Gay Persecution in Chechnya: What You Should Know

June 21, 2017 in inQueery

Photo credit: Alexxx1979.

These past few months, ominous reports of men being tortured and murdered for being gay have started filtering in from Chechnya. Let’s take a look at some of the facts on hand and consider how this international crisis is evolving

1)  What, exactly, is happening?

Reports of gay men being detained, tortured and even murdered by police in Chechnya were first published at the beginning of April by Novaya Gazeta, the main opposition newspaper in Russia. Foreign news sources like The Guardian, whose reporters were able to talk to some survivors, the BBC and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, have followed suit. There now seems to be a consensus among the international press that some terrible things have been happening in Chechnya to people accused of being gay since at least February 2017. Namely, people have been kidnapped and forcibly detained before being tortured physically and mentally by Chechen authorities because of their sexual orientation, real or imagined. Reports are blurry, but it seems that some men have been released (although, fearing for their lives, they subsequently fled Chechnya), others have been killed, and others are still detained or missing.

In May, Russian president Vladimir Putin responded to international pressure to investigate the reports. The defensive tone of the conclusion of this Russian investigation however, summed up in a statement sent to Israeli paper Haaretz (There are no victims of persecution, threats or violence”) makes it difficult to believe that there was any serious attempt on the part of the Russians to actually expose violations of human rights. In fact, Russia snapped back at worried international observers, claiming, effectively, that the gay persecution accusations were part of an international smear campaign against Russia.

2) What is Chechnya?

Although Chechnya calls itself a Republic, it is important to note that it is neither independent, since it is in fact a province of Russia, nor a democracy, as it is ruled by an autocratic leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been vetted by Moscow.  Chechnya’s political status is one that is ambiguous but makes sense in the context of the region’s history, especially considering its powerful neighbor’s continued imperialistic ambitions. Chechnya was an early conquest of the USSR (it was annexed in 1921), which it tried to leave after the 1990 collapse. However, the Russians refused to lose this economic asset and unsuccessfully fought for possession of this territory in what would later be dubbed the First Chechen War. After a few tumultuous years as an autonomous nation, Chechnya lost the Second Chechen War and fell under Russian control again. During the following decade, Russia was plagued by terrorist attacks conducted by Chechen separatists. The Kremlin responded by tightening its grip on Chechnya. Hence, Russian armed forces left the Chechen territory only in 2009.

Since then, Chechnya has effectively become Ramzan Kadyrov’s playground. Ramzan is the son of Akhmad Kadyrov, a religious authority who fought on the Chechen side during the First Chechen War but switched his allegiance to Russia during the Second Chechen War. He subsequently became the region’s “president” and was assassinated in 2004. Ramzan succeeded him in that post in 2007 (after turning 30, the minimum required age to become ruler of the region). Although Ramzan Kadyrov is a zealous admirer of Putin’s, he has developed a personality cult of his own that is largely based on Chechen pride. Accordingly, Kadyrov has taken many steps that depart from Russian rule like advocating polygamy, which is illegal in Russia. His blatant and repetitive human rights violations keep Moscow officials on their toes (after all, Putin was forced to do something about the gay persecution accusations, even if that something was mostly for show). But it seems like as long as Kadyrov doesn’t call for Chechen independence, he is safe to act as a local tyrant, bringing “government critics and others in Russia” to wonder “whether Russian law actually applies in Chechnya.”

3) Why should Chechen society be so hostile to gays?

So, Chechnya is not your ideal democracy, but what is with it hating gay people so much?

Chechen president Kadyrov. Photo credit: openDemocracy

Well, the first thing I observed in researching this article is the existence of an absolutely insane macho culture in Chechnya that is perfectly embodied by Kadyrov himself. The Chechen leader is so over-the-top in matters pertaining to manhood, that no caricature could ever do justice to his unhinged attempts at masculinity. First of all, Kadyrov is convinced that every man should know how to ride a horse, hunt and operate weapons, secondly, he has repeatedly called for women to be “locked up” and banned from social media (in particular after a bunch of women made fun of him on social media).  Lastly, he is obsessed with physical domination and violence, for instance going as far as to organize and execute child MMA fights to showcase his own sons’ fighting skills (at the time, the children were 10, 9 and 8 years old).

