WEST SIDE STORY

How Putin and the governing elite’s use of homophobia as state strategy lead to one of Chechnya’s lowest points in LGBTIQ history.

“They said that I’m not a man, just some creature, that I am nothing. That I should rather be a terrorist, than a faggot” – A.B.

It was April 1st, 2017 when the news first broke and sent shockwaves throughout Russia. Homosexual men in the Chechnya Republic were being captured, tortured and killed as part of the Russian government’s attempt to “purge” the country of all homosexuality. And not just that – the Kremlin were denying all claims of a campaign to eradicate gay men on the basis that there are no homosexuals in Chechnya. “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” said a representative for the ruler of Chechnya, a wealthy war criminal named Ramzan Kadyrov.

A.B.’s testimony reads as if it was dug up from the archives fifty years ago. Yet it is no different than the other 33 victims, whose testimonies were collected and released in 2017 by the Russian LGBT Network and reporter Elena Milashina. Similar phrases are passed around as casually as shared cigarettes at a party: “are you a faggot? If you are, I’ll shoot you right here”; “You shouldn’t exist”; “Do you know why you are here? Because you let others fuck you in the ass”.

Milashina, a senior reporter at opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was the one to break the story on the “purge” on April 1st, 2017. Her article, titled ‘Honor Kill’, provided substantial evidence that over 100 homosexual men were being detained and killed in torture camps by Chechen officials.

The article was a wake-up call. Aren’t LGBTIQ rights improving worldwide? Isn’t Pete Buttigieg running for President of the United States? This is where waters become murky – because despite improvements in the western world, some countries are left behind: side-lined in the 21st century fight for LGBTIQ rights.

It is not uncommon to first look to religious and traditional beliefs as a leading factor, as it is in so many countries. For example in the Middle East, homosexuality is still illegal in 10 of 18 countries, and punishable by death in six. As hard as that statistic is to swallow, there is a clear link between prevailing religious and cultural beliefs, and the rights and freedom of LGBTIQ citizens in these countries.

But for Russia, this is not the case.

In a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) in 2005, it was revealed that fifty-nine percent of citizens were against same sex marriages. In 2015, the same poll revealed that percent had risen to eighty.

Yet as this number rises, the number of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia, known for their stance against same-sex marriage, is dropping. Between 1998 and 2012 the church lost 7.7% of their followers, which was well over 13.2 million people.

But if the spike in homophobia cannot be attributed to religious conservatism, what is the true root cause?

Russia is riddled with homophobia – that’s a fact. And of course, it would be easy to dismiss the country’s spike in blatant homophobia on religion. But the fact of the matter is, the incline, and the consequent attacks on the LGBTIQ community in Chechnya, are a part of a much larger game. A game designed to unite the people of Russia against a state-manufactured villain.

Let’s take a step back. Before countries become nations, they are simply a community of individuals yet to be unified through common culture, language, beliefs and values. When it was revealed in 2011 that Vladimir Putin would be re-elected as the President of Russia, the country was no longer unified, with thousands protesting alleged ballot-rigging, media bias and misuse of resources. Such anti-government protests sparked fear throughout the Kremlin and Putin – the biggest fear being an uprising similar to the 2010 Arab Spring anti-government protests and rebellions in the Middle East.

“The Putin administration was looking for a common threat that could re-unite the people,” Remy Bonny, a political scientist, academic and LGBTIQ activist in post-Soviet Republics and Central Eastern Europe said. “Quite easily he found the LGBTI-community as such a threat.”

Bonny said that within the first two years, Russia saw a considerable increase of homophobic discourse, which eventually lead to the introduction of the so-called ‘anti-gay propaganda law’ in 2013. “This law basically outlawed the LGBTI-community in Russia. Not just the homophobic discourse was rising, but the physical attacks by far-right-groups on homosexuals and transgenders rose,” he said.

