How Russia’s strongmen use homophobia to stay in power

Ramzin Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Back in March, international news outlets reported on the devastating detention, torture, and murder of hundreds of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya. Now, the NGO Russian LGBT Network — along with Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Milashina, who first broke the story — has issued a report detailing not only the extent of LGBTQ persecution in the region, but also its wider roots in the brutal and oppressive tactics of Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s hand-picked leader of Chechnya. While other human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have been covering the situation in Chechnya since the spring, this report is the most detailed and comprehensive yet.

Since December of last year, at least 150 men have been detained, and 50 killed, by vigilantes with connections to the state security apparatus in the majority-Muslim, historically fractious republic in the North Caucasus. Chechnya, formally known as the Chechen Republic, is officially a federal subject of Russia, although in practice it is governed largely autonomously by Kadyrov, who has a close, mutually beneficial relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Publicly, Chechen officials have responded by simultaneously denying and, through that denial, tacitly supporting the violence. Kadyrov responded to initial reports by telling Interfax News Agency, “If there were such [LGBTQ] people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement … wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them.” That’s because, he suggested, their families would subject them to an honor killing.

It would be all too easy to dismiss this homophobic violence as a cultural or religious phenomenon. But the report sheds much-needed light on the violence’s political dimensions. In Chechnya — and in Russia more widely — anti-LGBTQ violence is part of something bigger and even more insidious: state-sponsored efforts to legitimize authoritarian rule by creating, and then punishing, the image of a suspicious, “Western” other.

It’s also tempting to let Kadyrov’s words shape Western discourse about Chechnya: that it (or Islam) is intrinsically homophobic, that violence, or honor killings, are simply part of Chechen life. But to do so would be to allow ourselves to fall into the trap of taking Kadyrov’s propagandist rhetoric about what is and is not “Chechen” at face value.

The LGBT Network report makes clear that the concept of “honor killing,” in this specific Chechen context, is far from a simple cultural or religious tradition endemic to the region. It is, in fact, a political one, rooted in the wider political concept of “shared responsibility,” in which families are held responsible for individual members’ crimes (or political dissent) unless they publicly disavow (or purge) those members.

While shared responsibility, as a cultural concept, does indeed have significant historic roots in North Caucasus — the tightly knit nature of Chechen society has long intensified the need for clan loyalty — its political implementation on such a wide scale is more recent, according to the report. It was used as a means of subjugating the population under Stalin, and has become prevalent once again under the current administration.

“These [honor killings] always existed,” grants B, a spokesperson of the Network. (Like many people involved in the situation in Chechnya, B has asked to speak anonymously for security concerns; noting several people in the Network have received death threats since the Chechen situation began.) But, B says, the current regime has intensified and appropriated the practice for political ends. Likewise, homophobic violence “isn’t part of Chechen culture.” Nor, B says, is it necessarily endemic to Islam, pointing out that, although strict interpretation of certain Quranic verses might legitimize anti-LGBTQ attitudes, there are plenty of Muslims that aren’t homophobic — and do not take every verse in the Quran literally.

Rather, B, says, what we’re dealing with in both Russia and Chechnya is “state-sponsored homophobia” — a result of propaganda, not prejudice.

And just as equating state-sponsored violence with intrinsically “Chechen” culture is central to bolstering Kadyrov’s power, so too is labeling LGBTQ people as “not Chechen” or as suspicious outsiders. It’s telling that part of Kadyrov’s disingenuous denial of violence in his Interfax interview involved him denying the existence of LGBTQ people in Chechnya altogether. “Chechen society does not have this phenomenon called non-traditional sexual orientation,” he said. “For thousands of years, the people have lived by other rules, prescribed by God.”

In other words, anyone who is gay isn’t really Chechen.

State-sponsored violence is endemic to Kadyrov’s regime

LGBTQ people are not the first group of people to experience state-sponsored violence in the Chechen Republic. According to the report, Kadyrov used the idea of shared responsibility in 2013 to legitimize a similarly brutal campaign of exterminating suspected Salafi Muslims (often referred to within Chechnya as “Wahabists”) or those whose version of Islam he saw as a threat to Chechnya — and to his own semi-autonomous rule there.

There, too, Kadyrov conflated religious and nationalist attitudes, advocating for a “traditional” (i.e., Chechen Sufi) understanding of Islam — one of which he was, of course, the judge — and, in 2016, helping to issue a controversial fatwa against those whose form of Islam did not coincide with his own.

Salafism was functionally banned in Chechnya, and those whose style of clothing or facial hair indicated that they might be Salafi Muslims were arrested or detained in military detention centers.

