A Second Wave in Chechnya’s “Gay Purges”

Map of the Chechnya Region in southwestern Russia (image via WikiMedia Commons)

Six months after global media and human rights groups brought renewed focus on Chechnya, a semi-autonomous region in southwestern Russia with a lurid recent history of brutal anti-gay abuses, attention has returned to the area once again. Sadly, conditions have not improved – rather, recent reports have shed new light on the extent and ruthlessness of repression, which never went away.

The First “Gay Purge” and Global Backlash

In early-to-mid-2017, the first reports of anti-gay violence in Chechnya reached U.S. media, including a wide-ranging report by VICE News (also discussed in detail at Instinct). As VICE explained at the time—before details came to light—“at least 100 gay men were  rounded up and arrested” beginning that April. Several detainees alleged then that “they were tortured, leading to an international outcry” and investigations, including one by Human Rights Watch. In its aftermath, this bloody summer became commonly known as the “Gay Purge.”

Two consistent through-lines have remained in the two-plus years since these initial, horrific reports. First, Chechnya’s leadership—and close alignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin—has been constant. Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov (the son of assassinated former leader Akhmad Kadyrov), rose to power in 2007 following a violent power struggle and has a long history of making viscerally homophobic comments.

The second consistency—paradoxically—has been Chechnya’s officials denying the existence of queer people in the region. Obviously, the simultaneous existence of “gay purges” and denials that queer people exist in the same place make exactly zero sense, but neither Ramzan Kadyrov nor his government have ever been accused of intellectual heft. (Nonetheless, the policy of vicious repression mixed with clumsy denial may trace as far back as a founding-era Soviet penal law, as explained last year in Le Monde Diplomatique.)

In the end, estimated death tolls and expulsions of suspected queer Chechnya residents from 2017’s purge varied dramatically, with no clear, established overall figures available. At a minimum, “at least 13” detainees in the town of Shali were executed on January 26, 2017, of 27 killed across Chechnya in total, as reported by Novaya Gazeta. further evidence cited in MetroWeekly and other reports at the time suggested as many as “hundreds” of gay men were being “kidnapped and held in prisons and makeshift concentration camps,” facing attacks, torture and outright murder, all “corroborated” by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and similar global watchdogs.

The 2017 (Non) Response

As the Purge was carried out during the early months of the Trump administration, U.S. officials faced calls “to more forcefully condemn” Chechnya’s anti-gay violence. Although then-United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley did condemn these actions, other U.S. foreign policy figures’ actions proved superficial – or nonexistent.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses the UN’s Human Rights Council at a June 2018 meeting in Washington, D.C. / Image via U.S. State Department

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted in a summer 2017 congressional hearing that he “failed to raise the [topic] in a face-to-face meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister,” according to MetroWeekly. Conversely, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including Germany and France—two states whose leaders strongly condemned alleged anti-gay violence in Chechnya at the time—agreed to demand investigations later in 2018 after Russia’s “reaction [proved] ‘inadequate.’”

(Russia’s later investigation, in response to OSCE demands, led to talk of Kadyrov’s possible resignation, as well as U.S. sanctions on the leader and some of his agents, but little else. Russia, meanwhile, has been in the headlines for its own egregious cases of anti-LGBTQ violence, including a highly public murder of a prominent activist in St. Petersburg just a week ago. Finally, one week ago, filmmaker Oliver Stone’s insipid praise for Russia’s “anti-gay ‘propaganda’” law drew even greater attention to the 2013 edict underlying anti-LGBTQ violence both in Russia and in the Chechen region.)

While the U.S. was among the 16 countries supporting this OSCE “fact-finding” mission, the sought-after accountability fizzled – and, per Out’s later reporting, the administration had made “no publicly known effort” to curtail anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya at least through January 2019.

The Second Purge? New Reports Since December 2018

Since late 2018, two major developments have reinvigorated the Chechnya story. First, reports of a renewed wave of anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya have raised alarm bells among regional media outlets and global human rights groups. Second, more information is coming out now regarding the first “Gay Purge” of 2017 – including terrifying first-hand accounts from survivors and refugees who managed to escape into Central and Western Europe, North America and elsewhere.

Between December 2018 and January 2019, as Instinct previously reported, the second wave already had imprisoned dozens and killed at least two. As Igor Kochetkov, program director for the Russian LGBT Network, noted at the time, detainees included “both men and women,” and the two known fatalities resulted from torture by Chechnya’s police forces. Continuing the patterns of 2017’s purge, Chechen authorities are making “every effort to prevent victims from leaving the region,” Kochetkov wrote, as reported by Out.

Regarding increasingly well-known information from earlier anti-LGBTQ violence, RUSA LGBT’s Lyosha Gorshkov told Out that

The news … about another round of gay purges in Chechnya [from January], unfortunately, was not a surprise for me … We have known along the way, that purges did not stop in 2017 and it’s been ongoing ever since. Although the focus of the international and media community has been shifted away while the world should have kept [their] eyes open.

On Friday, July 26, TIME’s Katy Steinmetz published a deeply reported—and incredibly disturbing—account of the first wave of violence in 2017. Steinmetz also zooms out, explaining the global and international–legal contexts well. The sense of global inaction amid the first “Gay Purge” signals to Chechen authorities a tacit allowance to continue the atrocities. The story of Amin Dzhabrailov, a gay 20-something Chechen who was imprisoned and tortured before fleeing to Canada, provides the grueling narrative touchstone throughout the Steinmetz piece.

(An excellent companion piece by Natalie Vikhrov in BuzzFeed broadens the focus beyond cisgender gay men, showing how all members of Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ communities are at grave risk of abuse.)

As more information comes out of Chechnya, the direr the situation appears to be – and to have been, consistently, over the last two-plus years. Hopefully sustained global attention and pressure will keep all our eyes open, as Gorshkov put it, and prevent an escalating tragedy from unfolding once again.

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