Russia: How Russia’s strongmen use homophobia to stay in power

Back in March, international news outlets reported on the devastating detention, torture, and murder of hundreds of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya. Now, the NGO Russian LGBT Network — along with Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Milashina, who first broke the story — has issued a report detailing not only the extent of LGBTQ persecution in the region, but also its wider roots in the brutal and oppressive tactics of Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s hand-picked leader of Chechnya. While other human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have been covering the situation in Chechnya since the spring, this report is the most detailed and comprehensive yet.

Since December of last year, at least 150 men have been detained, and 50 killed, by vigilantes with connections to the state security apparatus in the majority-Muslim, historically fractious republic in the North Caucasus. Chechnya, formally known as the Chechen Republic, is officially a federal subject of Russia, although in practice it is governed largely autonomously by Kadyrov, who has a close, mutually beneficial relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Publicly, Chechen officials have responded by simultaneously denying and, through that denial, tacitly supporting the violence. Kadyrov responded to initial reports by telling Interfax News Agency, “If there were such [LGBTQ] people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement … wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them.” That’s because, he suggested, their families would subject them to an honor killing.

It would be all too easy to dismiss this homophobic violence as a cultural or religious phenomenon. But the report sheds much-needed light on the violence’s political dimensions. In Chechnya — and in Russia more widely — anti-LGBTQ violence is part of something bigger and even more insidious: state-sponsored efforts to legitimize authoritarian rule by creating, and then punishing, the image of a suspicious, “Western” other.

The LGBT Network report makes clear that the concept of “honor killing,” in this specific Chechen context, is far from a simple cultural or religious tradition endemic to the region. It is, in fact, a political one, rooted in the wider political concept of “shared responsibility,” in which families are held responsible for individual members’ crimes (or political dissent) unless they publicly disavow (or purge) those members.

While shared responsibility, as a cultural concept, does indeed have significant historic roots in North Caucasus — the tightly knit nature of Chechen society has long intensified the need for clan loyalty — its political implementation on such a wide scale is more recent, according to the report. It was used as a means of subjugating the population under Stalin, and has become prevalent once again under the current administration.

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