Ilya and Nohcho, gay men from Chechnya, sought refuge at a house outside the Caucasus region in southern Russia. Both were arrested in a pogrom and tortured. Credit: James Hill for The New York Times
GROZNY, Russia — It was supposed to be a night out. But for the young man who calls himself Maksim, as for scores of other gay men arrested in a pogrom this month in Russia’s Chechnya region, it pivoted into nearly two weeks of beatings and torture.
Maksim said it had started with a chat room conversation with “a very good old friend who is also gay,” and who suggested that they meet at an apartment. When Maksim arrived, however, he was greeted not by his friend but by agents who beat him. Later, they strapped him to a chair, attached electrical wires to his hands with alligator clips and began an interrogation.
“They yelled, ‘Who else do you know?’” Maksim said, and zapped him with current from time to time. “It was unbearably painful; I was hanging on with my last strength,” he added. “But I didn’t tell them anything.”
Gay men have never had an easy life in Chechnya. But the targeted, collective punishment of gays that began last month under its pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, is a new turn in the region’s long history of rights abuses.
Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, first reported the pogrom, saying that at least 100 gay men had been arrested and three killed in the roundup. Human Rights Watch corroborated those findings.
The sweep has been widely condemned by Western governments, the United Nations and rights groups. Activists in Russia have set up an underground network to spirit the victims out of Chechnya and to protect them from potentially violent reprisals from their families and others. The victims use assumed names in their everyday dealings.
The following account is based on interviews with Maksim, who is in his 20s, and two other gay men who were detained by Chechen security agents.
Homosexuality is taboo in Chechnya and the mostly Muslim surrounding areas of the Caucasus region in southern Russia. “This society is highly homophobic,” said Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, Russia project director for the International Crisis Group and an authority on Chechnya. “Homosexuality is condemned. It is believed Islam considers it a great sin.”
Nevertheless, before the crackdown, gay men in Chechnya could at least lead social lives, if heavily closeted ones, Maksim said. They met largely in private chat rooms on social networking sites with names like the Village or What the Mountains Are Silent About.
“When two gay men meet, they don’t tell one another their true names,” Maksim said. Men met at cafes or at apartments rented for a night, he said. “Nobody suspected my sexual orientation, not even my best friends.”
The crackdown began after GayRussia, a rights group based in Moscow, applied for permits for gay pride parades in the Caucasus region, prompting counter protests by religious groups, the men said. In Chechnya, it became something even worse — a mass “prophylactic” cleansing of homosexuals, the security service agents told the gay men as they rounded them up.
The men were held for as little as a day or as long as several weeks, according to Human Rights Watch and to interviews with gay men who later escaped the region. Some “returned to their families barely alive from beatings,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch.
Among the fatalities documented by the organization were one man who succumbed during torture and two others who died in “honor killings” by relatives after the police released them.
“Human Rights Watch has been getting numerous reports about attacks by security services under Ramzan Kadyrov’s control, and those reports are extremely disturbing,” Ms. Lokshina said. “This is another opportunity to reinforce the culture of fear.”
The Chechen authorities’ response to the global outrage over the pogrom has provoked new incredulity. In a telephone interview, Mr. Kadyrov’s spokesman, Alvi Karimov, said the reports of an anti-gay pogrom had to be false because such men did not exist in Chechnya.
“In Grozny, have you ever noticed people who, by their appearance or manners, resemble people who are oriented in the wrong way?” Mr. Karimov asked.
“A policy is developed for a problem,” he said, referring to a report that said the arrests were official policy. “I can officially say there is no policy because there is no problem. If there were a problem, there would be a policy.”
In a televised meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday, Mr. Kadyrov characterized as “libelous” news reports that the security services in Chechnya had been persecuting gay men.
And on Thursday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists that the Russian authorities had found no evidence that the Chechen police had arrested gay men.
But it quickly became clear to Maksim and the other men that the Chechen authorities were applying the same tactics used by Russia and by Mr. Kadyrov to suppress an Islamist insurgency in the region over the past decade.
Security service agents took to posing as gay men looking for dates on the Village and in other chat rooms, or persuaded those they had already captured to lure acquaintances, those arrested said in interviews.
Fear spread among gay Chechens. “If they caught him, they will get to me,” said a 20-year-old student who identified himself as Ilya and who was interviewed at a safe location outside Chechnya. Ilya fled days before the police showed up at his home, he learned later.
The authorities briefly detained another young man, who identified himself as Nohcho, after a friend informed on him during an interrogation. “I don’t blame him,” Nohcho said of the friend. “We are not heroes. We’re