April 24, 2018—Homosexuals in Chechnya are at greater risk than anywhere else in the Russian Federation, and face police surveillance, blackmail, murder, incarceration in secret prisons and torture. At federal level, a 2013 law banning ‘propaganda on non-traditional sexual relationships to minors’ has reduced access to public space for the few organisations defending LGBT rights.
This repression is not new. The 1996 penal code of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria recriminalised sodomy (mujelojstvo); article 148, which borrowed the term from Soviet law, was inspired by sharia and prescribed corporal punishment and, for repeat offenders, the death penalty or life imprisonment. The Kadyrovs, father and son, have made the war on terror part of day-to-day government and, to undermine Islamists’ influence, preached a religious rigorism equally hostile to homosexuality (see Chechnya’s very long state of emergency).
Using strategies tested in the fight against the Islamists, the authorities blacklist families, attacking clan solidarity. Some detainees accused of being gay are forced to confess publicly in ‘liberation ceremonies’, which other men in their family are required to attend (1). The government has harnessed existing methods of social control: in 2008 Ramzan Kadyrov took a favourable stance on honour crimes, which are on the rise in Chechnya as elsewhere in the Caucasus. By shaming whole families, the authorities seek, often successfully, to involve them in repression, forcing victims to flee their homes; some have to take refuge in a country where they can elude reprisals from the diaspora. Women are forced into exile if they wish to pursue a homosexual lifestyle rather than obey the familial injunction to marry. According to Elena Smirnova of the Paris-based Urgence Homophobie, which takes in Chechen refugees, more than 100 have fled the country because of their sexual orientation, with the help of friends and even some benevolent police officers. Exact numbers are hard to gauge as refugees often hide the reason for their departure.
Chechnya’s permanent state of war forces men to conform to a martial norm of virility. This has strengthened the traditional bonds between men in Caucasian societies, and two wars and clandestine resistance in the mountains have brought men in combat units even closer, in romantic friendships that sometimes lead to homosexual relations they must hide. A gulf has opened up between the rigid models of sexuality that emerged in the 1990s, and reality.
Chechnya, like the rest of the Russian Federation, has inherited the Soviet tradition of denial of homosexuality. After the Bolshevik interlude during which it was decriminalised (1917-33), Stalin reintroduced into the penal code in 1934 an article prohibiting sodomy, with sentences of up to five years in a gulag. Though not all the data for 1934-93 is available, during the 1970s an average of 1,254 men a year were convicted.
Hate speech, like Maxim Gorky’s 1934 call to ‘exterminate homosexuals and fascism will disappear’, was relatively rare in the Soviet era. The authorities were reluctant to give homosexuality any publicity, even negative, and preferred discreet campaigns: doctors and police worked together to stop sexually transmitted diseases or to intern homosexuals in psychiatric hospitals for having a ‘deviant’ sexual orientation (2). Only in 1999, six years after decriminalisation, did the health ministry ceased to consider homosexuality a disease.
Many Chechens targeted by persecution have a Soviet era view of homosexuality, as both as a disease and treachery towards the Chechen nation, and explicit and virulent homophobia, connected with anti-western rhetoric, is part of the political agendas that inspire Chechens and Russians. Russia’s information minister last year told the media it was ‘genetically impossible’ for Chechens to be homosexual, unlike Europeans, who were guilty of indulgence towards these ‘degenerates’ (3). Vitaly Milonov, a member of the St Petersburg legislative assembly who proposed the city’s first anti-homosexual law, cited Chechnya as a model to be emulated in the fight against homosexuality, which he compared to fascism.
© 2018 | Le Monde diplomatique
Image:- Linda Mason