It’s Saturday, and I’m in the Plush smoking area after a day of friends, fun, and painful sunburn at Oxford Pride. I survey the scene: a little outrageous, a smidge decadent, and ultimately a defiant, wonderful celebration of my community and our values. After a night of dancing with friends, I walk home, satisfied with a day that has made me proud of who I am.
But what if I never made it home? What if the LGBTQ+ friends you have never returned from their day of celebration? After they’d vanished, what if the police came to your door, but instead of helping you find them, dragged you away too?
We live in 2018, and have busy lives, so it is easy to forget that the nightmarish vision I’ve described has been the lived experience of gay men in Chechnya for the last fourteen months.
Since April 2017, when the ‘gay purge’ began, The Guardian and others collected harrowing testimonies from those who escaped Chechnya. Victims described horrific torture, electrocutions and beatings, with men being forced to ‘out’ friends so that they too could be abducted and terrorised. It is estimated that several hundred gay men have been detained, with many killed by the authorities or their families.
The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, refuses to acknowledge this persecution ever happened, claiming there are no gay men in Chechnya against whom these crimes could be committed. He recently stated that gay men are ‘devils’,‘not human’, and are ‘for sale’, claiming they make accusations of human rights abuses for profit. Although Amnesty International have attempted to renew pressure on the Russian government and Chechen authorities, the plight of these men has largely slipped from international attention. There has as of yet been no investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Attempts to dehumanise, denigrate, and destroy the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya are not some rogue outlier, they are symptomatic of the homophobia promoted by the Putin regime across Russia. It exists in legislation, like the 2013 ‘gay propaganda’ law to prohibit the spread of ‘non-traditional’ relationships, and in the courts, seen in a 100 year judicial ban on Moscow Pride. Chechnya is an extreme example of intolerance that makes the lives of many LGBTQ+ Russians unbearable.
Last week, I made the choice to throw myself back into consciousness of this issue, and went to the Oxford Union to confront ambassador Alexander Yakovenko on his government’s inaction. Now there are many confident LGBTQ+ Oxford activists who would have done this with ease, I am, unfortunately, not one of them, so when I began to ask why no perpetrators of crimes in Chechnya had been brought to justice, and when LGBTQ+ Russians would be granted rights as human beings, I was terrified.
But when Yakovenko opened his mouth in response, I realised my nervousness didn’t matter. In his rambling reply, he exposed himself, and the harrowing moral depravity that lies at the heart of the Putin regime’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people. The lies flowed, and in them, the truth of how little the ambassador and his government cared about the lives of those persecuted in Chechnya. Killings and torture were never acknowledged, as he parroted the line of extremist Kadyrov that ‘It’s difficult to say if there are any gay people’ in the region. The more he spoke, the more far-fetched his claims became: that there are fewer gay people in Russia so homophobia is less of an issue, that if gay people did not like their experience in Russia, they could simply move elsewhere, and finally, the pièce de résistance, his insinuation that questions I raised were not an issue because Putin had spoken with Elton John.
Now, to be the representative of any megalomaniacal dictator must be a difficult thing, but to be one with such a limited, absurd repertoire of lies at your disposal must be a real challenge. Some of his responses, about gay sports teams and ‘friends who are gays’, would have been funny, if they did not typify a culture of wilful ignorance towards the everyday plight of gay people in Russia. Ambassador Yakovenko was the embodiment of diplomatic geniality, desperately attempting to hide the mountain of suffering and bloodshed perpetrated by Putin’s supporters in Chechnya. Anecdotes were told, goodie-bags handed out, and the audience laughed. A civilised man, lying with a smile on behalf of savagery, is the most disturbing kind of deception.
Now you’re probably wondering, when facing such senseless disregard for human beings, what can be done? I’ve been asking myself the same question. The first task must be to keep the issue on social media and in the news. It may seem trivial, but a cause without advocates is lost from the beginning. We cannot let Chechnya again slip from memory, or we’re doing Putin’s work for him. Secondly, we must keep applying public pressure, exposing the deceitful lies that senior Putin supporters use to downplay these crimes. It’s expected that monsters like Kadyrov will espouse denials and mistruths, to see ambassador Yakovenko doing so makes it clear that from top to bottom the Putin regime actively tries to bury the human rights abuses committed in Chechnya. We owe it to LGBTQ+ Chechens, and those who suffer under Putin’s homophobic dictatorship across Russia, to use our free speech and position of privilege to expose these crimes. If we don’t, who will?