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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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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.

5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.

8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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