A famous sign at the Los Angeles Times urged: “GOYA/KOD.” That means “Get off your ass/knock on doors,” a reportorial approach that Christian Caryl rode to glory yesterday.
Caryl is a senior fellow for the Legatum Institute, which — get this — pays him to write for Foreign Policy magazine, where he is a contributing editor. At the same time, Caryl is a freelancer for the New York Review of Books. In that latter capacity, Caryl singlehandedly fleshed out a precious and unanswered dimension of the Tsarnaev story, even as multi-reporter teams for the New York Times and the Washington Post completed enormous and excellent biographical takeouts on that same topic.
Here are the five steps that led to Caryl’s scoop on the mysterious “Misha” character, who has been accused of radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
1) New York Review of Books takes an interest. According to Caryl, New York Review of Books Editor Robert B. Silvers wanted a slice of the Tsarnaev story. The big papers, he said, were doing some great stuff on the heritage and life of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, but there was something missing. “One of the reasons he sent me to do this story was he wanted me to investigate the Russian-speaking environment that the family came from,” says Caryl, noting that the stories on the Tsarnaev’s upbringing stemmed in great measure from English-speaking sources. “Yet there’s this very rich, Russian-speaking milieu in Boston that hasn’t been tapped.” Caryl speaks Russian.
2) Silvers gives contact to Caryl. According to Caryl, Silvers had a contact in the Boston area with “privileged access” to the Tsarnaev family. This contact was an American; Caryl interviewed the individual at length. At the end of the session, the source spilled forth with some more contacts.
3) Knock! Caryl called the contacts that the source had passed along but got no answer. So he found their addresses and went to their homes. At one of the residences, he left a note requesting an interview. He got a call back: We’d love to talk.
A long interview ensued with this family, which had been interviewed by the FBI but by no journalists prior to Caryl’s arrival. “At one point Misha’s name came up but they didn’t seem to attach any particular importance to it,” says Caryl, who did attach particular importance to it. He knew that “Misha” was the elusive and alleged Islamic “svengali” who may have had some kind of influence on the Tsarnaevs. He was the leading mystery man of the entire narrative.
The family forked over the legal name of “Misha” and said he lived in Rhode Island.
4) Knock again! The number that Caryl found for one Mikhail Allakhverdov didn’t work. So Caryl showed up at the address around noon on Sunday. “I presented myself,” he said. He asked if the man with the “thin, reddish-blond beard” and “white short-sleeve football jersey and pajama pants” was Mikhail. To which Mikhail didn’t respond. His father did: “Yeah, yeah, of course he’s Mikhail.”
The awkwardness wasn’t hard to diagnose: Misha and his family, according to Caryl, were apparently hoping to “ride the whole thing out in obscurity and then I show up and the world fell apart and they knew that the world was going to learn about this,” he says. The write-up of the interview communicates Misha’s assertion that he didn’t radicalize the Tsarnaevs and that he has cooperated with authorities. Outside of that, however, Caryl didn’t get a lot of answers.
“It was not a formal sit-down interview,” says Caryl, describing a session thick with anxiety. “They basically said ‘we think you gotta go now.'”
5) TV news equipment is now parked outside of Misha’s place. He’ll have plenty of other opportunities to tell his story.