It Was Probably the Internet, Not Chechnya, That Radicalized the Boston Bombers
The Tsarnaev brothers are the first Chechens to have been implicated in alleged jihadist attacks on US soil. But the more we learn about Dzhokar and Tamerlan, the blurrier their motives become. Why would these two seemingly well-integrated young men indiscriminately kill citizens of the country that welcomed them with open arms? What has America done to Chechnya? And is the horror we witnessed in Boston the beginning of a frightening new trend—an amalgamation of foreign and domestic terrorism into a bouillabaisse of confused and largely undefined hate?
While we’ll still be searching for more information about the Tsarnaev brothers and what motivated them for months—if not years—to come, their roots in Chechnya and the history of that country are a good place to start.
In the early 19th century, Chechnya resisted Russian attempts to occupy their small mountainous motherland, nearly 1,000 miles south of Moscow. The fight intensified when the region was assimilated into the Soviet Union. To quell rebellion in the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the entire Chechen population to remote areas of Central Asia, repopulating the mountains with ethnic Russians. Some 200,000 people, one-third of the Chechen population, lost their lives to this process, called Operation Lentil.
A family takes an afternoon walk amid the rubble and burned-out apartment blocks destroyed during the fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels.
While Islam remains a central part of Chechen identity, religion didn’t play a major role in the nationalist struggle until recently. In the mid-90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechens again attempted to wrestle their independence from Moscow. Volunteer fighters, preachers, and NGOs espousing Wahhabism (an Arab Gulf version of ultraconservative Islam) flocked to the region to fight against Russia and instill Chechens with their radical views. A Chechen administrator explained at the time, “They [the Wahhabis] went to the market, and they paid with dollars. There was no power here; there was disorder everywhere, and their influence was very strong. The poor Chechen people were already suffering so much, and our young guys simply couldn’t think. They were ready to accept any ideas.”
There are certain ethical quagmires, grappled over by anthropologists and ethnologists since time immemorial, in attempting to document uncontacted or lost people tucked into the few remaining hidden pockets of this earth. But these issues become moot when the invasive and kudzu-like world inevitably finds its way to them. The Lykovs—a Russian family who lived in the Siberian wilderness without human contact for most of the 20th century—are not an undiscovered tribe like the few that remain hidden from the modern world in South America. Nor did they violently resist outside contact like the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, who continue to do so today. When I asked 70-year-old Agafia, the sole surviving member of the Lykov clan, if she wished that the geologists who discovered her family in 1978 in the completely isolated wilderness of Siberia’s taiga forest had never found them, she shook her head. “I don’t know if we would have survived [without them],” she said. “We were running out of tools and food. I no longer had any scarves.” For once, humanity’s unyielding curiosity to uncloak every remaining secret of this world may have preserved rather than contaminated a singular phenomenon.
It all started in 1936 when Karp Lykov and his wife, Akulina, spurned civilization completely. Fed up with the Communists and city living in general, they journeyed deep into the taiga with their two sons. The impetus for their journey was the murder of Karp’s brother, who was shot by a Bolshevik patrol on the outskirts of their small village near the city of Kursk, in far western Russia. The Lykovs were strict pacifists, members of the Old Believers, an ultra-orthodox sect of Christianity that split off from the Russian church in the 17th century.
After choosing their plot, the Lykovs built a cabin, birthed two more children, and lived the kind of brutal existence that made Little House on the Prairie look like spring break in Daytona, Florida. They relied on a spinning wheel they’d dragged hundreds of miles with them to make clothing and survived on potatoes and wild mushrooms. In 1961, after almost three decades in the woods, a snowstorm wiped out their crop. They survived by eating tree bark and their shoes; Akulina starved herself to death so her kids wouldn’t go hungry.
After Akulina died, the family continued their insular existence until 1978, when the geologists (who were surveying the area for potential oil deposits) happened upon their settlement. Over the next few years, word of the strange, secluded family living in the absolute middle of nowhere slowly but steadily spread throughout Russia, and they became unlikely folk heroes. Much of the attention was due to Vasily Peskov, a Russian journalist who wrote several articles about the family as well as a book, Lost in the Taiga, that was a bestseller in Russia but totally flopped in English markets. (Last we checked, it’s out of print and copies on Amazon were going for $900.) One by one, each of the family members died. Some have speculated that the introduction of foreign germs by the geologists to the Lykovs’ immune systems was ultimately responsible for their deaths; others believe their deaths were natural. Whatever the case, Karp passed away in 1988, outliving all of his children except Agafia, his youngest daughter. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of some geologists who had befriended the family. As my film crew and I were preparing for the trip to visit the last remaining Lykov, we almost called off the story when the Smithsonian published an archive-based article in January that ended with Agafia, then 45 years old, deciding to continue living alone in the Siberian wilderness after her father’s death. But that was 25 years ago, and the author did not have either the means or the fortitude to travel to the taiga to see how life was treating Agafia at 70. So we went.
