The fateful path to the Boston Marathon bombing

The truth is no one is ever likely to know exactly why two brothers—Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—decided to set off two homemade bombs, on Monday, April 15, 2013, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

However, Masha Gessen’s latest book, The Brothers: Road to an American Tragedy, serves as a painstakingly detailed chronicle of how, after more than a decade of living in Boston, the Chechen brothers detonated two pressure cookers, killed three people, injured 264 others, cost Tamerlan his life and quite possibly—depending on the outcome of Dzhokar’s current trial—could cost his younger brother his life as well.


The most important aspect of The Brothers is that Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and activist, takes readers to scenes from the backstory of the Tsarnaev family to which no other writer has had access.

She shares firsthand knowledge of the countries involved and speaks with everyone from Tamerlan’s grade school teacher—“he was afraid of fireworks, presumably because he had been terrified by the bombing of Chechnya”—to the boys’ uncle Jamal Tsarnaev, who confirms that, despite claims to the contrary, his brother Anzor (father of the two bombers) never worked for the prosecutor’s office in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek—a fact even the FBI was unable to unearth.

Gessen gives her narrative emotional power, from the opening description of the parents’ Dagestani hometown—the smooth surface leading into town “gives way to potholes that can cost you your tire or your life”—to the “slow-motion disaster” that brought a record amount of snowfall to Boston just as defense lawyers were desperately working to spare Dzhokhar’s life.

This is a complex story that is, at times, daunting to get through, even as readers are ultimately aware of where it’s leading and what’s going to happen. Learning more about the cultural and religious influences of the Tsarnaev brothers provides context and offers a readers a path toward understanding how these young men could commit such a horrifying crime.