“WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”: A PORNOGRAPHIC STATE OF VIOLENCE

By Jana Paegle

Chechnya is one of Russia’s most impoverished and closed-off republics situated in the Northern Caucasus, ruled through so-called “pseudo-Islamistic” governance. It is a nation of dualisms, dependent on aid until this day and is run by an erratic, megalomaniac leader and ex-separatist war-hero’s son — the eclectic Ramzan Kadyrov.

As Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat, a Chechen guerrilla separatist and Mufti, died in a 2004 Islamist bomb assassination during a memorial parade — Kadyrov was given the freedom to run the region as desired as his successor. In a 2016 scientific article, James Hughes and Gwendolyn Sasse describe how Kadyrov’s partial adoption of a Shariatic system has “developed and de facto displaced the Russian Constitution in Chechnya, with Islamic dress codes, polygamy, ‘honour killings’ of women, restrictions on alcohol … openly imposed by religious courts and supported by Kadyrov”. Besides this, Kadyrov has been a present force in social media — with an Instagram following exceeding the population of his governed territory twofold. Kadyrov “shows his lifestyle as he wants every Chechen to be — fit, faithful and ferocious in battle”. He has repeatedly been suspended from the platform for inciting violence and for naming and shaming 15-16 year old boys who criticized or offended him, making them cry and publicly apologize á totalitarian style in lengthy Grozny TV broadcasts — the Chechen main TV channel.

Apart from Kadyrov’s Instagram fame and lavish birthday parties having featured guests like the split-icon Jean-Claude Van Damme, Seal and Hollywood star Hillary Swank, he has gained notoriety through his brute anti-gay positioning. David France’s acclaimed 2020 documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” is a remarkable and tragic testimony to the refuge, disappearances, abuses and killings of several LGBT-people across Chechnya.

In a 2017 HBO-streamed interview (featured in the documentary), Kadyrov is confronted with the unequivocal evidence that Russians and Chechens are being tortured and abducted for their sexuality, to which he responded that it was “all nonsense”. He also claims  that there are no homosexuals in Chechnya, and that if there were they ought to be sent to Canada — far away as can be in order to “cleanse our blood”. “And if there are any, then bring them. For they are demons who sell themselves, they’re not human. May they be cursed”. Kadyrov thus indirectly sanctioned a “cleansing of the nation” (of LGBT people) as a righteous exercise.

David Isteev, the Crisis Response Coordinator for the Russian LGBT network adresses the fact that gay people are being “murdered, mutilated and that their families are being encouraged to murder them”. In the film, he explains that these anti-gay pogroms and arrests by Chechen state police were triggered after a drug trafficker appeared to have homoerotic pictures on his phone in a narcotics raid. In turn, spurring an aggressive reporting culture in which an exponential amount of people were turned in. Reported suspects were not only tortured, but handed over to their relatives — which were “recommended” to murder them. 

It is worth noting that Kadyrov’s attitude towards polygamy (de jure against Russian law) signifies his political motifs. Ramzan married a second wife (aged 14), who not only won a silver medal in a Chechen beauty contest — but also the leader’s heart. According to the independent Russian investigative media hub, Proekt, Kadyrov has said that he favors “a man having several wives if he needs them, and if he’s able to support them, to solve the demographic problem in Russia”. Polygamy is justified based on rigid Chechen traditions: “if a young girl or a divorced woman goes out [with a man], her brother kills both her and that man”.

As established earlier, honor killings have become commonplace in the shaky republic — which faced two bloody civil wars in the 90’s and early 2000’s. In Welcome to Chechnya’s exposition, a young woman, “Anya”,  phones a Russian rainbow NGO-hotline, revealing that her uncle, a high-ranking Chechen official, found out about her sexual orientation, for which he required that she sleep with him. Otherwise he would reveal her sexuality to her father and subsequently kill her for having dishonored the family. After living secluded and anonymously in a shelter, waiting for asylum proceedings for over 6 months, practically in solitary confinement — Anya later leaves a voice message and disappears, just like so many others. Her fate remains unknown.