In February, we flew to Siberia to find Agafia and catch the world up to speed on her life. She lives more than 155 miles from civilization and getting there required navigating seemingly endless, onion-like layers of Putin’s government approval—including getting past various park officials who dubiously claimed jurisdiction over the taiga—to track her down. In the summer, I was told, she could be reached via a seven-day canoe trip. In the winter, the only way to get to her was by helicopter. Considering the hardship of her daily existence, I thought it only proper to visit during the most challenging time of the year.
When we arrived, Agafia was waiting for us outside her cabin like a sweet granny expecting a visit from her grandchildren. The nature reserve where she resides was named the Lykov Territory in honor of her family, and her cabin sits atop a bluff near the swiftly flowing Erinat River. For a 70-year-old woman who once had to eat her shoes to survive, I was surprised by how nimble and healthy she appeared. Her property includes several cabins and smaller buildings for goats, chickens, supplies, and preserved food, as well as a garden on the steep hill behind the main dwelling. (The garden was covered in snow during our visit, as it remains for much of the Siberian winter.) Throughout the years, with the help of friends and admirers, she’s built up her property from the one-room shack the whole family used to live in. Dozens of cats freely roam the property.
After giving her a goat and a chicken I had brought as gifts, I interviewed Agafia at a little table by the banks of the river. I asked what had happened since her father died nearly 20 years ago. “When he died,” she said, “I had nobody left to help me or to rely on. I cut firewood myself.” Like many older folks in Russia, Agafia receives a government subsidy but is still mostly self-sufficient—cooking, foraging, and fishing on her own. She told me the strains of day-to-day life in the taiga have become more difficult as she gets older.
“It’s not easy to cut hay and take care of my goats,” Agafia said and went on to explain how she now owns a shotgun to fight off local wildlife. “Last summer, a bear came and was vandalizing around here while I was hiding inside. He grabbed a bag of my flour and trampled down my carrots. I dug out a hole, and the bear got trapped in it.”
Agafia, however, is not entirely alone. She has a neighbor named Yerofei Sedov. He initially came here to work as an oil prospector and lived about ten miles away from Agafia, with other geologists from his company. Eventually, he was fired from that job for reasons that are unclear and which he wouldn’t comment on. He then returned to the big city, where he somehow ended up with gangrene and lost his leg. When a doctor told him that moving back to the clean waters of the taiga might help his health, he set up shop down the hill from Agafia, on the banks of the river, where he’s lived for the past 16 years.
In 1936, a family of Russian Old Believers journeyed deep into Siberia’s vast taiga to escape persecution and protect their way of life. The Lykovs eventually settled in the Sayan Mountains, 160 miles from any other sign of civilization. In 1944, Agafia Lykov was born into this wilderness. Today, she is the last surviving Lykov, remaining steadfast in her seclusion. In this episode of Far Out, the VICE crew travels to the taiga to learn about Agafia’s lifestyle and the encroaching influence of the outside world.
In part one, the VICE crew leaves New York on their long journey to Siberia. After withstanding all the unexpected delays, they finally find themselves in a helicopter flying over the vast taiga to meet Agafia.
In 1936, a family of Russian Old Believers journeyed deep into Siberia’s vast taiga to escape persecution and protect their way of life. The Lykovs eventually settled in the Sayan Mountains, 160 miles from any other sign of civilization. In 1943, Agafia Lykov was born into this wilderness. Today, she is the last surviving Lykov, remaining steadfast in her seclusion. In this episode of Far Out, the VICE crew travels to Agafia to learn about her taiga lifestyle and the encroaching influence of the outside world.
Agafia’s Taiga Life will air on VICE.com Monday, April 1.
The Russian republic of Chechnya has been undergoing an Islamic revival. Having existed under Soviet rule for 70 years before getting caught up in a war with the Russian Federation that lasted almost two decades, the tiny state has turned to Islam in what looks to be an attempt to maintain some semblance of identity and drive a wedge between itself and the land of Putin. The Chechen government is building mosques in every village, prayer rooms in public schools, and enforcing a stricter Islamic dress code for both men and women. It might be miles away from Islamabad, but Chechnya’s gone Islamamad.
For young women in particular, this has led to a change in what they can expect to do with their lives. Smoking, for instance, is definitely a good reason to spend a night in jail, while premarital sex must seem less attractive when the president of your country has given his public approval to any family who feels like carrying out an honor killing.
Photographer Diana Markosian spent some time in the area getting to know a group of Muslim girls who grew up during the wars, chronicling their coming of age in a region that is rapidly redefining itself as an Islamic state.
