In 2013, Russia enacted a vindictive “gay propaganda law” which demonised and imperilled its queer citizens. Now in an ironic twist, Vladmir Putin faces a potential schism with one of his most ardent supporters, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, over allegations of a campaign of violence against the Russian republic’s gay men.
In April of this year, Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper, made international headlines with an investigative piece claiming that gay men in Chechnya were being rounded up and send to camps where they were being beaten, tortured and even murdered.
As of the end of May, the total of number of murdered gay men stands at 26, according to latest reports by Novaya Gazeta. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that several of those targeted are still being held in detention.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov dismissed the accusations, saying there were “no gay men in Chechnya,” adding that any gay man in the republic was simply pretending to be Chechen in order to “get to the West”.
Writing on Instagram, press and information minister Jambulat Umarov, said that Novaya Gazeta should “apologise” for the “filthy provocation” of suggesting gay people existed in Chechnya.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for the leader later told reporters: “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”
Later media reports also indicated the involvement of several high ranking Chechen officials in the alleged torture. In Chechnya it seems, the taboo of homosexuality is as pronounced as ever and given its recent history, this is no surprise.
Chechyna’s Chequered History
Chechnya is a conservative, Muslim-dominated semi autonomous republic in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. Historically, it has been viewed by Russia as a key strategic location, acting as a buffer between Iranian and Turkish influences.
The republic was engulfed in war for much of the 19th century as attempts were made to create a ‘safe space’ between Orthodox Russian and Muslim empires. Since this time, the region has mostly remained under Russian control.
In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya declared independence from Russia, along with the 15 other member states of the union. However, Russia didn’t accept this, claiming that as a province and not a recognised nation Chechnya had no right to secede.
This resulted in the First Chechen War, which lasted from 1994 to ’96 and claimed 100,000 Chechen lives – almost one tenth of the population. Fourteen thousand Russian soldiers were also killed in the conflict.
In this case, David beat Goliath; the two sides came together in 1996 and came to an agreement that Chechnya would govern itself, free of Russian interference until 2001, when formal negotiations for a longterm solution would commence. Russia’s defeat was a humiliating blow to its reputation as a formidable military power on the world stage.
After this point, Chechnya was infiltrated by al-Qaida linked terrorists preaching Wahhabisim, a puritanical form of Islam which ran counter to the region’s widely held Sufi traditions.
This invasion of religious fundamentalism and the attempted enforcement of Sharia law, led to widespread human rights violations and a split between Chechen nationalists who resisted the religious influence of the foreign “invaders”, and the Wahhabists seeking to create a Chechen Caliphate. Once more, Chechnya was at war, this time with itself.
The top Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, initially renounced the Wahhabis as a threat to the separatist movement, before changing alliances and siding with once-sworn enemies, the Russians in 1998.
The Only Man Who Can Guarantee Peace In Chechnya
In August 1999 Vladimir Putin became Russia’s Prime Minister. He embarked upon a military offensive against the Chechen Wahhabis and after attacks in Moscow, which were blamed on the rebels, killed more than 300 citizens, the Russian military began the Second Chechen War.
Aided by Kadyrov and other Chechen clans loyal to the Kremlin, the Russian military quickly returned most of Chechnya to Moscow’s control. Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed and in 2003, Kadyrov was elected Chechen president. When Akhmad Kadyrov was killed in a terrorist bomb attack, his son, then 27 year-old Ramzan, became the region’s de facto leader.
An ursine figure (whom The Guardian describes as a “Kremlin-back strongman”), Kadyrov fought alongside his father against Russia in the First Chechen War before changing sides, and now reportedly enjoys Putin’s confidence as the only man who can guarantee peace in Chechnya.
“For years, Vladimir Putin saw the pacification of Chechnya as his main achievement,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst told Al Jazeera in 2014. “In that respect, Putin has a colossal psychological dependency on Chechnya and Ramzan Kadyrov, who ensured the pacification.”
Over the past ten years, Kadyrov has built Chechnya into a pious, patriarchal state with strict social rules and a deeply entrenched sense of hyper-masculinity. During that time he has also been implicated in a number of human rights abuses. However, Kremlin gossip abounds that Putin is tired of the luxury-loving Kadyrov running the region as his own private fiefdom and is unhappy with the unfavourable international coverage surrounding the recent anti-gay purge.
“Kadyrov has very long arms. If he wants to find someone, he’ll find them.”
This news is more than a little ironic, given Putin and his government’s well-documented antipathy towards homosexuality. In June 2013, the Duma unanimously passed a law banning the promotion and “propaganda” of “non-traditional” relationships.
“Propaganda” was defined as “the purposeful and uncontrolled distribution of information that can harm the spiritual or physical health of a minor, including forming the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional marital relations.”