Besides international huntdowns for gay asylum seekers and refugees, Chechen police and representatives have set up multiple traps for LGBT people seeking out meetings, just to kidnap them, as witnessed by survivors and illustrated by newsflashes in the documentary. While in arbitrary detention, you are supposed to report everyone you know in order to avoid torture. As accounted for by one of the anonymous witnesses, “you give them names, they’re not satisfied and then they’ll torture you nevertheless”. The worst verbal account of medieval-sounding torture is at least one man having a rat put on his back, with a heated pot — making the rat dig its way out of the heat by tearing the person to death inside a detention facility. Many other witnesses tell stories of electrocution, and all detainees seem to have experienced terrible beatings.

Maxim Lapunov, a vocal gay man and now human rights-activist, revealed his identity in the documentary also had a unique standing against the Russian government, but was turned down. Lapunov has now sent his case of abuse to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Russian LGBT network also helped resettle over 150 refugees in the last years.

What does the Kremlin think then? As LGBT activist organizations tried handing over 2+ million signatures concerning the detentions of homosexuals to the Moscow government, they were detained for “protesting without permission”. No one intercepted the human rights violations in Chechnya —so the practices of kidnapping, torturing and raping LGBT people spread to neighboring states as well (Dagestan, Ingushetia). Crackdowns by Chechen authorities have been so extensive that activist groups and organizations taking the risks of evacuating LGBT-people from the region, have too found themselves seeking asylum and fleeing with their families due to being traced down by the same police districts in Chechnya where torture has occurred.

Unfortunately, Putin’s apathy to this one-sided violence against a minority group can be boiled down to Hughes’ description of a patron-clientelist and a mutually corrupt relationship between him and Kadyrov, where natural resources and domestic stability are virtually exchanged for tolerance and continued, entrenched silent approval of the despotic tactics deployed by each leader. This corruption has served as a social “glue” according to scholar Iuliya Zabyelina, used to “rebind the Chechen society broken by a decade of war and to enhance Kadyrov’s authority”.

Just like Afghanistan appealed to superpowers in ‘79 (as it does now), Chechnya ended up having plenty of oil resources, uniquely positioned — facing the rest of the world after the Cold War. Like the Mujahideen in the Afghan mountains, Chechnya’s terraneous forested mountains have housed resistant guerrillas. Moreover, Russo-Chechen relations have been plagued by colonial legacies and racial discrimination, which has paralyzed politics for a long time. Furthermore, Chechnya has gone down a path of eager nationalism as it suffered through traumas of ethnic deportations during WW2 under the Stalinist regime. In the 1990’s, Chechnya was struck down by Russia’s newly found national military in the 1990s as a response to sectarianism, only to adopt jihadism after the first civil war between Chechnya and Russia —  attributed to Western disillusionment, as well as the growing allure of Al-Qaeda internationally during this time, according to Hughes.

Putin’s Chechen tolerance really boils down to petropolitics, which reflects in the Kremlin’s massive subsidies. Just like ex-US president Donald Trump dismissed the extrajudicial killing of Jamal Khashoggi for the sake of petro-relations with Saudi Arabia (whose Wahhabist ideology has funded Chechen jihadists by the way) — so is Putin indifferent to the cleansing of LGBT people, as long as Kadyrov keeps the oil taps running.

You can rent and stream Welcome to Chechnya on SF Anytime and Viaplay.

Cover photo: Justin Tallis

Jana Paegle is 21 years old and doing her last year of the Bachelor’s Programme in Peace- and Development studies. Eurasian relations, free verse, organic architecture, essays on technology and living, library books, infinite playlists and open public spaces make her tick… also excessive visits to Fyrisbiografen for smashing student discounts to documentaries and arthouse films. She also speaks Russian.

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