12:59 p.m. April 30, 2013

Of Chechens and Immigrants

There’s been a lot of talk – a lot of uneasy talk – about whether it’s legitimate to blame what happened in Boston on the Tsarnaev brothers’ background. I have a little insight here: unlike most middle class Americans, I grew up in a social group composed of kids coming from families that emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

Growing up in San Francisco, I didn’t know any Chechens (apparently there are only 200 in the entire United States) but I did know plenty of people from other former Soviet Republics: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Armenia and mainland Russia.

And yes, from what I saw and experienced first-hand, background had a lot to do with how well they assimilated into American society. Kids who came from bigger cities, from well-educated and stable families did pretty well in the U.S., kids from fucked up families did worse, and kids from fucked up families in fucked up places did worst of all. The more fucked up the place they came from, the more trouble the kids had adjusting to life in neat, orderly America. Especially a place as stuck up, comfortably-yuppie as San Francisco in the early stages of the dot-com boom.

My family left Leningrad by train in late 1989, then bounced around refugee camps in Italy and Austria for over six months before finally landing in America. We lived in Brooklyn for a few months and then crossed the country to San Francisco, where my father found a job working as a translator. I was nine years old when we arrived on the West Coast and, for the next decade, I associated almost exclusively with other recent Soviet immigrants. Ours was a tight and insular immigrant community, composed mostly of a mix of Jews, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. We stuck to our own, carving out a virtual ghetto in San Francisco’s sleepy Richmond District, alongside a bunch of other immigrant groups.

Many of us were poor, especially at first. And as with any immigrant community, we had our share of problems and small-time crime: credit card fraud, car stereo theft, drug dealing, brawls with Vietnamese immigrants, minor gang activity.

When I was about 15, a close friend of mine — a Ukrainian Jew — got a taste for credit card fraud. One of his favorite scams was to dial a number at random and, pretending to be a bank rep, tell the person on the line that they had qualified for a pre-approved Visa Gold Card with a really high spending limit. All that they had to do, my friend would tell them, is to provide him with their current credit card number to verify their identity. You’d surprised by how many people fell for such a simple scam, only to find a $300 charge for Chinese food on their next bill.

Other kids were into much heavier stuff. A few years after graduating high school, I learned that a couple of my old friends had been sent to the slammer for a long, long time — apparently they were running a large meth distribution network in Northern California. A few years before that, a Russian guy I knew named Dmitriy was gunned down on the edge of Golden Gate park in the Richmond District. It looked like a hit job: the attacker came out of the bushes dressed in camo gear, fired six shots and vanished into the night. One of the suspects was an Armenian who had been with Dmitriy earlier that night. SFPD homicide detectives thought he might have set his buddy up for the hit. But that suspect fled the country, holing up in a mountain village somewhere back in Armenia. His dad explained to the San Francisco Chronicle: “He goes because he has some back problems.”

Yep, I grew up with a colorful group of kids from a lot of fucked up places and fucked up families. But the only ex-Soviet people I knew whose experiences approached the horrors that Chechens have experienced were the Armenians.

Pound for pound, the Armenians were the scariest and most violent kids I knew. They had come to the U.S. fleeing a nasty ethnic war with neighboring Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan that lasted from 1988 to 1994. It was perhaps the bloodiest conflict that came out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It started as war between two Soviet armies over a small, mountainous breakaway region that straddled the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, but soon the ethnic conflict spilled over into pogroms and ethnic cleansing by both sides. By the end of the war in 1994, there were thousands of casualties, and around 1 million people had been displaced on both sides of the conflict.

Chess-whiz-turned-anti-Putin-opposition leader Garry Kasparov, an Armenian Jew, was born and raised in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku. Kasparov was there when the anti-Armenian pogroms began. He barely made it out of there unharmed, fleeing the ethnic cleansing in a small plane specially chartered for him and his family by his supporters back in Moscow.

Here’s how he described an anti-Armenian pogrom that took place there:

“I will never forget that day. Unimaginable horror overwhelmed Baku. Bandits knew exactly where Armenians lived. People were robbed and killed. Men, women and children were beaten to death in their yards, young girls were raped and burnt alive."