The law, which effectively criminalised Russia’s LGBT citizens (as well as media outlets and foreign organisations favourable towards LGBT equality), was seen my many as an attempt to enshrine conservative “traditional values” – Putin’s favourite platform – into law.
Claiming that the Russian people supported the legislation, Putin also offered some weak borscht about the anti-propaganda law being necessary to combat Russia’s dwindling birth rate. Activists claimed that the law was part of a larger move to stigmatise non-governmental organisations as “foreign agents” of the West, out to destabilise and weaken Mother Russia. In essence the legislation was a solidification of an “us” (Russian, morally upstanding, strong) versus “them” (Western, deviant, morally weak) mentality.
Russia Was Not Always Homophobic
Interestingly, Russia wasn’t always so vociferously homophobic. In 1917, the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (the Bolsheviks) abolished Tsarist anti-gay laws and replaced them with the Soviet Criminal Code of 1922 (updated 1926), which did not include homosexuality as an offence. Sexual ‘deviation’ was viewed as matter of biology, as opposed to an indication of a person’s moral failing.
“Kremlin gossip abounds that Putin is unhappy with the unfavourable international coverage surrounding the recent anti-gay purge.”
However, for myriad reasons – famines, war, Stalin, a gradual drift towards bureaucracy, etc. – homosexuality became synonymous with pederasty and paedophilia, and gays were vilified. But, for a brief period from 1917-1933 Russia’s queer comrades enjoyed (legislatively, at least) a level of freedom unrivalled to this day.
But the persecution of gay men in Chechnya has been going on for many years, Rachel Denver, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch told Salon last month. Chechnya is an extremely conservative Muslim society. The stigma of having a gay family member can cause a “stain” on a family’s honour.
Police officers frequently blackmail gay men, forcing them to confess on tape. This strategy is sometimes deployed against heterosexual political opponents too. It is as effective a strategy as it is brutal; taped confessions are sent to a victim’s family and the message is clear: Your son is gay. You know what to do. Send them “where they could never return” by way of an honour killing. Such is the stigma of being LGBT in Chechnya.
Worryingly, according to Denver, even leaving the region doesn’t guarantee someone’s safety. Family members and even the police have been known to follow fleeing gays into neighbouring territories. “Kadyrov has very long arms. If he wants to find someone, he’ll find them.”
Now comes news that Russian officials are actively investigating the claims of a gay purge, following widespread international pressure. Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta reporter who broke the story, told The Guardian in May that Putin had been briefed on the details of the purge by Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, and there was “evidence” that the Russian investigators were attempting to get to the bottom of the allegations.
However, activists have expressed concerns that Chechen officials – some of whom were allegedly present during torture – may interfere with the federal investigation.
Either way, Putin met with Kadyrov in Moscow shortly after the story broke and is believed to have warned Kadyrov that threats against journalists (like the one issued by press and information minister Jambulat Umarov who warned Novaya Gazeta on Instagram that people “who are more annoyed by your newspaper than we are” would “take care” of the publication’s journalists) are unacceptable.
For his part, Kadyrov denied the reports, telling Putin that the rumours of a gay purge were a slanderous “provocation” by Western agents eager to undermine Chechnya.
Given Putin’s own antipathy towards homosexuality and his positioning of himself as a “defender of traditional values”, protecting Chechnya’s gay men isn’t likely to be high on his list of priorities. Another important factor to consider is Putin’s dwindling control over Kadyrov, who has no problem flaunting Russian federal laws when they clash with perceived “traditional” Chechen values. The last thing Putin needs is further instability in the region, which would invariably occur if Kadyrov was deposed. Then there is the matter of who to replace him with. Political pundits suggest that Putin is stuck with Kadyrov for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, any investigation into the gay purge is surely doomed to failure. Not holding out hope for a legislative resolution to the issue, LGBT rights groups from around the world have reached out to help victims by protesting, fundraising (and crucially, awareness-raising), lobbying governments and evacuating gay men from Chechnya.
A Moscow-based NGO called Russian LGBT Network has removed and relocated around 40 gay Chechens so far, the group’s communications manager anonymously told NPR last month. However, sometimes even that is not enough to ensure safety. “Well, the first thing for us to do is to evacuate them from Chechnya to other parts of Russia, but we are also working to relocate them out of Russia because for most of them it’s just deadly dangerous to stay because some of them are already hunted by their relatives outside of Chechnya. “Homosexuality in Chechnya is considered to be a stain on the whole family. And it is believed that the only way to kind of wash away this stain is to kill this person.”
Will Vladimir Putin, ever eager to protect the image of himself as a Russia’s iron leader and conscious of the impact Kadyrov’s repeated insubordination, embark on a third Chechen War, ostensibly to protect gay Chechens?
Time will tell.
Report by Ciara McGrattan. Illustration by Jesse Campbell Brown. First appeared in GCN, July 2017