Why We Talk About Russia in Connection with Anti-Gay Violence in Chechnya

In stories about brutal anti-gay crackdowns in Chechnya, maybe you’ve noticed Russia tends to get mentioned in the headline – “Russia says,” “Putin says” – even though the alleged atrocities are in Chechnya, not Russia, plus it’s not like we trust the honesty of Putin when it comes to government crackdowns or gay rights. There are three reasons this is being reported as a Russia story: Russia is the political pressure point, it’s where reporters can talk to people, and it’s the bigger fish.

Russia is very, very involved in keeping the current leader of Chechnya in power. They’re the go-between with Chechnya and the rest of the international community – the China to Chechnya’s North Korea.

Chechnya isn’t exactly an independent country – although it’s not exactly NOT an independent country. It’s an autonomous region that’s part of the Russian federation. Think about Scotland or Northern Ireland – they’re part of another country, Great Britain. Chechnya is like that, but moreso. It has its own constitution and government, but is also supposed to follow Russian federal law. But Russia often looks the other way unless Chechen seperatists are openly secessionist (which they often are, bloodily). Basically, how autonomous Chechnya is remains an open question, including within Russia. The current leader is firmly pro-Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia is where most gay Chechen men are fleeing, aided by Russian gay-rights ally groups like the Russian chapters of Human Rights Group and International Crisis Group and the Russian LGBT Network, who are collecting most of our information and providing lines of escape. The story about the torture sessions was broken by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. Almost any interview you see in a U.S. or British newspaper is with somebody who is in Russia – who either is Russian or fled to Russia. Chechnya doesn’t really have a free press.

Finally, arguably the escalation of persecution in Chechnya was triggered by a Russian group called GayRussia applying for permits to stage a pride march near Chechnya (in Kabardino-Balkaria), even though the permit was not granted. So gay rights groups in Russia aren’t sure whether there will be a similar Russian crackdown and/or whether Chechnya is acting with the approval/encouragement of the Russian government, as a way to put more pressure on Russian gay rights groups – because there has also been a ramp up of anti-gay governance in Russia. Not to the same extent as the violence in Chechnya, but is that a soft pilot? Or is this the moment when Russia is embarassed by the extra attention and steps back?

But yeah, it can sometimes feel like “wait, aren’t we supposed to be talking about Chechnya?” – to which the answer is yes.