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Chechens alienated amidst gay persecutions

News of mass arrests, detentions and murders of LGBT people in Chechnya has spread around the globe. The outrage prompts this Chechen journalist to reflect on his people’s place in the world.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov gives a speech in Grozny, April 2017. Photo (c): Said Tsarnaev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared on Open Caucasus Media. We are grateful for their permission to republish it here.

One gets the feeling that no moment in Chechnya’s history has been as roundly condemned by the world as this current human rights violation. The US State Department, the UN, and the majority of European governments have demanded an immediate cessation of the detention and execution of gay men (link in Russian). Chechens question both the scale of the repression, while the republic’s authorities have dismissed the allegations as groundless, denying the very existence of queer people within the republic.

Up until now, discussion of sexual minorities within Chechnya has been taboo. Even the suggestion of someone belonging to a sexual minority was considered to leave an indelible stain of shame upon them and their family. Now the genie has been freed from the bottle, and within everyday life in Chechnya, a new word has appeared — gay.

A taboo has been broken. The genie has been freed from the bottle, and within everyday life in Chechnya, a new word has appeared — “gay”

The majority of the population knows nothing about Chechnya’s gays. Some admit they exist, but refuse to believe they could constitute an entire queer community. In Chechnya, it’s believed that homosexuality and bisexuality aren’t natural, but are instead learned, or taught. 

Families dedicate great attention raising children, from the very beginning, in accordance with traditional gender roles. Girls are expected to behave in ways appropriate to future brides. Boys are trained in “male labour” at, for example, construction sites. They fight often, but under no circumstances should they cry. This is perceived as weakness, and invites comparison to girls. The older generation believes that with such an upbringing there is no way a boy can become gay; they also believe that homosexuality is a trend that came from the west. 

Not in accordance with tradition 

There exists in Chechnya a tradition of tsano yar — “cleansing of libel”. Its essence is that every accusation must have proof, or else the good name of the accused must be restored. There must also be a minimum of three witnesses, ready to swear on the Quran and uphold the statement of the accuser. The witnesses must also have, as guarantors, respectable members of the community. An outsider cannot swear on the Quran either: it would be considered sacrilege. Based on all this, it follows that a person of non-traditional sexual orientation should be safe from rumours. 

The beating or murder of a person signals entry into a feud with the victim’s family. But men of “non-traditional sexual orientations” are an exception

In Chechnya, the beating or murder of a person signals entry into a feud with the victim’s family. The enmity might escalate to a blood feud, and at that point, the original victim’s orientation no longer matters: that he is someone’s son, brother, father, is what does. Clearly, we are talking about an idyllic interpretation of Chechen traditions. But every rule has its exceptions: the murder of a woman of ‘loose morals’ (by local standards) or men of non-traditional sexual orientations, for example. 

Muslim women at the Berkat market in Grozny, Chechnya, 2012. (c) Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

It’s worth noting that killings without trial are prohibited by Islam, and that Chechen traditions align with Sharia law. There is also no honour court in Chechnya — as had been stated by Novaya Gazeta — nor any institutions, nor prescribed procedures for such situations. Allusions in the press suggesting as much have turned out to be fabrications. 

Furthermore, the death of the perpetrator does not cleanse a family’s honour. On the contrary: it becomes the topic of rumours and gossip. Killing a family member is not a law in some behavioural code, or some non-existent honour court; domestic violence, too, also exists in other countries considered “civilised”.

According to Chechen traditions, if a young man and a young woman had a consenting relationship before marriage, then the young man is obligated to take her as his wife. If the relationship was one of harassment, the young man might be stripped of his trousers and paraded around the village or the city streets as punishment. Such moral humiliation is considered sufficient recompense. In cases of rape, the punishment can be as severe as murder — which, in other countries, is also considered a crime committed under emotional duress. 

Kremlin politics as cause for division 

Until recently, there was no precedent in Chechnya for organised violence against any social group within Chechen society. Even the political division between the opposition and supporters of independence during the First Chechen War did not grow into a civil war. Because of this the Kremlin had to bring in outside forces — the Russian military — for the Battle of Grozny in November 1994. After the end of hostilities, Chechen leaders gave amnesty to members of the pro-Russian opposition. Serious clashes didn’t occur at the end of the 1990s, either, when Chechnya was more definitively divided into supporters of President Aslan Maskhadov and the Islamists. 

