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Inside the deadly Russian region the Tsarnaev family used to call home

As details emerge about the brothers suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings, we’re learning that the Tsarnaev family briefly lived in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia’s Dagestan region near Chechnya, before moving to the United States in 2002. The Associated Press says it has spoken to the suspects’ father, who is in Makhachkala (“My son is a true angel,” he declares). And here’s the AP on the suspect who was still at large yesterday:

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s page on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte says he attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, graduating in 2011, the year he won the scholarship, which was celebrated with a reception at City Hall, according to a news release issued at the time. Before moving to the United States, he attended School No. 1 in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia’s North Caucasus that has become an epicenter of the Islamic insurgency that spilled over from Chechnya.”

Back in 2011, Tom Parfitt wrote a fascinating dispatch for Foreign Policy from the very city where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly went to school. Here’s what Parfitt had to say about the violence-plagued republic:

Speaking about what drives terrorism in this republic and across the rest of the North Caucasus, (former Russian President Dmitry) Medvedev identified “monstrous scales of corruption” as one of the chief causes. Dagestan is not just the most welcoming of the North Caucasus’ troubled republics; it is also the most deadly. And the corruption that Medvedev pointed to is at the very heart of the violence that is destroying this self-contained, traditional society.

Dagestan’s isolation has preserved customs of hospitality and honor that are common to all its 32 indigenous ethnic groups. Yet Dagestan has also been shielded from moderating outside influence, something that has made it vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. The republic has the deepest Islamic tradition in the region (Arab invaders were here in the 7th century A.D.), and when religious emissaries from the Middle East began to pour in after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they found a fertile breeding ground for new recruits.

Conservative Salafis entering Dagestan came into confrontation with the Sufi “tariqats” (orders) that had dominated religious life here before the Bolsheviks. In the following two decades, a growing number of locals became Salafis and some joined the Islamist insurgency spreading out of Chechnya.

Dagestan has paid heavily for its involvement. The Caucasian Knot website recorded 378 insurgency-related deaths and 307 people wounded in the republic in 2010 (compared with Ingushetia with 134 deaths and 192 wounded, and Chechnya with 127 and 123).

This terrorist war against Russian rule has been intensified by clumsy religious policy, persecution by Russian security services, ham-fisted economic plans that have kept many out of work, and – as Medvedev said – suffocating corruption.

The effect of graft is twofold. First, it feeds social discontent, as the gap widens between rich and poor. And secondly, it nurtures deeply criminalized Islamist guerrillas who rely on extortion and racketeering to keep their fight alive.

(Uri Friedman is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.)

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