Now, the report says,

Since 2011 [i.e., the start of Kadyrov’s second term], there has been a consistent decrease in the amount of separatist activity all over the region ... the fight against terrorism was no longer a viable reason to justify the existing absolutist regime. The Chechen authorities started an active search for yet another reason to remain in place. And thus, the fight against dissidence started. Dissidence for the Chechen authorities was defined as any deviation from the rules and ideas of neo-traditionalism, heterosexual morality, cultural and political docility, and religiosity that were set by the government of the Republic itself

In other words, Kadyrov’s regime props itself up by identifying a useful “other” — a threat to the Chechen way of life and national consciousness — to purge. Then the traditional family unit is exploited to intensify the act of eliminating that “other,” demanding that relatives either denounce their own kin, or at least stay silent about their detention or torture.

Often, the report notes, execution of perceived “threats” wasn’t the objective. Rather, public shaming and “transformation” was. Those who were tortured and beaten were expected to return to “a proper, state-legitimized path” — their experiences a warning to others who might not live in the “right” Chechen way.

After Salafis, according to the report, the state targeted those who abused alcohol or drove drunk. Now, it’s gay people.

The report — drawing on testimonies of former detainees — makes clear that the concentration camps in which detained individuals were held were specifically on military bases. Several former detainees, whose identities are not revealed, share recollections that strongly indicate this violence wasn’t just tacitly allowed, but state-sponsored. According to the recollection of one former detainee cited in the report:

“Two of them were wearing uniforms. Bodyguards usually wear these uniforms. Kadyrov’s bodyguards. Sometimes, the members of the 6th division wear such uniforms. The 6th division is responsible for the Republic’s security.”

While the report notes that homophobic incidents are nothing new in the Chechen Republic, their current politicized manifestation absolutely is. Previously, homophobic violence lent itself to small-scale incidents of blackmail. For instance, someone might pose as a gay man to set up a date, in order to beat up and rob a would-be suitor, or use an illicit video as leverage. But now, says the report, “the new wave of persecution was related to the idea of “purification of the nation.”

This “purification” involved not just killing some of the men who were detained, but rather placing the responsibility to do so on the families of the victims, inviting them to participate in this purgation as a means of proving their loyalty to Chechnya.

The release involved a visit from the honored representatives of the Chechen authorities, who advised the victims’ relatives on how they should treat their next of kin. Their relatives were advised to find a “proper solution” to get rid of the “sick” members of their family … the authorities guaranteed that if the family decided to kill the gay/bisexual family member (to wash the shame away with blood), they would not be prosecuted for this crime. During one such ceremony, the relatives of one of the detainees asked why the authorities didn’t kill the inmates themselves. The representative of the authorities said that they could “take them to the forest, accuse them of terrorist sentiments, and kill them, but it would be better if the parents took care of their children.”

While the report does not provide exact numbers, it posits that “dozens” of men released from detention were later killed by their family members. Such a killing allows family members to “prove” that their loyalty to (Kadyrov’s vision of) Chechen culture, transcending their loyalty to their teip, or clan, which is key to legitimizing Kadyrov’s rule throughout Chechnya. Likewise, under the principle of “shared responsibility,” LGBTQ men who flee the Chechen Republic put their family at risk for retaliatory violence, complicating the issue further.

Kadyrov’s nationalist tactics are used — to a less extreme extent — by Putin against LGBTQ people in Russia

When I met with B earlier this month in St. Petersburg, he pointed out that this sense of shared responsibility can extend beyond Chechnya’s borders. The Network cannot safely get evacuated gay and bisexual male Chechens into refugee camps because they might be attacked by diaspora Chechens there who may become aware of their sexual orientation.

Nonetheless, the LGBT Network has shuttled up to 60 individuals across the Chechen border, both into Russia proper and out of Russia entirely. Yet, when it comes to LGBTQ issues in both Chechnya and Russia proper, advocacy work is a constant uphill battle.

While the situation for LGBTQ people in Russia is of course much safer than in Chechnya (for starters, male homosexuality is technically legal), attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals have increasingly shifted along nationalistic lines — lines that, as in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, have been clearly drawn by the state.

This politically rooted, state-sponsored homophobia has become a convenient propagandistic scapegoat for galvanizing citizens of a country still finding its feet in the aftermath of the USSR’s fall; a shared hostility toward Western “others” can unite Russians and Chechens, despite hardly being historic allies.

Kadyrov’s Chechnya functions as a kind of dark reflection of Putin’s Russia — one that utilizes Putin’s strategies and political approach and takes them to extremes.

Indeed, it is precisely because of the long leash Putin grants Kadyrov that Kadyrov is able to create his violent cult of personality at all. Although the republic has experienced centuries of violent conflict with Russia, Putin and Kadyrov’s mutual understanding has prevented a spillover of violence across the border. And, in return for keeping Chechnya under control, Kadyrov is often rewarded. Just this week, the Kremlin spared Chechnya from the extreme budget cuts — a result of US sanctions — implemented elsewhere across Russia.

As Amy Knight writes in the New York Review of Books:

"Putin and Kadyrov have long had a Faustian bargain. Putin counts on Kadyrov’s ruthlessness to keep potential unrest in his Muslim-majority republic, where the Kremlin has fought two wars, from coming to the surface. In return, the Kremlin funnels vast sums of money into Chechnya — by one estimate one billion dollars annually, much of which goes into Kadyrov’s own pocket. … Also, Kadyrov’s public diatribes against the West and his open threats directed at Russian opposition members and independent journalists serve Putin’s purposes: because he is perceived to act with considerable autonomy, he can do things that the Kremlin itself may want done but does not want to be directly associated with.”

