All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
The brutal persecution of gay men in the Chechen Republic has recently made headlines around the world. According to Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most influential independent newspaper, over a hundred men suspected of being gay have been abducted, tortured, and detained by local authorities. At least three men have been killed. Some international media outlets have even reported the existence of “concentration camps” for gay men that the Chechen government has allegedly opened.
Before news of the repression broke, many Western media stories about Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov portrayed him as a clownish dictator obsessed with his Instagram account. In light of the latest news, though, he is now more correctly viewed as a brutal, repressive ruler.
For Chechnya’s suffering citizens, the gay issue is but the latest iteration of the perpetual violence that the North Caucasus republic has experienced under Kadyrov’s dictatorship. Deprived of access to Russian constitutional protections, civilians have suffered all possible abuses at the hands of the authorities for the past two decades. Illegal abductions, killings, and demands for bribes are all routine.
Under the unconditional patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov rules his republic as a totalitarian, and has done so since taking power in May 2004, after his father, then President Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated. Years before the campaign against gays, his commandos launched a similar crackdown on “badly behaved” women. The bodies of 13 women were found in different parts of the republic. The women had been tortured and then shot in the head. These murders were the subject of human rights activist and journalist Natalia Estemirova’s last investigation before she herself was abducted and killed in August 2009. The killers were never found, despite evidence of Kadyrov’s commandos’ involvement.
Chechnya has long seemed on the verge of a crackdown on gay men. Chechen society is a highly conservative and patriarchal one that has traditionally been hostile to homosexuality. Yet most gay men have been able to live hidden lives without fear of the state hunting them down. Even the police, who in recent years would sometimes impersonate gay men on dating apps, set up meetings, and blackmail their victims for money, had no directive from the state to act against their targets.
It is hard to say what first provoked this anti-gay violence. Anonymous sources in the Chechen police say they received orders to hunt gays after Kadyrov saw a video on a prisoner’s confiscated phone in which two Chechen men were kissing each other. What one can be sure of, however, is that the crackdown is part of Kadyrov’s greater totalitarian project. Even if a family does not want to punish or kill their daughter or son, under Kadyrov’s rules they may feel obliged to do so, in order to avoid the regime’s wrath. Over the years, Kadyrov has managed to compel the relatives of those whom he considered a potential threat to his authority to become his enforcers. If a young man is suspected of being involved with terrorist insurgents, for example, all his family members are deported from the republic within a few hours of the state’s becoming aware of the individual. Some of them have found refuge in other parts of Russia; others have fled to Europe to seek asylum.
To keep his power, Kadyrov uses various methods of punishment: physical and psychological, individual and collective. He has maintained secret prisons since he became first deputy prime minister of the Chechen Republic in May 2004, long before he became head of the republic, to punish those who either express outrage or dissatisfaction, or who do not correspond to his vision of the Chechen ideal. Armed with enormous power and absolute immunity guaranteed by Putin, Kadyrov has crushed local civil society and expelled activists from Chechnya and even Russia. He has particular ire for women activists, having stated openly his belief that Chechen women should stay at home, serve their families, and not be seen or heard in public life. Now it is gay men who face the regime’s repression.
Armed with enormous power and absolute immunity guaranteed by Putin, Kadyrov has crushed local civil society.
Having underestimated the coverage that the violence in Chechnya would gain in international media, Kadyrov and his regime are warning Chechen residents not to speak with national and foreign media and activists. They repress complaints and information on the situation through yet more fear and violence. There are worrying updates from Chechnya every day. Local activists and ordinary residents report that the subject of homosexuality has become more taboo than ever. Local journalists are interrogated by authorities on whether they recently had any contacts with “undesirable” reporters. Those who sympathize with the plight of Chechen gay men are afraid to express their support, not only in public but also in private. Some of them tell me that they have been threatened for merely “liking” Novaya Gazeta’s reports on social media.
In response to the international outrage, the Chechen government has denied all allegations pertaining to the violence: “If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no return,” Kadyrov’s spokesman Alvi Karimov has said. So far, the Kremlin has turned a blind eye, even when local officials openly approve of murder, as Karimov did on April 1. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov even cynically recommended that victims report any cases of violence to the authorities.
In exchange for maintaining stability, the Chechen leader receives the Kremlin’s financial and political support, which helps him keep absolute control over the republic. Stability in the region has been a priority for Russia since the conquest of the Northern Caucasus in the nineteenth century. Kadyrov has accomplished his mission well. Today Chechnya appears peaceful and even flourishing on the surface. Foreign visitors will sometimes remark that Grozny resembles a miniature Dubai. Yet the price of this stability is paid by the people. After the recent gay purge the international community can no longer pretend to be unaware of how far the Chechen government will go in order to maintain its grasp on power and control over its citizens.
Chechens have become used to suffering, having survived two devastating wars in 1994 and 1999, respectively. They no longer try to seek legal justice in the courts, which are fully controlled by the regime. Today, it is abundantly clear that LGBT people have no way to survive there once they have been outed. They have only one option—leave the country and seek refuge in the Western world. In response, Western governments should continue their criticism and push the Russian government to halt and investigate these crimes. Their embassies should make humanitarian visas available and quickly, so that victims can leave Russia safely. And they should work with LGBT activists and other human rights defenders to extend help and protection to every victim, lest their outrage prove empty.