Muslim populations. The number of attacks, bombings, and counterinsurgency operations in Dagestan in particular has steadily risen over the years.

To make matters worse, the region's Muslims are not only fighting against Moscow. In many cases they've also begun to fight each other. The rise of ultraconservative, Saudi Arabia-style Salafism in the region has increasingly pitted its adherents against the more moderate Sufis who traditionally make up a big part of the local Muslim population. (In this context, it's noteworthy that Tamerlan Tsarnaev used his YouTube page to denounce a video that showed Caucasian Sufis burying one of their own, alleging that their rituals make them "idolaters.")

In fact, the dirty war in the region is accelerating. Special operations by Russian security forces and terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists take dozens of lives. In the first four months of this year alone, 67 people have fallen victim to terror attacks in Dagestan, but the news media hardly mention the casualties. Russians only pay attention to the insurgency when suicide bombers attack the Moscow subway or the airport. Whenever this happens, experts invariably urge the Kremlin to analyze why the jihad by Salafi community in North Caucasus keeps on simmering.

"We do report on victims, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture happening all over North Caucasus, but people are tired of hearing about it," said Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. "A terror attack on Boston that is so far away from Russia concerns Russians much more than what is happening in the south of the own country," she added.

It was a remark that struck home. I've been covering the turmoil in the North Caucasus for 13 years now -- ever since the Second Chechen War convulsed the region yet again. I tracked the radicalization of young Muslims in the republics adjoining Chechnya as they began to talk of creating an independent state based on sharia, to be called the "Caucasus Emirate."

Some of them took up arms, committing guerrilla attacks against Russian institutions. The Russians responded by unleashing their special forces, regular army, and police against anyone who sympathized with the movement. But with wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, my editors' interest in stories from this seemingly obscure area waned. Why would anyone pay attention to places like Dagestan or Chechnya when there were conflicts aflame all over the Middle East?

I remember how much effort it took to persuade my editors to allow me to cover the murder of my colleague and friend Natalia Estemirova, the prominent human rights activist. She was shot dead in Chechnya -- by whom, precisely, remains obscure. A few journalists traveled to Grozny to say goodbye at her funeral. It was sad to see how small the group was. But it wasn't only the West that had lost interest in Russia's local wars. Just a few years ago I remember how some editors at a Russian radio station asked me why I'd gone to the trouble to interview Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the most powerful leader in North Caucasus. "Why do you keep going to the North Caucasus?" they asked me. Their marketing research had showed that only 13 percent of their listeners showed any interest in news from the region.

Last weekend, as reported by monitors from the human rights organization Memorial, tanks and artillery bombarded an area outside the Dagestani town of Gimry (pop. 4,000). Hundreds of people with small children left their homes and fled to a neighboring community called Temroary, where they filled apartments and houses to overflowing. Men had to sleep in their cars or in mosques.

For weeks, Russian police and security service forces have been fighting what they describe as a "special operation" against a guerrilla group in the Gimry area. The fighting has left more than two thousand displaced people without their clothes, valuables, or food. And yet even the local newspapers (much less the media in Moscow) provided little coverage of the crisis. "We Muslims of Dagestan are treated as if we are not citizens of Russia and all newspapers talk about is the terror attack on Boston," one refugee, Napisat Magomedova, told me.

"Gimry? Is that in Armenia?" Aleksei Venediktov, the editor of Ekho Moskvy radio station, asked me in an interview today. When it happens on a daily basis, he explained, even terrorism can make people tired and indifferent: "Dagestan is just like Ireland during The Troubles there, when an explosion at a gas station didn't make much news." He noted that many Russian nationalists tend to refer to Dagestan and Chechnya as if they're foreign states. They've been known to demand that the Kremlin build a wall and separate the region from the rest of Russia.

But today the news that two Boston terrorists might be Chechens lit up the Internet. "How can it be?" another wrote, referring to the younger Tsarnaev's self-professed interest in a lucrative career. "Are they some sort of bourgeois neo-Islamists? Interesting combination! So they believe in Allah and Mammon? Real believers don't value career and money most." "Americans are paying for supporting the ‘Chechen freedom fighters,'" commented another. "This is all fake! Americans take somebody from a ‘risk group' -- refugees, Muslims -- and create the conditions for an arrest." Few seemed to accept the more obvious conclusion: That the traumas caused by the lingering war in the North Caucasus have now reached all the way to the United States.

Democracy Lab

Russia's Olympic City

Russia is pushing ahead with its projects for the 2014 Winter Olympics. But not everyone is happy.

SOCHI, Russia — Six-year-old Kirill Dragan looked on silently as the wall grew. Just a few days earlier the spot where workers were stacking up cinderblocks on layers of mortar had been a roadway lined with the flowerbeds and grape trellises owned by Kirill's parents and 12 other families. But then the bulldozers and trucks moved in, submerging it all in dust and concrete. The boy watched as heavy machines dug holes, dumped mounds of gravel and sand, and unloaded more and more concrete blocks. The giant construction site for the 2014 Winter Olympics spreads all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains on the horizon.

"Help! SOS! They're walling off people alive in here," reads a red banner stretched across the roof of Kirill's apartment building on Acacia Street.

For months, this neighborhood of dilapidated houses has been trying to fight back the tide of construction and cynical threats from officialdom. If you were wondering why a topless, obscenity-yelling woman protestor saw the need to confront Russia's president about human rights violations during his trip to Germany earlier this week, all you have to do is come to Sochi.