In this context, should  it really come as a surprise when Ramzan Kadyrov claims that gay people plainly don’t exist in Chechnya? It shouldn’t, because everything about dominant Chechen culture clearly indicates that there is no room for deviation from the traditional scheme in which men are encouraged to foist what is perceived as their natural superiority on subdued women. Add to that an obsession with family honor, which states that having one “tainted” family member affects everyone, and you will get a pretty good idea of the context in which this anti-gay pogrom was able to erupt. Indeed, when Kadyrov claimed that gay people didn’t exist, he wasn’t just displaying his ignorance of an intolerance for other forms of sexuality: he was also stating a plain reality: Chechen families are prone to place their honor above everything else, even if it means killing a son, a brother or a cousin who is, well, gay.  This is why a lot of gay Chechens can only explore their sexuality clandestinely.  And this is also why a lot of the people who survived detention and torture at the hands of the Chechen authorities fled:  surely they were afraid Chechen police would have a change of heart and come back to kill them, but they were also scared that that wouldn’t even be necessary because their own families would do the job.

4) What are people doing about it?

Fortunately, some international leaders are taking a stand. During a press conference with Vladimir Putin on May 2nd, Angela Merkel directly referred to the alarming Chechnya reports and urged Putin to “use his influence to protect these minority rights.”  On May 18th, the European Parliament issued a statement on the matter which made apparent its belief in the Chechen authorities’ involvement in the acts of persecution and straightforwardly demanded that these stop.  Finally,  on May 30th, French president Emmanuel Macron followed suit and confronted Putin during his visit to Paris.  However, it does not appear as though president Trump mentioned the issue during his May 10th meeting with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This omission is unfortunate, as it would certainly have been helpful if Western leaders had maintained a united front on the issue at that time.

Besides pressuring Russia, another major step towards solving this human rights crisis has been taken by countries who have granted visas to victims fleeing Chechnya. Lithuania has notably become the first European country known to have opened its doors to persecuted Chechen men by accepting two refugees back in May.  According to activists, 7 more visas have been granted to asylum seekers, though Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister, would not tell the BBC what countries had issued those other visas, stating only that they were “allies.”   However, reports have mentioned dozens of victims, if not more, trying to escape persecution. It seems that some have since been able to flee to other parts of Russia, especially to Moscow and have been taken in by LGBT activists.  This poses many questions: How safe are these men in Moscow? Are they ever going to be able to live a life free from persecution threats? How many people have already died? How are the survivors and their trauma going to be handled?

When you add to that the fact that, as always, some countries are reticent to take in refugees (the US denied two visas to Chechen men fleeing persecution), the means available to help all the Chechen victims of persecution appear to be sorely constrained.

Protesters stand outside the Russian embassy in London.  Photo Credit:  BBC

5) What can you do about it?

Sadly, as the existing persecution helps prove, Chechen authorities seem to be rather safe from international backlash. After all, Chechnya is part of Russia, which, as an independent state, is entitled to enforce its own authority on its territory. Furthermore, despite the proliferation, in recent decades, of international institutions aimed at protecting human rights and prosecuting their violators, it is still very difficult, from a legal standpoint, to simply tell a given country to change its policies and behaviors because it is angering some outside observers. As we saw though, one thing other countries can do, is to welcome people fleeing persecution. Therefore, one thing you can do, as an American elector, is to make sure that the people who rely on your vote know you care about this issue. Call your senators and representatives and tell them you want the U.S. to stand up for Chechen victims of homophobic persecution. You can also directly call the White House.

Another thing to do is to support organizations that are actively helping victims. You can donate to the Russia LGBT Network which has been working directly with victims of this persecution and has a dedicated fund for the Chechen crisis.  Another organization that can always benefit from your support is Human Rights Watch, who launched a widespread social media campaign to raise awareness of this matter.


Anne Errelis is a Contributor at InQueery.