News of this April’s mass detentions, arrests, and murders of Chechnya’s gay and bisexual population has spread around the globe. While Chechen and federal authorities categorically deny all reports of this persecution, the mass media is filled with stories of men who managed to flee Chechnya. These events have pushed the Chechen people to contemplate the unstable place of their nation in the world.
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 to the detention and execution of gay men. Chechens question both the scale of the repression and the very existence of queer people within the republic.
A shattered taboo
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 is out of 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 pay a great deal of attention to 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.
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.
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 have a consenting relationship before marriage, then the young man is obliged 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 a 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.
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.
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 in the call list, 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 the world is speaking only of them? Why does the international media not sound the alarm at the detention, 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. 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.
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.