The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘This year I lost too many of my loved relatives,’ Tsarnaev wrote

An exhibit shown in court Tuesday was a rare instance of the surviving Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, speaking in his own voice – sort of. It was a note he wrote in January 2013, less than three months before the bombing, in an attempt to explain his failing grades at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and regain his financial-aid eligibility. It is a telling document.

“This year I lost too many of my loved relatives,” the note begins. “I was unable to cope with the stress and maintain school work.”

The last part is indisputably true: Tsarnaev could not maintain anything approaching to a passing grade point average. The first part of the statement is sort of true: Over the preceding couple of years, the apartment the Tsarnaevs had been renting in Cambridge, Mass., for over a decade, had been emptying out. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s sisters, both of whom were divorced mothers, had left. The parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, had divorced and separately moved back to the Russian North Caucasus.

So, yes, Dzhokhar had lost much of his family in a short period of time – but not in the way the note implied.

“My relatives live in Chechnya, Russia.” This is a stretch. On the paternal side, two of Dzhokhar’s uncles and one aunt lived in North America. The one remaining aunt and grandmother — Anzor’s mother — had in fact recently moved to Chechnya from Central Asia, where Anzor was born and grew up and where the Tsarnaev family had spent most of its time before moving to the United States. Dzhokhar’s maternal relatives — Zubeidat’s clan — lived mostly in Dagestan, a different republic in the North Caucasus, one that sounds even less familiar to most Americans than does Chechnya.

The next sentence, an incomplete one, apparently clarifies what Chechnya is: “A Republic [sic] that is occupied by Russian Soldiers [sic] that falsely accuse and abduct innocent men under false pretenses and terrorist accusations.” Actually, this is very much true of Dagestan, where most of Dzhokhar’s relatives live, and less true of Chechnya, which has in recent years been left mostly to the cruel devices of its own homegrown dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was probably writing on the well-founded assumption that his readers had read or heard about Russian terror in Chechnya and had never even heard of Dagestan, so substituting one republic’s name for the other made his story more believable – if less true.

He was dealing with a classic immigrant dilemma the way he and his family had ever since they immigrated to the United States in 2002: making his story more intelligible by telling Americans what he thought they wanted to hear, or were at least capable of understanding. His real story, like most immigrant stories, was simply too complicated: Too many unfamiliar country names, too much moving around, too tenuous a connection to Chechnya itself to be able to explain how the war there had shaped his life.

“I am at a point where I can finally focus on my school work,” he concluded. “I wish to do well so one day I can help those in need in my country, especially my family members.”

His appeal to have his financial aid restored was denied.