Shortly after lunch on 15 April, 2013, Patriots Day in Massachusetts, a bomb went off at the Boston marathon, killing three bystanders and blowing the limbs off another 16. This May, a US Federal court sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers, to death for the crime. He showed no emotion at the verdict. His brother, Tamerlan, was dead already, killed in a shootout with police soon after the explosion.
What drove tousled-haired Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, a young man with matinée-idol good looks, to want to murder a lot of joggers? Americans have agonised over their motives, wondering whether they were "radicalised" in the US or drawn into the Islamist underground by contacts back home in the Caucasus.
Gessen's exhaustively researched account, which tacks back and forth between America and the ex-Soviet "stans", will disappoint those who imagine that if only "X" had been done, "Y" would not have happened.
No doubt it would comfort some to learn that the Tsarnaev family had been victims of some appalling injustice in America or back "home", and that crushed ideals somehow turned a couple of innocents into terrorists. But the Tsarnaev family do not appear to have had many ideals – just a hazy notion that the streets of America would be paved with gold. They did not lack for help in America. Finding a decent place to live can be hellishly difficult for immigrants to the US but the Tsarnaevs landed on their feet in Boston. A well-meaning liberal landlady in nearby Cambridge offered them a place in her home. The boys went to Boston Latin. That's no sink school. Founded in 1635, its graduates include several former presidents of Harvard as well as President Kennedy's father, Joe.
In pictures: Boston Marathon bombing anniversary
In pictures: Boston Marathon bombing anniversary
1/15 Boston, USA
Boston Marathon bombing survivors, family members and supporters joined the relay runners for the final half-block to the finish
2/15 Boston, USA
Boston Marathon bombing survivors Doug Julian (L) and his partner Lynn Crisci (C) hug as fellow survivor Shannon Silvestri (R) looks on in Boston. The trio, joined by other survivors, family members and supporters met up with participants of a cross country charity relay that began in California and ended at the finish line of the Boston Marathon
3/15 Boston, USA
Rosa Evora (C) hugs a fellow participant in a cross country relay that began in California and ended at the Boston Marathon finish line in Boston
4/15 Boston, USA
Supporters of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier carry a banner to the finish line of the Boston Marathon
5/15 Boston, USA
Boston Marathon bombing survivor Heather Abbott carries a symbolic torch as she crosses the marathon finish line in Boston
6/15 Boston, USA
People walk past an electronic billboard reading "Boston Strong" near the finish line of the Boston Marathon
7/15 Boston, USA
Crosses bearing the names of people killed are displayed in an exhibit titled, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Maraton bombings
8/15 Boston, USA
Pedestrians look at a marathon banner installation at the Old South Church on Boylston Street in Boston
9/15 Boston, USA
Visitors stand next to the Runner's shoes display titled, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Maraton bombings
10/15 Boston, USA
Runner's shoes are laid out in a display titled, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Maraton bombings
11/15 Boston, USA
A runner's shoes read, "I will run the Boston Marathong for you," in a display titled, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Maraton bombings
12/15 Boston, USA
Jillian Munson, from Rochester, New York, hangs a hand-written message she wrote on a tree hung with messages inside a display titled, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Maraton bombings
13/15 Boston, USA
Hand written messages are displayed in an exhibit titled, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Maraton bombings
14/15 Boston, USA
A passer-by walks past yellow and blue crocheted hearts that hang from a lamp post in front of the Forum restaurant near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The restaurant was damaged after one of the bombs exploded in front of the building during the race
15/15 Boston, USA
Police officers patrol the finish line of the Boston Marathon
The liberal landlady, various teachers and other well-wishers seem to have done their best to open doors for the Tsarnaevs. But nothing worked out for this diffident, touchy, needy family. The parents chopped and changed jobs. The father's temper antagonised the neighbours. One of the daughters was done for shoplifting. Tamerlan had a budding career as a boxer but drifted off into selling pot.
Around 2009, Mrs Tsarnaev seems to have given up on America. Back home in the stans, neighbours had nicknamed the elegant couple "the swans". But now this particular swan felt her wings had been clipped. She chucked out her smart skirts, put on a headscarf, decided the Jews were to blame for everything and absorbed herself on the internet in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whose theories she shared with her sons. They fell behind with the rent. Even the liberal New England landlady baulked at hearing her tenants spouting anti-Semitic codswallop and told the family to move on.
The parents drifted back to Dagestan in the Caucasus, equally furious with America but now separated from one another. The boys stayed on, Tamerlan drifting around the University of Massachusetts, smoking pot and sleeping late. His roommate remembered little about him except that his bed was a mess. In 2012, he went to Dagestan where he told friends that he was now devout and considered America morally degenerate. The serious Muslims of Dagestan agreed but found him theologically illiterate, which was not surprising. Like his mother, he seems to have picked up most of his ideas about Islam, Jews and American degeneracy on the internet.
A Russian-speaking immigrant to America herself, Gessen has a fine understanding of the complex mores and neuroses of the small community of immigrants from the ex-Soviet Caucasus in Boston, a society bound by numerous prohibitions and an all-consuming fear of loss of identity.
In the case of the Tsarnaevs, credulous faith in their golden prospects in the land of the free curdled first into resentment and then into a murderous hatred. That's more or less it. No elaborate conspiracy, no predatory imams, just an American dream that went very, very sour. Gessen says that obsessing about who "radicalised" the Tsarnaev brothers is pointless, a trail that leads nowhere. The people in this story, she concludes, were few, their ideas uncomplicated and their plans all too achievable. And that, she warns, "is the hardest and most frightening story to believe".Reuse content