A major pogrom took place in Azerbaijan’s industrial town of Sumgait. Hundreds of ethnic Armenians were killed. Women were raped, pregnant women disemboweled and, at least in one case, had their skin peeled off.

One of the victims, who had been beaten, raped and left for dead in her apartment, described a conversation she overheard between her attackers:

There were six people in the room. They talked among themselves and smoked. One talked about his daughter, saying there was no children’s footwear in our apartment that he could take for his daughter. Another said that he liked the apartment — recently we had done a really good job fixing everything up — and that he would live there after everything was all over. They started to argue. A third one says “How come you get it? I have four children and there are three rooms here, that’s just what I need. All these years I’ve been living in god-awful places.” Another one says “Neither of you gets it. We’ll set fire to it and leave.”

The area that sparked the bloodshed -- the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh – is smaller than Yosemite. But the mountainous ethnic-Armenian area had been a source of ethnic tension ever since Stalin handed it over to Azerbaijan before WWII. When Moscow’s power began to wane, tension turned into total war. For six years, Armenia and Azerbaijan duked it out. The Armenians won in the end, taking high ground from Azerbaijan’s better-equipped and better-funded forces after bitter guerrilla warfare.

But that victory didn’t improve the life of ordinary Armenians very much. Even today, it remains one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere. Armenia is a landlocked country without independent sources of energy, and oil-rich Azerbaijan imposes a total economic blockade on Armenia.

I witnessed the aftermath of the Azeri-Armenian ethnic war firsthand in 2006, when I spent a few weeks traveling around and reporting on Armenia. Ethnic Armenians who had been cleansed out of Baku still lived in mud-and-brick hovels, scratching out a basic subsistence on plots of land just outside the capital. Some of them had made the journey over mountains by foot. They had been city folk before. But now, they went back to the peasant basics, growing their own produce, making their own cheese and brewing their own booze — a 150-proof moonshine made from peaches and mulberries.

The whole country was mired in third-world poverty, with the only funds coming from Russian energy subsidies, cheap Iranian goods and charitable handouts from the wealthy Armenian diaspora.

It was a brutal existence. And in the early ’90s, thousands of Armenians streamed into the United States to escape the war and grating poverty.

Most of them settled in Los Angeles, which already had a large established Armenian community. But no one really wanted them there — not even the wealthy Armenian-American diaspora. Kathleen Newland, founder of the Migration Policy Institute, laid out the situation:

Unlike the Jewish-American community, the Armenian-American population was unclear on its position towards Armenian refugees from the Soviet Union. Many political activists from the community did not want Soviet Armenians to be considered as one of the persecuted categories. Armenians in America felt that a massive exodus from the homeland would drain the already weak country. Lori Titizian, the western regional director of the Armenian National Committee, stated, “As a policy we do not like to see Armenians leave the Soviet Union. We do not consider them political refugees.”

Awww, ain’t that nice? Armenian-Americans loved Armenia too much to ease life for refugees from their war-torn country!

In the end, Armenians were not given refugee status, making it harder for them to get government support services like welfare, public housing and medical care that would ease the transition to a new life in the U.S. — all services which were normally available to families fleeing the Soviet Union. (Even Evangelical Christians got refugee status.)

Escaping a brutal war zone and then having to integrate into an alien society, all while not getting any economic help — not even from your own kind? Trauma piled on trauma and even more trauma. Hey, what could go wrong with that?

Almost immediately, a new ferocious gang calling itself “Armenian Power” appeared in Los Angeles, setting up Russian-style racketeering and extortion rackets and battling the city’s other ethnic gangs.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times from 1997:

Violent Gang Is a Stain on a Proud Ethnic Community SPECIAL REPORT The rise of a small street gang, Armenian Power, is causing a tragic cycle of fear and death. To those who fled warfare elsewhere … In the summer of 1991, two dozen gang members took over the parking lot of a mini-mall in East Hollywood and turned it into their headquarters. They intimidated patrons of the mall’s restaurants and clothing stores, forcing the shop owners to hire two off-duty LAPD officers for security. … The teenagers and young men wreaking havoc on these businesses were members of Armenian Power, a new street gang in the heavily Armenian areas of East Hollywood and Glendale. With only 120 members, the gang is now blamed by authorities for a dozen murders – almost exclusively of rival gang members – and more than 100 shootings. To thousands of Armenian Americans whose parents and grandparents came here after escaping the horrors of World War I and genocide, the existence of an Armenian gang is a stain on the tight ethnic community that has achieved success beyond its small numbers in politics, art, business and farming.