You'll find many people with reasons to yell at Putin here. The rising concrete wall (set to be 12 feet high upon completion) is about to cut off Acacia Street's view of the mountains -- and, indeed, of the rest of the world. During rainstorms, bulldozers push mud into residential courtyards, where the dirty water floods residents' basements, destroying floors and furniture. Mold is creeping up the walls in homes, filling the air with a rotten-garbage smell. Last month, Sochi City Hall filed a lawsuit against Acacia Street inhabitants who haven't been willing to demolish their own outhouses, kitchens, and water pumps that happen to be in the way of the construction of a new federal highway.

Russian authorities are resettling over 2,000 families who happened to live in the path of huge Olympic projects. But there are many others who have received zero compensation, and continue to wait in vain for new apartments from the state. The people whose lives have been turned upside down by Olympic development have been given no alternatives. They've never received a word of explanation from government officials about the rationale for destroying their homes. On Ternovaya Street in nearby Chereshnya, construction of Olympics-related power lines has triggered landslides, resulting in severe damage to homes, including collapsed walls and cracks in foundations. No one has ever apologized. People were expected to submit to this treatment without a squeak. "We're concerned that all of the authorities involved on both the local and federal level are not respecting the basic rights and human dignity of these families, including many small children," said Jane Buchanan, a Human Rights Watch representative who recently visited Sochi.

"We're stuck in a ghetto between two highways and a railroad without water, without fresh air, without a single patch of land for our kids to play on," Sochi resident Nadezhda Kurovskaya told me. "And then, on top of all that, they sue us, the poorest of the poor." Last week, Kurovskaya's grandson accidently fell up to his shoulders in a pond of liquid concrete. Luckily, neighbors pulled the child out before he sank -- though his rubber boots remained buried in the gray mush.

So what precisely is happening to Sochi, a place of palm trees and beaches that generations of Russians once viewed as the ultimate spot to get away from it all? Back in Soviet days, thousands of people escaped here from the dark Siberian winters and colorless industrial cities to see magnolias in bloom, listen to birds sing, relax on the beach, and recover their health and psychological well-being in Russia's only tropical resort. State-funded vacations typically lasted for weeks. And though not many local residents of Sochi had stable jobs, they were proud to hear visitors even from places like Moscow and St. Petersburg sigh and pronounce: "It's like paradise." (You might ask why a place with such a balmy climate was chosen precisely for the Winter Olympics. Russian officials respond by pointing to the nearby Caucasus Mountains, which boast considerable snowfall during the winters. If natural winter proves insufficient, the authorities have promised unspecified "innovative technical solutions" to make up the slack.)

As I visited Sochi this week -- a city where I, too, spent every summer of my childhood -- I found a city choked by traffic jams, dust, and construction. The seaside embankment of the once proud Soviet Riviera is now crowded by small shops selling low-quality goods. The lush gardens along the seashore have given way to monstrous, half-built skyscrapers.

For years I've been watching the demolition of old neighborhoods in Moscow and in my hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. But it's in Sochi that the change is most shocking of all. I almost screamed when I saw my favorite beach: The tropical park has been replaced by sky-high piles of concrete blocks. "This city is pure hell now," my friend Galia told me. "Money has taken over Sochi. They've beaten all the beauty and the love out of our city." A professional tour guide who's dedicated her life to attracting tourists to Sochi, Galia now wants to run away from home. 

Even the birds have changed their mind about Sochi. In spite of the endless protests of ecologists, the central government in Moscow is building an Olympic Park for next February's games in Imeretinskaya Valley, a marshy flatland by the sea that offers a unique habitat to more than 200 species of migrating birds. Every year, swans, storks, and pelicans come here to enjoy the clear water of the lakes. Now, the lakes -- which are internationally recognized as a crucial ecological site -- are disappearing beneath the mud and noise and messy turmoil of Olympic Park construction. Both Greenpeace  and the World Wildlife Fund  have protested the damage to the area; three years ago a United Nations body expressed concern about the construction's effect on the local environment. Young Sochi activists have already documented the ecological consequences of Olympic development: dead dolphins on the beaches, trout dying in the rivers, swans swimming in the sea instead of their lake. But their whistle-blowing goes unheard, since many in Sochi (above all officials and businesses) profiting from the city's Olympic status the city. The government says that of the $30 billion poured into Sochi, only $6.6 billion is going straight into Olympic construction. The rest is supposed to benefit the city as a whole. And it's certainly true that there are new apartment buildings, shopping malls, and stores spring up wherever you look. But critics believe that as much as half of the money is going into the pockets of corrupt officials and businessmen.

Unlike the migrating birds, the families of Acacia Street have no other place to go. In vain they've sent letters to President Vladimir Putin, posted petitions on his Facebook page, and even trooped off to protest at his well-guarded official residence in Sochi. Their letters to the Kremlin were sent back to officials in the local, Moscow-appointed government. Those officials told them: "The more you complain, the worse you'll have it." Putin never responded, and the construction has continued, unimpeded.

Last weekend, with the initial phase of construction underway for a new federal highway running right on their property, Kirill's family called the police. "Somebody should stop them, they're destroying our property!" they reported. But the message the Acacia Street community received from the police was more than clear, as resident Yulia Saltykova told me: "He told us that this Putin is holding is hand over everything that's happening here. This is what Putin wants."    

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images