Comment from the writer: Please note that some of the following content is deeply disturbing. Though I personally prefer “LGBTQ+” in place of “LGBT,” I resort to the latter not only to illustrate the lack of civil rights advancements within Russia, but also to show, in part, how international media has been covering the situation.
Recent allegations made by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta state that the Chechen Republic, commonly referred to as Chechnya, detained over 100 men suspected of being gay. These claims, in addition to those about secret jails in which men are reportedly tortured, led to international outcry about the current state of civil rights in Russia.
What’s happening in Chechnya
Investigative journalists from Novaya Gazeta made the report that over 100 men had been detained in secret prisons on suspicion of being gay. Many of these men had apparently been beaten and tortured. At least four men were said to have been killed.
Chechen authorities and government figures, under the leadership of Ramzan A. Kadyrov, dispute the claims made by the newspaper, asserting that gay men do not exist in the region.
“I said before, and I repeat now, in Chechnya we just don’t have this problem,” spokesman Alvi Karimov told New York Times reporter Andrew Kramer. “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic. 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.”
When asked if he was certain that there were no gay men in all of Chechnya, Karimov said that he found that question strange, but that he was certain.
Other authorities, such as Heda Saratova, who represents the local government on matters of human rights, said similar things.
“I never saw them with my own eyes,” Saratova told Kramer, referring to gay men. “I see flies, I see mosquitoes, but I have never seen a gay man.”
Homosexuality is considered taboo in deeply conservative Chechnya. Because of the social conditions of the region, men often marry women to disguise their sexuality.
This is the case for “Ruslan,” a man who fled Chechnya after being detained and tortured for being gay. Ruslan is not the victim’s real name because, even now, he lives in fear of being identified.
“If beating you with their hands and feet is not enough, they use electric shock,” Ruslan told the BBC. “They have a special black box and they attach wires to your hands or ears. The pain is awful. It’s terrible torture.”
As Chechen security forces hunted down gay men in the region, someone singled Ruslan out. Interrogators tried to get Ruslan to disclose the names of other gay men, but he refused. Soon after his release, he fled the republic.
“They used to detain people before all the time to blackmail them,” Ruslan said. “Now [the aim] is the extermination of gay men, so that there are none left in the republic.”
These claims support those made by government officials that there are no gay men in the region.
The intense conditions in Chechnya raise larger questions about LGBT rights in all of Russia.
LGBTQ+ Rights in Russia
“I never heard of them. I never thought of them. In my 50 years, I have never seen a gay man.” Saratova told the New York Times.
LGBT people in the Russian Federation face challenges – both legal and social – that non-LGBT people do not experience.
Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, formally known as the federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” was unanimously approved by the State Duma in 2013 and signed by President Vladimir Putin 21 days later.
The law bans the dissemination of “propaganda for nontraditional sexual relationships” among children. These “nontraditional sexual relationships” are understood to be lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships.
“This law openly discriminates against LGBT people, legitimizes anti-LGBT violence, and seeks to erase LGBT people from the country’s public life,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told HRW reporters.
“The authorities have fined only four people, but that is four too many.”
One of the only examples of Russian pro-LGBT support comes from a 15-part documentary series about the lives of a group of young transgender, gay and lesbian Russians called TransReality.
Even with this series surprisingly being aired on the Kremlin’s flagship international TV channel, RT, there are still massive amounts of homophobia in the country.
Since Putin’s re-election as president for a third term in 2012, state TV has repeatedly portrayed the acceptance of LGBT lifestyles as “a disease of the decadent West.”
These sentiments were seen in a documentary called “Sodom,” which aired on an official channel called Rossiya 1 a few months before TransReality.
The documentary referred to gay people as “sodomites” and “perverts,” drew a parallel between homosexuality and pedophilia and suggested that the campaign for LGBT equality was part of a U.S.-backed conspiracy to undermine Russian nationhood.
How to help
Located in Moscow and organized in cooperation with the Moscow Community Center, the Russian LGTB Network “continues to work on the evacuation of those persecuted by the authorities in Chechnya because of their real or assumed homosexuality.”
As of April 17, around 60 people have contacted the Russian LGBT network. Of these victims, some are still in the area and are in need of urgent evacuation. Others have managed to relocate themselves but are still in need of further assistance. More than 30 people have already been provided with support.
“Among those who have applied to us for help, there are two victims of the persecutions, with whom we suddenly lost contact for unknown reasons. We presume some people may have decided to delay their decision to leave the region, but unfortunately, we cannot rule out the possibility that something more untoward has happened to them,” a press release from the Russian LGBT Network stated.
Individuals and organizations from around the world are collecting money and donating it to the Russian LGBT Network. The organization asserts that the money will go towards transportation, accommodation, basic goods, medical and psychological support and the preparation of necessary documents.
The organization also mentions that it is dangerous for most of the survivors to stay in Russia, and that it is therefore preparing to evacuate as many people as possible.
For those that are not able to provide monetary support, there is a petition on change.org that has already been signed by 348,000 people. The petition is titled “Russia Prosecutor General, investigate mass murder and torture of LGBT people in Chechnya.”
It demands a full investigation of all the facts and unlawful repression of LGBT persons in Chechnya and calls for punishment of the “guilty parties.”
Information from bbc.com, nytimes.com, hrw.org, lgbtnet.org