When it comes to LGBTQ issues, Kadyrov’s endorsement of physical violence serves as a dark mirror for the implied, no-less-politicized rhetorical violence within Putin’s Russia. To talk about LGBTQ issues in Russia is to talk not just about culture but also about nationalism — and, now more prevalently than in Chechnya, religion.

Certainly, Western leaders have not been shy about holding Putin responsible, albeit indirectly, for Kadyrov’s actions. During her visit to Russia in May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Putin to intervene, citing "negative reports on the treatment of homosexuals, particularly in Chechnya" and stating in a news conference that she “asked President Putin to use his influence to guarantee the rights of minorities.”

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church is also political

The Russian Orthodox Church has taken on an outsize nationalist political role in Russian life in recent years. B recalls that when they were a teenager, in the early 2000s being openly LGBTQ was a less major, or politicized, deal than it is today. (It’s worth nothing that shortly after the fall of the USSR, Russia decriminalized same-sex relationships) Several out classmates were not subject to harassment, nor did B face personal discrimination.

“There is nothing in the Russian attitude that is homophobic,” B says.

Likewise, B remembers outward expressions of religious piety to be rare during B’s adolescent years. “Now, being religious is trendy” — something people seem to want to be seen as.

Yet today, B says, Putin’s government has conflated religion, anti-Western sentiments, and homophobia. Propaganda on state-owned channels has stirred up hatred of LGBTQ individuals. “On TV, LGBTQ people [are made to look like] fags, idiots, freaks, people to be cured or pedophiles.” And, B argues, most older Russians get their information on state-sponsored TV. After all, “most [LGBTQ] people are closeted, so people don’t really know anything about them [outside of media perceptions].”

Russia’s 2013’s federal “gay propaganda law” criminalizes the perceived promotion of homosexuality, ostensibly to secure the safety of minors. Policies like that only serve to intensify that public perception; using religious and nationalist rhetoric to, in the words of the New York Times’ Sewell Chan, position “Russia as a defender of Christian and traditional values, and the West as decadent and godless.”

It’s a point made by Jonny Dzhibladze, an activist at Coming Out St. Petersburg, a local LGBTQ organization. I met him in St. Petersburg in July in an unmarked office in a building whose various inhabits — many of which are human rights organizations — serve as tacit “lookouts” for one another. And it’s necessary. Recently, Dzhibladze tells me, someone claiming to work for the police, but lacking any identification, banged on their door and threatened them.

“It’s a combination of Christianity and Stalinism,” he says, as we sit in the organization’s common room — filled with rainbow brochures and pamphlets, “two things that don’t [even] logically go together.”

He attributes Putin’s success, and the rise of homophobia in Russia, to the same thing. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people saw the country they grew up in vanish overnight,” he says. Without a common, shared, cultural identity, they became easy to manipulate. For Dzhibladze, Putin has been able to rally his country by focusing on “the enemy from without” — the West — as well as the “enemy from within”: gays, who are widely seen as symptomatic of Western decadence or vice.

Plenty of the laws governing LGBTQ issues in practice, likewise, speak to the construction of that very dichotomy: organizations that take international funding (as, say, an average LGBTQ NGO might well do) with what are deemed “political purposes” are labeled “foreign agents” by the government; about 30 such organizations have shut down as a result.

Dzhibladze points out how this association of “Westernness” with LGBTQ individuals imbues all aspects of how being gay is understood in Russia. Even the acronym, he says — which the government almost always uses in its propaganda (rather than using Russian-language terms) — intensifies a sense among the Russian populace of foreignness; the idea that being gay is some kind of political allegiance (complete with questionable foreign acronym) rather than an orientation. “If I say I’m a woman who lives with women versus a ‘lesbian,’ or that I’m a man born in a woman’s body versus ‘trans,’” Dzhibladze says, “I’d get a very different response [from your average Russian].”

Even the idea of “human rights” — once, he laments, synonymous with deep-rooted traditions of Russian intellectualism — has become a dirty phrase, with connotations of treason.

He points out, too, another sad irony. He’s noticed that — with the exception, of course, of the incidents in Chechnya — in his experience, actual physical violence against LGBTQ individuals decreased during Russia’s 2014 Crimean conflict with Ukraine. “All those right-wing religious nationalists” found another convenient scapegoat behind which to rally, and focused their attention there.

Dzhibladze and B both continue to work for LGBTQ advocacy by organizing meetings, providing pro bono psychological counseling, and walking the tricky tightrope of doing such outreach — particularly to LGBTQ youth outside major cities — on the ground and on social media without falling afoul of Russia’s “propaganda” laws.

But in order to make substantive change, advocates may have to face down the Russian government itself.

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