Russian Orthodox Priests Want to Take Back Alaska and Save Its Non-Gays
Back in the day (by which I mean from 1733-1867), Alaska was a Russian colonial possession. In 1867, we bought it off the Russkies for two cents an acre. That may sound like a measly sum, but in those days two cents was considered riches—you could buy a pair of Air Force 1s with it and still have enough change left over to start your own slave colony.
Anyway, last weekend, a Russian Orthodox group known as the Pchyolki called bullshit on that deal and demanded that Alaska be returned to Russia. These guys previously gained notoriety for their reaction to Pussy Riot’s controversial performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, when they produced a handy guide for any Russian Orthodox Christians unlucky enough to be accosted by blasphemers. Apparently you’re supposed to destroy their electronic equipment with holy water, spit in their faces, and keep in mind to “avoid shedding of blood in the church itself, but if the scorners are violent outside the church grounds, you shall fight back accordingly.”
Media reports suggested that the issue of gay marriage had prompted the demand to get Alaska back. Predictably, the group isn’t too happy about two guys exchanging vows and with Obama said to be considering that very act, the Pchyolki are taking preemptive action to protect the state’s Orthodox Christian community. I phoned up Nikolay Bondarenko, the Pchyolki leader, for a chat.
VICE: Hi Nikolay. Why are you questioning the legitimacy of the USA’s ownership of Alaska? Nikolay Bondarenko: Because the original deal wasn’t done properly. Legally, the USA shouldn’t own Alaska. In the legal documents of the original deal that sold Alaska to the US government in the 1960s it specifies the terms of payment—it says that Russia will sell Alaska to America for $7.2 million and payment of the equivalent of this sum should be made by gold. But in fact the payment was made by check. Why was that? It is not known where that actual check is now, so we can’t even prove that Russians received that payment. At the time Russia and the USA were allies, so whoever was responsible for that deal must have done it on purpose.
Why do you want Alaska back? As a human rights organization we have to think about the rights of the Russians and other Orthodox people of Alaska. Article three of the original agreement highlighted that all people living there will be treated by the government according to their traditions, beliefs, and religion, and the majority of residents were Orthodox. When Obama announced his plans to legalize same-sex marriage, we realized it will really affect the Orthodox population of Alaska and it will directly violate the agreement.
Have you wanted it back before now? What prompted you to file the lawsuit? We could have claimed it back a few months ago; we could have claimed it back 100 years ago. The formal “trigger” was the Schneerson Library case, when, a few months ago, an American court ordered Russia to hand over the library to Hasidic jews of America with a $50,000 fine for every day it wasn’t returned. This was very outrageous and caused a lot of discussion.
How do you rate your chances of getting it back? We have much better legal grounds to get Alaska back than they had then, so we are quite positive about our chances.
It’s easy to think of Moscow as a city of mausoleums, giant Lenin statues, and propaganda art museums, but photographer Igor Baranchuk insists his hometown is about so much more than post-communist sadness. To prove it, he sent us this set of pictures of people passing out, making out, and partying in the pit at the city’s nightclubs.
By now, you’ve probably seen the YouTube videos of the first horseman of the apocalypsespectacular meteor passing through Earth’s atmosphere above the Ural Mountains, lighting up the sky, injuring hundreds of people, and making Russian people shout a lot. You’re probably asking yourself a number of questions at this point: What the hell is going on? Is one of these things gonna land anywhere near me? Is it going to kill the people I care about? Is this the end of the world? Are we all fucked? And wait, why do all these Russians have cameras in their cars?
In Russia, the highways are icy, the drivers are drunk, the police like to extort motorists at random, insurance companies will cheat you whenever possible (sound familiar?), and road rage is, well, all the rage. As a result, drivers buy dashboard cameras—or dash cams—to record their traffic accidents and altercations, providing undeniable proof for the courts or their insurance company. At the very least, having a dash cam lowers your insurance rates. At the very most, it can save you a lot of money in an accident or a lawsuit.
Either way, the prevalence of dash cams has resulted in a wealth of bizarre Russian driving videos for you to waste your life away watching. Rather than leave you to wander blindly through YouTube, we’ve compiled seven of the most entertaining, bizarre, and terrifying Russian dash-cam videos. Oh, and if you’re looking to meet hot, single Russian women, your targeted YouTube ads will have you covered.
If there were a question on a driving test that asked, “If you are driving on the highway, and a 23,000-pound truck is skidding towards you, what is the appropriate course of action?” I would probably cry and assume the fetal position just reading it. The fact that the two guys don’t say anything, let alone don’t scream like little girls, until after the out of control 18-wheeler has safely skidded past them, gives you a sense of how completely ridiculous it is to drive in Russia.