The antigay purges of Chechnya throughout 2017 are the result of the social consequences from a tyrannical government, led by a cult of personality that magnifies and encourages domestic extremism. Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been the president of Chechnya since 2007, uses traditional Chechen rhetoric and extreme Russian patriotism to create an environment of fear. This position of Chechnya between two worlds has been the common thread through the country’s history, though never weaponized like it has been in modern times.
The North Caucasus occupy the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, partially made up of southern Russia and northern Turkey and Iran. This region hosted primarily nomadic, Turkic peoples until the 7th century, when, under pressure from encroaching Chinese armies, they settled and claim the territory as the Khazar Khaganate (Golden 89). Throughout the centuries, the Khazars were often allied with the Byzantine Empire against the Islamic Empire to the south, but, by the 10th century, the Byzantine Empire unceremoniously dropped their alliance with the Khazars, which could be related to the general conversion of the Khazars’ to Judaism (to avoid pressure from both Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Empire) and a new focus on the rise of early Russian communities (Reuter 502-503).
Amidst all of this, the Kingdom of Alania, situated a bit more southern than the Khazar Khaganate, was absorbed as a vassal after their joint stands against invasions from the south. Alania remained a vassal until the late 9th century (Kouznetsov 260). Due to the Alans’s conflict with Khazaria and their association with the Byzantium Empire, the Alans converted to Christianity (Encyclopædia Iranica 801). Eastern Europe also saw the rise of the Kievan Rus’ by the 9th century, which drew the attention of the Byzantine Empire. The Rus’ were at odds with the Khazar Khaganate and mostly allied with the Byzantine Empire, so, by the 10th century, the Rus’ had eliminated Khazar imperial power (Petrukhin 262). The Kingdom of Alania and the Kievan Rus’ both came to a sort of abrupt end in the 13th century when Batu Khan swept through the North Caucasus and the Kievan Rus’ both. All were decimated and subjugated by the Mongolian Horde.
The following centuries saw the emergence of the Russian state, from the tsardom to the empire to the soviet republic, while increasing encroachment into the Caucasus to expand Russian territory. From the 15 century, the Northern Caucasus saw more conversion to Islam as Russia becomes increasingly more expansionist — Islam was seen as a mode of resistance, probably as a way to oppose their presumed Byzantine and Christian heritage (Ilyasov 65). Conflict between the North Caucasus and the Soviet Union — across countless terrorist acts against the state of Russia and two wars — continued until the 21st century with a referendum for Russian reintegration and increased autonomy and the appointment of Akhmat Kadyrov, a pro-Russian Chechen leader, (and the father of Ramzan Kadyrov) as president (Aliyev 11).
As part of this regime change, President Kadyrov appointed his son as the head of his personal security, which gave Ramzan Kadyrov entry into the governance of Chechnya. The following year, President Kadyrov was killed in a bomb attack. An election was held, but, while Ramzan Kadyrov had inherited his father’s influence, he was too young to run in the election. However, he became the vice prime minister of security and then, only a year later, gained complete control over Chechen law enforcement agencies. In 2006, the same year, he became the prime minister of Chechnya, soon to be sworn in as president in 2007 following a nomination by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ramzan Kadyrov has been reelected in each successive Chechen election. Kadyrov’s past decade in office appears like a reactionary attempt to “clean up” Chechnya — he has a long history of eliminating Islamist extremists, which has created a society of abductions, disappearances, and extrajudicial executions (to name a few). These attempts to eliminate insurgents also extends to a certain sect of Islam, which Kadyrov associates with extremist insurgents — these may be Chechen people who follow a different sect of Islam, but are profiled and targeted all the same. Throughout this decade, this creates a cult of personality for Kadyrov, who is using law enforcement and security agencies as if he directly commands them. By diffusing his viewpoint through the enforcement arm of the government, he creates a political environment of fear by normalizing these extrajudicial acts against minorities (Human Rights Watch 9-10). In the second half of the decade, support from federal Russia to Chechnya dwindles in the face of sanctions, the cost of the Crimean annexation, and falling oil prices, which has a costly effect on Kadyrov’s ability to influence the government and the elite — if he cannot pay them, he cannot bend them to his will. In answer, Kadyrov replaced them with close family members, people from whom he does not have to purchase loyalty (Aliyev 12).
All of this sums, in 2017, to the creation of a “‘totalitarian state within a state,’ featuring Kadyrov’s interference in virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse, and family matters” (Human Rights Watch 11), but how does this lead to the antigay purges in the beginning of the year? It seems unrelated at best to move from targeting threats to the state and its people to targeting specifically Chechens with no seditious behavior, attitudes or pasts.