Most Chechens aren’t surprised at the arrests of queer people. Instead they wonder why is the world speaking only of them?

The situation changed with the emergence of the Putin–Surkov policy of “Chechenisation” in the early 2000s. Russian authorities have formed, financed, trained, and included within the ranks of Russian law enforcement agencies Chechen detachments, which act according to their own vision of tradition and custom. The aim of this policy was to resolve the “Chechen problem” using the Chechens themselves. Those who came under fire from these detachments, now often called “Kadyrovtsy”, were often members of armed groups opposing Russia, as well as their families and supporters. 

When asked by Yahoo News’ Katie Couric last month to comment on the detention and murder of gay men in Chechnya, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson responds “this is not my issue. I’m not a specialist in that.” The clip provoked strong reactions internationally. Image still via YouTube/Vlip. Some rights reserved.

The next wave of repressions came against young people who didn’t participate in the war, but adhered to a suspicious, from the perspective of the Russian authorities, strain of Islam — Salafism. Then they came for the human rights activists and honest journalists. Those were followed by women who wore the hijab, and then women who refused to (this is where paint-guns came into play, as did bans on appearing in various institutions — in direct contradiction to customs that say only close male relatives can tell a young girl or woman what to do). Repressions also affected alcoholics and drug addicts. Then, they came for the gays. 

According to Novaya Gazeta, the detention of Chechen men suspected of homosexuality follow a well-known pattern: take one person, force him to name a few names, arrest them, and force them to give up more names.

Phones are also useful for rounding people up — grabbing everyone who’s called, and who shows up in the contacts list. In the case of the gay community, dating apps were also checked. For most Chechens, there is nothing unusual in the arrests and detainment to secret prison camps of queer people. Instead they wonder why is the world speaking only of them? Why does the international media not sound the alarm at the detainment, torture, and killing of Chechens who aren’t members of sexual minorities? 

A feeling of isolation

We are now witnessing a schism which will divide Russian liberal journalists and Chechens into different camps; a schism which will perhaps create unimaginable new and presently politically-unimaginable combinations. Despite the complicated relationship between supporters of independence and the Kadyrovsty, they came out together against the article in Novaya Gazeta and accused its author, Yelena Milashina, of creating a public relations campaign in the style of Western media, and questioned the honesty of her concern for the people being subjected to violence.

In Chechnya, it’s believed that appealing to the Russian authorities to restrain Kadyrov, supports the myth that he is an independent ruler, and that Moscow does not bear responsibility for his crimes

Many Chechens perceive this scandal as an addition to an age-old narrative going back to the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 19th century, propagated by Russian authorities. According to this narrative, the Chechens are a savage and uncivilised people, undeserving of international support in their aspirations for freedom, justice, and a place in the world community. 

Yelena Milashina and her publication have become an additional tool in the long-running and not-unsuccessful strategy employed by Putin and the Kremlin of demonising the Chechen people and depriving them of support from foreign countries and human rights institutions. In Chechnya, it is believed that appealing to the Russian authorities to restrain Kadyrov, is to support the myth that he is an independent ruler, and that Moscow does not bear responsibility for crimes committed within the republic since the entry of Russian troops and other oppressive agencies into its lands.

“Close the secret prisons!” and “Stop cherishing barbaric traditions!” read placards at a demonstration in solidarity with LGBT people in Chechnya. Moscow, 6 May 2017. Image still via YouTube/Grani.ru. Some rights reserved.

Many believe that despite its good intentions, Novaya Gazeta acted in step with the policy of “Chechenisation”, the main agenda of which is the destruction of the people’s democratic traditions — traditions which lead them, time and again to rebel against Russia. 

Chechens, who were shocked by the violation of this taboo, are strongly committed to tradition; it is tradition which has allowed them to create a more or less functioning structure for life in a land full of lawlessness, violence, uncertainty, and fear for the future. What is happening to men suspected of homosexuality is unacceptable, but it is the leading policies of the Kremlin, and not just homophobia, that are to blame. Chechen society is not ready to discuss that which, until recently, appeared not to exist. 

Chechens today feel lonely and isolated as never before. They are torn — between the traditions that have helped them survive as a people, and the rest of the world, which has had the chance to develop under conditions that Chechens can only dream of.

Want to know more about the fate of LGBT people in Chechnya? Read these stories from gay men who fled the restive region for their lives


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