Homophobia had now become a full-blown state strategy. Used insidiously through public speeches, policies, and laws, Putin was successfully legitimising the Kremlin’s regime by re-creating a sense of ‘national identity’- an identity distinct from the West and their liberal values and beliefs. Homosexuals were thus labelled ‘suspicious Western others’ and their so-called association with the West led them to become ‘foreign objects’ within the Russian Federation.

In a poll by VCIOM in 2015, the number of Russians who considered homosexuals dangerous enough to isolate from society has grown significantly since 2004, increasing from 12 to 20 percent of the population.   

“A lot of people in Russia claim that everything is made up by the West,” said Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of the American-based, Russian-speaking support network RUSA LGBT and an exiled queer university professor. “They call it a West side story.”

“They [Russians] often believe that the West is plotting a conspiracy against Russia,” said Bonny. “That’s why Putin can even legitimise his homophobia within the LGBTI-community.”  

 A West side story is right – but one that was fabricated by Putin  and his governing elite as their political weapon of choice. To keep us such a facade, the Kremlin denies reports, censors their media, and punishes journalists who are working towards a safer future for members of the LGBTIQ community in Russia, and Chechnya. The devil works hard, but Putin works harder.

The Russian LGBT Network calls the role that the Russia media plays in ‘strengthening the absolutist regime’ ‘extraordinary’. The Kremlin works overtime to ensure that the public opinion remains aligned within what they consider to be ‘right’. 

Gorshkov, who was forced to flee to from his home in Perm to New York after the 2013 anti-gay law left him a target, said that he saw first-hand how little information made it through Kremlin censorship.

“In official media, you will not find any mention of Chechnya or the purges. Living in Moscow, we didn’t see anything. Politicians’ with upper positions under the Putin regime remain silent,” he said.

And if something gets out, such as the article published by opposition media Novaya Gazeta, Gorshkov said that people choose to either ignore, or simply don’t believe it could be true.  “They will say things like: oh, it’s Chechnya, they are barbaric people, they are Muslim, and crazy, and terrorists, so they must be making it up,” he said.

Norman Hermant, a social affairs correspondent with the ABC and Moscow correspondent from 2010-13, said that despite some independent reporting online (such as Novaya Gazeta)

it is still the mainstream press where most Russians get their news. “Almost all mainstream news is either Kremlin controlled or Kremlin sympathetic,” he said.

“At this point, it’s just about staying in power for Putin and his elite. Russia has a history of revolution and violent purges, and I think the Kremlin are very conscious of that. They’re sort of paranoid about it, actually. This is why, quite regularly, media critics mysteriously die, or terrible things befall critics of a regime,” said Hermant.

Mikhail Beketov, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Khadzhimurad Kamalov – what do all these names have in common? They were just a few of many Russian journalists who were brutally and mysteriously murdered in clear retribution for their work, after recent additions to Russian legislation made it easier for journalists to be prosecuted by authorities.

“To be a journalist in Russia is suicide,” Vladimir Yurov once told The Guardian, a colleague of a Russian journalist who lost their life after exploring a story the Kremlin didn’t agree with. But it’s not the journalists that Putin is afraid of – it’s the truth. “They just don’t want to have that criticism out in the open,” said Hermant.

So, what does this all mean for the future of Russia, and the safety of homosexuals who remain trapped in Chechnya? 

The good news is that successful rescues are taking place throughout Chechnya – with support networks and organisations such as Russian LGBT to be credited with the lives of many men. The bad news? No matter how many moves like these in the right direction, Putin still gets to call checkmate in his twisted game of political chess. And it seems that to defeat a King, it will take more than just an army of chessmen. Bonny said, “I fear that we will have to wait until a broad movement of people stands up towards Putin and literally overthrow his rule.” Gorshkov said, “Nothing, and I mean nothing, stops Putin”.

Picture credit: 2019 Scott Scheidly https://www.flounderart.com/#!/work/pink/putin


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