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What Do Chechens Have Against Russia?

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By The Week Staff

The Boston Marathon bombing suspects are ethnic Chechens. Did their homeland's plight help radicalize them?

Who are the Chechens?

They're an ethnic group in the Caucasus region that has been fighting for independence from Russia for four centuries. Most Chechens are Sunni Muslims, many of whom practice in the mystical Sufi tradition; most Russians are Orthodox Christians. But the independence struggle has long been more about nationality than religion. Chechen identity is fiercely independent and anti-hierarchical, and rests on clan honor and — to a great extent — hatred of Russia. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's high school friends say he rarely talked about his ethnicity, except to quickly correct anyone who suggested he was Russian.

What do Chechens have against Russia?

They deeply resent its attempts to dominate their homeland, which date to the 16th-century reign of Ivan the Terrible. In the Soviet era, the Chechens balked at the government's efforts to seize private property and collectivize farming and herding. Furious at their resistance, Stalin used false allegations that Chechens collaborated with Nazis as an excuse to deport almost the entire Chechen population — about 500,000 people — to the desolate steppes of Siberia and Central Asia during World War II. The transfer was one of the most devastating acts of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century; at least a third and possibly half of the Chechens died in the first year. Most of the survivors eventually returned to Chechnya, but the Tsarnaev family stayed through the 1990s in Kyrgyzstan, where Anzor, the father of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, worked as a lawyer. While the father clearly inculcated a Chechen identity in his sons, any hopes he entertained of taking his growing family back to Chechnya for good evaporated when Chechens were forced to flee again.

What were they fleeing?

Two brutal wars with Russia that together turned Chechnya into "probably the most dangerous heart of darkness in the world," in the words of historian Brian Glyn Williams. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, carried away by his success in freeing Russia from the Soviet yoke, told all the Russian provinces to claim "as much autonomy as you can handle." Chechnya promptly declared independence, which was more than Yeltsin had had in mind. In 1994 he sent in troops to quickly reassert Russian sovereignty, but when Chechens fought back, the crackdown turned into a nightmarish slaughter. At least 50,000 civilians were killed; the capital, Grozny, was completely flattened; and some 200,000 women and children fled to neighboring provinces and farther afield. In 1999, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was preparing to succeed Yeltsin, blamed a series of deadly bombings in Moscow on Chechen militants and launched a second war.

What happened to Chechnya?

It became a breeding ground for radicalism. So did the neighboring province of Dagestan, where the Tsarnaev family settled for a few years before coming to the U.S. about a decade ago. A few Arab jihadists came to help the Chechens fight and introduced Wahhabism, the very strict form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. In 2002, Chechen Islamist militants seized a Moscow theater, and 41 of them died, along with 129 hostages, when Russian special forces moved in. In 2004, Chechen militants led a siege on a school in Beslan; more than 330 people, mostly children, were killed. And in 2010, two female Chechen suicide bombers killed more than 40 people in the Moscow subway. Now some Chechen militants may be looking beyond Russia for targets. Over the past two years, Chechens have been charged with involvement in terror plots in Spain and France, which were foiled. "If there is any connection between these kids and the insurgency there, it will be the first time they have struck a target outside of Russia," Georgetown University professor Christopher Swift told The Wall Street Journal. Chechnya itself has been ruthlessly pacified, but the militants are active in Dagestan, where Tamerlan stayed for six months, until last July.

What did Tamerlan do in the region?

That is a major focus of the ongoing investigation. Even before he left on that trip, he'd grown markedly more religious and angry, his family says. Russian security services say he had already visited Dagestan in 2011, and was communicating with radicals there. In the last year, Dagestan has seethed with violence. Dozens of police were killed in operations against Islamist militants, a cleric was assassinated by bomb, and two suicide bombers hit the capital, Makhachkala, where Tamerlan was living with his father for some of the time. Tamerlan traveled twice to Chechnya as well, though only to visit cousins, his father claims. But upon his return to the U.S., Tamerlan made a YouTube playlist of Chechen protest songs and jihadist videos. One video is dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khorasan, which says an invincible Islamic army will rise in Central Asia. "It is essentially an end-time prophecy," says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This is definitely important in al Qaida's ideology." It's still far from clear, though, whether Chechnya's conflict-filled history and the radical ideas spawned there played a major role in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Chechens in the U.S.

Very few — perhaps 1,000 — of the tens of thousands of Chechen refugees who fled the grim plight of their homeland have settled in the U.S. Most of them, like the Tsarnaevs, made a case for being refugees fleeing political or religious persecution at home. The small community is horrified by the actions attributed to two of their sons. "Most of us would be dead right now if it wasn't for the United States giving us a home and saving us from all the violence," said Boston resident Ali Tepsurkaev, who came to the U.S. about a decade ago. "It feels embarrassing for us,'' he said. "After all this hospitality we're getting from Americans, to hear that some Chechen... It's hard. It's difficult to explain."

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What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?
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For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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