The world is watching in horror this week as a campaign of persecution unfolds in the Chechen Republic, part of the Russian Federation. Over the last month, it is alleged that more than 100 men have been rounded up and detained by authorities on suspicion of being gay. Some have been killed, according to reports, and there are claims that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has announced that he wants to "eliminate" the country's gay people by the start of Ramadan.
The news is shocking but, based on my research into the history of sexuality and gender across the Russian Federation, not entirely surprising. There is no tolerance at all of any kind of openness about same-sex love in Chechnya. Chechen men and women can only be 'gay or lesbian on the inside'. They must hide their sexuality from their families and community. There is no public 'gay community' but only a social media scene where gay men meet but also risk exposure and violence.
Chechnya is ruled by a particularly ruthless regime. Kadyrov, a hand-picked protégé of President Vladimir Putin, is trying to pacify a wartorn region that has seen two major conflicts since 1994 that sought to break the republic away from Russia. The Chechen leader uses violence against his own people in that pacification process.
As history and contemporary events show us, a state in crisis often decides to lash out at scapegoated communities. Kadyrov has aroused support with rallies of tens of thousands in the capital, Grozny, for 'traditional Islamic values'. Kadyrov's social conservativism gets the backing of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church as well as local Muslim authorities.
The threat to gay men in Chechnya does not only come from the state or religion. The taboo around homosexuality in Chechnya is so great that gay people are even at risk from their own families. Most honour killings we hear about are directed against women, but in Chechnya they are reportedly meted out against gay men by their own family members.
That is because family esteem and reputation are such important values in Chechen society, and having a visibly or known gay person in the family is seen as shameful. The authorities are said to have released some gay men from captivity into the custody of their relatives, who are encouraged to eliminate them.
The reports from Chechnya are a reminder of the difficulties facing gay and lesbian people in the Russian Federation as a whole. Russia claims to be a democracy which respects human rights and cares about the welfare of its citizens, and as part of its democratisation in 1993 it eliminated the criminal penalty for male homosexuality. But an all-Russian law in 2013 which banned 'propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations' (i.e. homosexuality) in any public or online space accessible to minors has been used hundreds of times against Russian citizens.
Gay websites have been shut down and people who speak out about injustices or abuses against LGBT people have faced persecution themselves. The public debate about the 2013 law saw dozens of murders, abductions, and beatings of gay men, but there is no hate-crime protection for LGBT citizens in Russia so these crimes were hardly taken seriously by police and prosecutors.
Yet the very fact that Chechnya is part of Russia means that there is a glimmer of hope for LGBT people in the region. With global media attention focused on the terrible events in Chechnya, Russia has come under pressure to investigate the abuses of gay people in the republic that has damaged the country's reputation. Moscow's Investigative Commission has reportedly been instructed to conduct a 'control survey' of the Chechen law enforcement agencies, which may restrain Kadyrov's homophobic campaign.
President Vladimir Putin is already facing questions about his country's backing of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and alleged involvement in influencing the US election. It seems likely that he will want to avoid further international condemnation for this gratuitous homophobic violence in Chechnya. International pressure is necessary to protect the lives of gay citizens in this tragically damaged region.