Many men in Chechnya, the mountainous region in the Russian Caucasus that has been fought over for three centuries, define themselves as warriors. They see the title as both their birthright, and the source of their manly honor. Now, their example has gone global, like so much else.
Nearly 20 years ago, with Pilar Bonet of the Spanish daily El País, I persuaded two Chechens to drive us out of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, to some high ground, so that we might catch a glimpse of the Russian army advancing on the city. It was the beginning of the first Chechen war, in 1994. Russian President Yeltsin had tired of the defiance of the self- appointed Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev, who had declared Checnya’s independence – one of Russia’s Caucasus republics. He sent in the army.
Our drivers, a father and son, sped their rattling Lada out of the city and headed west, in the direction of the advancing Russians. As we drove, the older of the two men reached under the seat and, grinning, produced a Kalashnikov submachine gun and a pistol. He announced the intention to strike a blow for freedom against the Russians. Not wanting to join them in a bloody ditch, we asked to be let out, to the evident scorn of the son. The older man, with a hint of apology, said you must understand: “Lyubim oruzhie” – “we love guns.”
That scene came back, with cinematic clarity, when I read about the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, now suspected of planting the bombs at the finishing line of Boston’s marathon. As the evidence gathered by the security services accumulates and is fed to the news media, we are told that the two men, outwardly well adjusted to their adopted home, had become radicalized. We don’t know their motivations yet, but some are wondering whether they have been inspired by the images and myths of those of their ethnic kin still fighting in Chechnya – fighting, now, for a sharia state purged of infidels. A scholar of the area, Christopher Swift, believes that the conflict in the Russian Caucasus, populated by a patchwork of peoples and tribes, “has metastasized into a kind of globalized jihadist theater, at least in the minds of the young people fighting there.” Those who read and ingest the stories of that conflict, and bring it home – wherever home is – are fighting “there” too. They, too, have come to love guns.
In Grozny I saw warriors everywhere and at every age. A four-year-old boy had a Kalashnikov – without a magazine – slung over his diminutive body, under the eye of his proud mother. A man who looked in his eighties carried another – with a magazine.