I knew a couple of Armenian immigrant kids whose parents moved them from Los Angeles to San Francisco, hoping to pull them out of Armenian Power’s orbit. Instead, the move just helped them spread the Armenian Power gospel, and to establish a small gang franchise in the Bay Area.

They weren’t close friends of mine, but my 16-year-old self was awed by their toughness, recklessness and lack of fear or remorse. It went beyond the normal macho airs put on by guys from the Caucasus. They were violent and misanthropic. They just didn’t seem to care.

I remember one night I showed up at a house party in the Sunset district, just in time to see a couple of Armenian kids (joined by a couple of Russian ones) breaking into and hot-wiring a car in front of the house where the party was raging. There were people on the street smoking and hanging out, and so they started giving people joy rides around the block. When that got boring, they parked the car back in the same place and proceeded to kick out its headlights and taillights. This was maybe at 10 or 11 pm right in the middle of Irving Street. I looked on in amazement. It was like watching them enact the bonus round in the first Street Fighter arcade game, where you get a minute to kick the shit out of a car and to beat it into a jumbled mass of metal for points.

It didn’t take long for the cops to show up, but the perps smartly made themselves scarce. Naturally, I was fingered as a suspect, along with a couple of other innocent kids. I was thrown in the backseat of cruiser, driven to a nearby police station, handcuffed to a chair and grilled by the cops…

I’m not sure what these guys are doing now. Are they dead? In jail? Or maybe running a profitable mortgage refinancing business? Rumor has it that at least one of them had to flee back to Russia after being involved in a shooting.

Back then, I never thought about why these kids in particular were so wild and out of control. I just took it as a given. Only later on did I begin to realize that that their experience of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war probably had a lot to do with it.

It’s one thing to move to San Francisco from Leningrad, as I did. But think of the contrast from war-torn Armenia: One day you are eating starvation rations cooked with wood scavenged from a local park, and you are watching neighbors being burned, raped and thrown out of windows. Then you arrive in San Francisco’s boring middle-class Sunset District, where you’re expected to fit right in and become a productive member of society.

No one in San Francisco understood what these kids went through. Even fellow immigrants like myself had no idea the kinds of horrors they experienced.

Adjusting to life here was hard enough for my family. In the Soviet Union, we were impoverished, and my parents struggled to provide for brother and me. My family had to deal with deep-rooted anti-Semitism, systemic discrimination, daily humiliation and constant upheaval. My grandparents had their small farm seized (or, “collectivized”) in Ukraine. As a result, they moved to Leningrad just in time to catch the brutal three-year Nazi siege of the city, and barely survived. But neither my parents nor I had ever faced starvation and never had to watch our neighbors being burned, raped and thrown out of windows.

Armenians are Christian and are extremely proud of their Armenian heritage. Every Armenian will proudly tell you that theirs was the first nation to adopt Christianity. They despise their Muslim neighbors, and most of all the Turks, who slaughtered somewhere around a million Armenians a century ago and annexed a huge chunk of the country, seizing fertile lands and Armenia’s national symbol, Mt. Ararat, a beautiful mountain that looms over the country’s capital.

Unlike the Chechens, my Armenian friends couldn’t channel their personal frustrations in America through a militant religious movement that preys on disenfranchised, impressionable young men. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t channel them through other types of destructive and anti-social behavior.

They found meaning and dignity in being the baddest, most reckless, most dangerous thugs around… It wasn’t as racy or exotic as a suicide bomb, but they still left plenty of dead bodies in their wake.

