Friday, April 19, 2013

The Boston Marathon terrorists Tamerlan and Dzhokhar: What's in a name?

As I am writing this, authorities in Boston are still searching for the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. The first suspect was killed early this morning in a firefight with Boston police; the second fled the scene in an apparently stolen car.

The two suspects have now been identified as the brothers Tamerlan (26) and Dzhokhar (19) Tsarnaev. Tamerlan is dead, Dzhokhar is still at large. Reportedly, their family is originally from Chechnya, though both brothers have held Kyrgyzstan passports. For point of reference, Chechnya is on the Western side of the Caspian Sea, Kyrgyzstan is well to the east of the Caspian Sea, bordering China on its east and Uzbekistan on its West (Chechnya is around Grozny):

I bring all of this up because their names--Tamerlan and Dzokhar--have some serious history behind them. How significant this is, with regard to what they have done, is an open question.

"Dzhokar" is the name of the first president--and principle founder--of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared by him in 1991. A formal Soviet general, Dudayev was born in Chechnya but he and his family were forcibly deported--under the orders of Stalin--just after his birth in 1944. Interestingly enough, he and his family were relocated to the area of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. He was killed in a missile attack during the First Chechen War.

His story is a fascinating one, as it reads as that of a man who feigned decades of allegiance to the Soviets, who worked his way up on the inside of that leadership, until he saw an opportunity to return to his homeland and free it from the rule of those he once seemed to willingly serve. To the Chechen people, he is a great hero. And this is especially true of the Chechen diaspora in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where Dudayev was raised after his birth and forced relocation.

"Tamerlan" is a version of "Tamerlane" or "Tamburlaine," names that come from "Timur Lenk," meaning "Timur the lame." Timur, of course, was a great warlord of the fourteenth century. He was born in 1336 in the eastern part of Uzbekistan, not all that far from Kyrgyzstan. He sought to reestablish the empire of Genghis Khan, though he was also a very staunch Muslim, often referring to himself as the "sword of Islam."

In Uzbekistan proper, Timur is a national hero, both because of his religious piety and because of his patronage of the arts; his acts of brutality are excused or ignored. A statue of him on horseback now stands in that nation's capital city of Tashkent, in a location once home to a large bust of Karl Marx. In addition, legend has it that Timur foretold of his own rebirth or return from the dead. His casket was allegedly inscribed with the phrase "When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble."

Many people put a great deal of stock in their family history, their lineages, and even their given names. They tend to believe--wrongly--that these things say something profound or at least important about who they are and where they are going in life, about their destiny as it were. Do these two brothers--apparently guilty of horrific crimes--subscribe to such views? Do they believe their own destinies were tied to the history of the two people for whose honor they appear to have been named?

A national hero of Chechnya and one of Uzbekistan (and Islam), both of whom lived in the same region, and now two brothers bearing their names, from that same region and of the same religion. How much did this naming contribute to the paths taken by these brothers? We may never know.

Cheers, all.


  1. This is why I'm never going to name my child Megatron Baltar Hitler Khan.