According to the Human Rights Watch:
Chechnya is a highly conservative, traditional Muslim society; homophobia is intense and rampant, and homosexuality is generally viewed as a stain on family honor. People still carry out...“honor killings” to “cleanse” perceived stains to their family’s honor...High- level Chechen officials, including Ramzan Kadyrov, have repeatedly condoned honor killings (2).
The North Caucasus has been Muslim for more than six hundred years, which has been a defining trait of its peoples as they had resisted Russian expansion for nearly as long. In contrast to Moscow, the seat of federal Russia, which has always been Eastern Orthodox Christian, there is an entirely different socioreligious history of same-sex attraction. Since Chechnya is grounded in Muslim identity, arguments based in Western rhetoric ascribe Western values to a society that hasn’t identified with those values in centuries (if ever). If Chechnya has historically acted in opposition to the Westernized culture of Russia — as the Islamic Empire and the Christendom of Western Europe were opposed — the lens must be refocused on Chechnya as an Islamic culture now colonized by a Christian culture.
Terence Powers, in his article “Transnarrating Male-Male Desire in the Muslim Encounter,” discusses specifically trans-narrating Muslim, male-male desire into Westernized terms, arguing against the usage of terminology that constructs a Western understanding of homosexuality and concepts of the minority in society — he uses Edward Said’s theory fromOrientalism to apply the Orientalist practice to “queering” non-Western cultures, where concepts of queerness may vastly differ (174). To talk about the status of gay men in Chechnya is akin to discussing Kadyrov’s “totalitarian state within a state,” where we must consider two, overlapping contexts. While Chechnya is historically Muslim but colonized by a Western state, there is a dissonance in both the identities of gay Chechens and how they are identified. The Human Rights Watch’s description of Chechnya being a “highly conservative, traditional Muslim society” where “homosexuality is generally viewed as a stain on family honor” demonstrate the contrast in Westernized identities clashing with a non-Western culture. Powers cites Scott Long’s research on identities of Egyptian Muslims who engage in same-sex intercourse existing outside of Western “gay identities” — that is, these men are able to have same-sex relations without suffering under a conservative or traditional Islamic culture (187). To be clear, Egyptian society is not an analog for Chechen society, however both share a religious history of Sunni Islam, where comparisons can be drawn. Importantly, both are still Muslim societies, though in vastly different contexts. Powers elaborates on the act of trans-narrating same-sex desire from non- Western cultures:
To transnarrate a narrative is to translate it. The assigning of identity onto behaviors serves not only to diminish the observed act but also to redefine and restructure it. The central issue...around Muslim, male-male sex is inscribing the term “homosexual” upon it by Western gay scholars (177).
Chechnya is a Muslim society that exists in trans-narration, both as a state under Westernized, Russian control and in translation by a hegemonic gay universalism. From a sociohistorical perspective, Chechen men who are attracted to same-sex men do not have the identity politic of a minority that has been developed in Western societies, but, as citizens in a state that is a part of the Russian Federation, they are assigned a gay identity. To elaborate on this point, the Russian LGBT Network, a leading rights group, continues to provide the most visible support to the victims of the anti-gay purge — an organization that relies on this identification of queerness. This is an important note to begin to understand why Chechnya suddenly enacted mass state violence against a minority population, but there is a still a question of why gay men specifically.
State violence against queer people is not a new phenomena, both inside and outside of the West. Mark Ungar claims in “State Violence and lgbt Rights” that societal homophobia regards queer people as threats to public morality and a cultural imposition from the West. In defining types of state violence, three can be tracked across multiple societies, both Westernized and not: legal state violence that condones whatever specific flavor of violence is legalized; semi-legal state violence that allows exceptions to laws due to unstable sociopolitical climates and cultures of security that disadvantage the public; and extra-judicial violence that exists outside of any legal framework and is often denied by the state itself (61-70). Examples of semi- legal and extra-judicial violences across the Russian Federation have been reported throughout history, but, in Russia specifically, the Westernized identity politics had been able to swing minority rights and protections to a more inclusive society. These changes had not occurred for Chechnya outside of federal laws. However, in 2013, Russia passed a law that bans the promotion of “homosexual propaganda,” which broadly and vaguely defined what constitutes as propaganda. Most problematically, that encouraged a marked increased in vigilante attacks against the queer population across Russia (Luhn). While the law legislated by the federal Russian government does not condone violence, it’s broadness opened the doors for extrajudicial attacks. This allowance also tacitly extended to Russia’s other states.