Which brings us back to the Tsarnaevs and their (apparently) proud Chechen identity. Chechens were deported en masse by Stalin, shipped in standing-room-only cattle cars to desolate Central Asian steppes, and when they finally returned to the Caucasus, they tried to secede from the Russian Federation and were invaded twice, losing as much as 20% of their population — one out of five people — to Russian planes and artillery, or to kidnapping and killing by the mercenaries Russia uses to pursue its dirty war in Chechnya. These decades of slaughter have brutalized everyone in Chechnya; Chechens have turned on each other and on Slavs still living in Chechnya, killing, torturing and kidnapping anyone worth taking.

Americans who have suffered what seem like minor setbacks compared to this nightmare history revel in explaining their problems in terms of their family and ethnic history. Yet when these same Americans hear anyone daring to suggest that Chechens like the Tsarnaev brothers might have done what they did, at least in part, because of Chechnya’s nightmarish recent history, they recoil and refuse to listen.

Juan Cole, the influential Middle East expert and tenured blogger, has been spewing some of the most aggressively ignorant denials in the blogosphere. To him, the brothers’ bombing plot was not ethnic or religious, but Freudian:

“This sounds to me like a classic father-son struggle, and a tale of adolescent rebellion, in which radical Muslim vigilanteism appears mainly as a tool for the young men to get back to their father, and perhaps to wipe off the shame they had begun feeling about the family having been on the wrong side of the Chechnya fundamentalist uprising."

In a later post, Cole continued arguing that ethnic identity/personal experience didn’t matter, writing that the Tsarnaev brothers were neither Chechen nor really Muslims: “members of the Tsarnaev family were secular ex-Soviets rather than observant Muslims”…

Secular ex-Soviets? If Cole is really saying that “ex-Soviet” is some kind of new ethnic identity that replaces real Soviet identity… well, it’s hard to respond to this level of boneheaded blindness. It’s about as ridiculous as saying that there’s no difference whatsoever between the experiences and motivations between, say, archbankster Jamie Dimon's daughters, African-Americans living in Compton and Latino immigrants in Arizona because they are all “melting pot Americans.” The funny thing here is that in his attempt to avoid propagating anti-Muslim stereotypes and racism, Cole stumbles into extremely toxic rightwing territory inhabited by Charles Murray-type Social Darwinists, who deny the power of ethnic history to argue against providing special allowances for historically disadvantaged ethnic groups and to oppose programs like affirmative action.

It’s pretty obvious, if you grew up with the people I knew when I was young, that a brutalized culture like the one my Armenian friends had experienced produces brutalized people. It’s a silly romantic myth that oppression creates noble victims. Oppression creates monsters, and the brutality those Armenian guys went through made them cruel and callous.

I’m not arguing that every Chechen or Muslim who immigrates to the U.S. to escape a life of brutality and oppression is a potential terrorist. What I am arguing is that people are affected by their experiences, and driven by them.

That’s true not only when things go bad, but also when immigrants integrate successfully and prosper in the United States.

Identity and experience are why most Soviet immigrants are die-hard supporters of the Republican Party. They love capitalism, they love the “free-markets” and they love America, and they’re also very comfortable with their inner racist. Hell, most of them would out-rightwing your average Tea Partier, especially if they immigrated to the U.S. as adults.

The reason is simple: their life in the Soviet Union kinda ruined the whole socialist thing for them, and made them suckers for slogans promising freedom, choice and free enterprise. This is accepted wisdom, and is widely acknowledged. In fact, the Soviet immigrant’s dedication to freedom is routinely celebrated by the news media. Just read this proud Fox News headline from 2011: “Russian Immigrants Join GOP, Say Democrats Remind them of the Old Country"…

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Orly Taitz, born in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, emerged as the leader of the anti-Obama Birther Movement. Even among rightwing racist psychos, she stood out from the crowd for her dedication to safeguarding the American Way.

And she knows what she’s talking about:

“I am extremely concerned about Obama specifically because I was born in Soviet Union, so I can tell that he is extremely dangerous. I believe he is the most dangerous thing one can imagine, in that he represents radical communism and radical Islam…”