Activists struggle to overcome a North Caucasian cultural taboo and help gay men in Russia’s most repressive region.
The crackdown seemed like
something out of the Stalinist-era repressions: over 100 gay men
brutally detained — and at least three killed — in Chechnya, perhaps
Russia’s most conservative and authoritarian region.
Chechens were frantically closing their social media and messenger
accounts out of fear that these online communities had been infiltrated
by the local security services, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which broke
the story, reported.
Even if a person captured in the crackdown was released due to an
absence of evidence, he often faced another risk: a so-called honor
killing at the hands of relatives seeking to wash the shame of being gay
from their family.
The news has
since attracted attention around the world. But rights activists
struggling to help the victims face a nearly insurmountable cultural
taboo — and fear much of the story remains untold.
have only found the tip of the iceberg,” says Yekaterina Sokirianskaya,
the International Crisis Group’s North Caucasus project director.
From bad to worse
gay in Chechnya was never easy — even before the crackdown. Traditional
conservatism and a macho ethos have long reigned in the republic.
the mid-2000s, Chechnya has been ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, an
iron-fisted strongman who has promoted a reimagined version of Chechen
traditional values as the Muslim-majority republic’s guiding ideology.
this environment, gays were never treated well, and honor killings
against them were not unheard of. “But we have never registered such
incidents of public aggression, multiple killings or mass arrests,” says
often anonymous — that security forces in the republic were detaining
men suspected of being gay. Even some well-known public figures were
reportedly captured in the homophobic dragnet. As more information
flowed in from different local contacts, the rights defenders became
convinced that these detentions were a mass occurrence.
paint a grim picture of the situation: The security forces capture
suspected gay men, take them to secret prisons, and torture them to get
information on other gay men. Often they search through their victims’
phones for evidence of sexual orientation or to identify other targets
for capture. Any man they find through the phone — gay or not — can
become the next victim. Some of the detainees are freed, but only after
incriminating others or once their families pay an enormous ransom. The
scope of the detentions is “unprecedented,” says Igor Kochetkov, a board
member and former chairman of the Russian LGBT Network.
the sheer number and diversity of the sources confirming the story,
rights defenders say that the crackdown is undeniable. The general
picture — the manhunt, the detentions, the torture — is also fairly
clear. But the motives remain murky.
Gazeta suggests two events led to the crackdown. First, in late
February, Chechen security forces detained a drug user and discovered
gay pornography and the contact information of dozens of local gay men
on his mobile phone. In response, they launched the first wave of
arrests. Novaya Gazeta believes that the first killings occurred during
Gazeta that the second wave came as a response to the actions of
GayRussia.ru, an LGBT advocacy group led by the veteran Moscow activist
Nikolai Alexeyev. The group has been submitting requests to hold pride
parades to regional authorities across Russia. It then gathers the
rejection letters in order to build a case against Russia in the
European Court of Human Rights.
filed requests in several cities throughout the Caucasus. However, the
group entirely avoided Chechnya. Even so, the requests provoked major
protests across the region. During this time, a command was given for a
“preventative sweep operation” in Chechnya, Novaya Gazeta reported.
obviously triggered the detentions, Sokirianskaya says, and witnesses
name high level officials involved, but further investigation is needed
to verify the scale and degree of personal responsibility for these
understand what happened, we need testimony from people who gave the
orders,” says Kochetkov. “We won’t get that until we have an official
and impartial investigation.”
far, that seems unlikely. Ramzan Kadyrov’s press secretary, Alvi
Karimov, has called reports of the anti-gay crackdown an “absolute lie.”
added that it was impossible to persecute gays in Chechnya because they
“do not exist in the republic.” Later, the Chechen Republic’s human
right commission announced that it could find no confirmation of Novaya
there is any hope for gay Chechens, it will likely come from Moscow. On
April 3, there was one positive sign: President Vladimir Putin’s
spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that, although the Kremlin was not
aware of the issue, law enforcement would now investigate the reports of
the crackdown. He also encouraged anyone who believes his rights were
violated to file a formal complaint and take the matter to court.
is easier said than done, according to Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights
Watch’s Russia program director. In the current “climate of fear” in
Chechnya, “filing an official complaint against local security officials
is extremely dangerous, as retaliation by local authorities is
practically inevitable,” she wrote in an article for Open Democracy.
investigating the crackdown may prove a challenge. Gays in Chechnya
live extremely secretive lives, hiding their identities from virtually
everyone, says Ksenia Leonova, a journalist who spent a month living in
Grozny, the Chechen capital, and wrote one of the few accounts of Chechen gay life.
her 2013 report, a Chechen gay man referred to as Umar recalled how one
of his friends suddenly felt the macho “stirring within him” and called
him a homophobic slur. “There’s no point in getting worked up about it,
because he really can’t help it,” Umar told Leonova.
anecdote emphasizes the degree to which, in Chechnya, being gay remains
a taboo subject even among Chechen gays themselves, Leonova says.
makes investigating the repression of gays in Chechnya — and helping
the community — a particular challenge. The Russian LGBT Network has set
up a hotline for LGBT people in the North Caucasus and is actively
working to evacuate individuals in danger from the region.
rights defenders admit their reach is limited. They are only just
beginning to make contact with Chechen gays and learn more about their