Ramzan Kadyrov has a history of enacting extra-judicial violence against perceived and declared enemies of his state. The timing of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law is almost too perfect for Kadyrov’s pivot to violence against queer people. 2013 is the beginning of Kadyrov’s change in government, when he ousts those he used to pay off for the loyalty of family. His extremism only seems to increase from there: the Human Rights Watch cites a handful of examples (burning down housing claimed to be used by insurgents; assassinations) that bring relatively harsh repercussions from the Kremlin — harsh in that they responded with comments no more than chastising Kadyrov for his extremism. Then, by 2016 (the year of election), Kadyrov shifts his rhetoric to almost embarrassingly pro-Russian, ending with a crackdown on critics of Kadyrov himself just before election (Human Rights Watch 12-13). Most interesting, however, is 2017, after Kadyrov’s reelection.
The anti-gay purges began in February and escalated through the first quarter of the year leading to detentions and torture that led to more detentions and torture, none of which was approved by courts or specifically legalized through legislation. This sudden escalation reflects Ungar’s description of semi-legal violence (sociopolitical uncertainty from Kadyrov’s third election, loss of funding and continued, alleged insurgent activity), though exacerbated to point of extra-judicial (66). These attitudes, a constant in Chechnya’s “conservative, traditional Muslim society” had always been there (Human Rights Watch 14), but an uncertain Chechen and Russian climate — the tension of Russia’s Eastern Orthodox-fueled homophobic laws and Chechnya’s historical values — has exaggerated this.
Out of this confusion and violence, Chechen officials denied the claims. The spokesperson for Kadyrov states, “There are no LGBT at all in the Chechen republic. To be honest, I’m not sure what the acronym stands for, but I know it’s something bad. And no such community exists in Chechnya,” and Kadyrov’s Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights said, “part of a large-scale provocation aimed at destabilizing public and political stability in the republics of [Russia’s] Northern Caucasus” (Human Rights Watch 26-27). These statements being to illustrate a state denying claims to excuse or try hide their actions, but they also parallel statements made President Ahmadinejad in 2007 when addressing homosexuals in Iran. As Powers states:
[Ahmadinejad’s] assertion that there were no homosexuals in Iran, or that Iran’s homosexuals were unlike the American counterpart, created a tempest in the media... What was shocking was not the assertion made; rather it was the subversive inference that same-sex practice in Iran is different, if not other (174).
Ten years later, after the swell of in the anti-gay purge, Kadyrov’s addressed the situation personally by saying, “These are not traditional things, psychiatrically abnormal things. We don’t understand them. Our people do not understand.” This statement very much mirrors Ahmadinejad’s, but goes further to say that homosexuality is not even comprehensible (Human Rights Watch 27). For both Iran and Chechnya, these statements do not excuse the violence done by their governments. In Chechnya, however, these statements reveal the disconnect between the government (or more succinctly, Kadyrov) and its people.
The reaction from federal Russia was lackluster. Half-hearted attempts required same-sex attracted men to out themselves and “prove” these purges were happening, which no victim did out of fear of retaliation, shaming their families or being killed by their relatives in an honor killing (Human Rights Watch 34). Russia, however, had passed the “homosexual propaganda” legislation four years ago and had seen vigilantes killing queer Russians while the state made arrests under the law; what investigation would they attempt for the purported violence against one of their state’s queer population?
Finally, by September of 2017, Kadyrov has attempted to lift himself up as a sort of voice for the Muslim, both domestic and international, by organizing rallies in Chechnya to protest the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar — even so far as to organize protests against Russian policy (Aliyev 11). After a decline in funding from the Kremlin and the shift from much of the 2010’s focus on insurgents flocking to the Levant, Kadyrov needed a new approach. The nearly accidental antigay purge gives Kadyrov a new means to control Chechnya while appearing increasingly independent from Russia, but Kadyrov is using Russia’s policy to act as a vigilante in a state leadership position and also abusing the rhetoric of a Muslim history to oust a minority population. This violence models the power of Kadyrov’s state and becomes a tool in itself to dissuade dissidence — Kadyrov uses Chechnya’s state of trans-narration as a weapon against his people.
Chechnya — before that Ossetia and before that Alania — has always been caught between the Occident and the Orient. The North Caucasus region has used religion to maneuver politically, even in 2017 into current times. Unfortunately, this mode of resistance has shifted to the seat of power where it is used to disenfranchise a population rather than push back against Chechnya’s colonizers. Such free rain is given from Russia because Russia has not needed to oppress Chechens and maintain a tight grip; Kadyrov is doing it for them.
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- Luhn, Alec. “Russian anti-gay law prompts rise in homophobic violence.” The Guardian. Sept. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/01/russia-rise-homophobic-violence. Accessed 19 March 2019.
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