In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has fought two wars against Moscow’s rule, which have left tens of thousands dead and the republic in ruins. Islamist-inspired terrorism, and a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in response, have left the population deeply traumatized. Today, Chechnya has been rebuilt, and the Kremlin enjoys a nominal peace—but not without a cost. In exchange for professing loyalty to Putin and keeping Chechnya nominally part of Russia, its forty-year-old leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, is allowed to rule the republic as his own private fiefdom.
The original reporting on the arrest, torture, and murder of gay men in Chechnya was published in April, in Novaya Gazeta, an independent and muckraking Russian newspaper. Over the years, six of the paper’s journalists have been murdered, including, in 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, whose dispatches from Chechnya in the late nineties and early aughts made for uncomfortable but essential reading. Since Politkovskaya’s death, much of the paper’s coverage of Chechnya has been done by Elena Milashina, a thirty-nine-year-old reporter who has numerous confidential sources inside the republic, and who is no stranger to threats for her work. She is the recipient of numerous prizes, including, in 2013, an International Women of Courage Award, presented by the U.S. State Department. Milashina was the primary reporter at Novaya Gazeta who broke the story of Chechnya’s anti-gay campaign. Shortly after her articles on the subject appeared—sparking coverage in the West and an uproar among readers, activists, and politicians in the United States and Europe—Milashina, fearing for her safety, left Russia temporarily. The New Yorker spoke to her recently about her reporting, the situation for gay men in Chechnya, and the global outcry in response to her work.
Given the extraordinary difficulty in reporting on the ground in Chechnya, how do you generally go about collecting and publishing information on what is happening there?
People have become terribly afraid to talk, because as soon as you show up—even if they refuse to speak with you—they will have problems. These days, I travel to Chechnya with an absolutely clean phone. I have several contacts memorized in my head, including numbers for some very serious people in the Russian Presidential Administration, so, in case anyone suddenly detains me, I can remember a number or two and try and transmit a message to Moscow, and ultimately to my editors.
I usually invite the people I need to interview to come to someplace outside of Chechnya. They will not talk in Chechnya; they simply are too afraid. The local authorities can do anything with the people you contact. You cannot protect them. One way around this is that I have a huge network of informants, who can send me information by phone or text, and which I then check with other people from my source list. I’ve found these people trust me for one simple reason: I do not release or publish much of the information that I obtain. When I sense that a piece of information is dangerous for him or her personally, I tell them, “You will be figured out, you are the only source, you heard it in person.” And so I cannot use it. Over time, these people understand that I am concerned not only with information but with security of my sources, and this creates trust.
How did you first hear of the anti-gay campaign?
In mid-March, one of the few local local human-rights activists in Chechnya informed me that a certain person had been detained and killed because he was gay. As is my usual practice, I began to check this information. It turned out this man had been detained, effectively tortured to death, and, indeed, the motive was his sexual orientation. But he was not the only one, I found out. There were others. And they had all been tortured, so that they would give up the names and contacts of other gay men, who were then themselves detained, and the cycle spread from there. It became clear very quickly that this was a purposeful campaign against gays.
What were the attitudes toward homosexuality inside Chechnya before this campaign of repression?
Male homosexuality was always perceived very badly in Chechnya. Even gay men themselves considered themselves sick, damned, inferior. Very many of these men have families and children, and are trying to cope with the situation somehow. They understand that, deep down, their status is not acceptable in their society. If they were found out, families would choose to close their eyes to this fact—having a male relative who was known to be gay would be too great a shame for the family, or even the whole clan, which can run to hundreds of people. Chechen families are very sensitive to their image and how their extended clans are perceived.
Honor killings against women—that is, women who, in the opinion of their relatives, somehow disgraced the family or their clan—are, sadly, rather common. Before this current campaign, we did not have a record of such honor killings targeting men in Chechnya. If a man was found out to be gay, he was not killed, but very often Chechen security forces would use it as an excuse for blackmail. The taboo was a pretext for extortion. But there were never killings, let alone on a mass scale. This became possible only after the signal passed from above, from the Chechen authorities.
You have said that families killed their own relatives because they were suspected of being gay?
We know of six cases in which families were told by the authorities to kill male relatives who were said to be gay. Of those, at least three, maybe four, such killings actually took place. And this is a big problem, because in this way the authorities make people complicit in their crimes. From the very beginning, when we realized this was a campaign against gays, we knew it would be very difficult, that no relatives would want to confirm anything to us. For many Chechen families, the accusation of homosexuality is much more terrible than the charge of supporting terrorism. That accusation—sympathy for terrorists, involvement in extremism, having ties to Wahhabi cells or even ISIS—is a familiar one. It is, in a way, routine. It is considered a kind of norm. But the charge of homosexuality is very serious. No relatives will want to confirm this, because, first, it is a shame for the family and, second, in many cases the authorities force them to kill their relatives who are suspected of being gay. And family members who have committed an honor killing will not want to talk about it. They don’t want to testify against themselves or implicate their family further.
In Western coverage of the anti-gay campaign, there were some horrific descriptions and headlines of the violence carried out against Chechnya’s gay population—for example, describing “concentration camps” set up by local authorities. How accurate was this reporting?
The notion that there were special camps for homosexuals was a mistake. Chechnya has a network of secret prisons that are, in fact, not so secret. The whole world knows about them. They are in the same places they used to be when they were created by Russian federal soldiers during the two Chechen Wars, and were then transferred to Chechen law enforcement under Kadyrov’s authority. A lot of reports have been written about these prisons: the United Nations has documented their existence; so has the Council of Europe. The basic fact of these prisons is that people are held illegally there—that is, their detention is not formalized or made official. No court sanctions their arrest or hears their case. The prisons are more or less the same. They contain different categories of Chechens, people suspected of terrorist sympathies or Wahhabism, of using drugs or driving drunk, or, now, of being gay. But, from what we were able to learn, of all the categories of detainees, men suspected of being gay were in the worst situation. They were not fed or taken to the toilet, and they were bullied, made to mock other detainees, or to beat one another. And they regularly faced beatings—not just to get the contacts for other gay men out of them but because many members of the Chechen security forces really believed they could reëducate them. That beating them with batons would somehow change their sexual orientation, make them real men.
Not long after your reporting was published, a meeting was held at the central mosque in Grozny, during which an adviser to Kadyrov called Novaya Gazeta journalists “enemies of our faith and our motherland” and promised “vengeance.” A resolution was adopted at the gathering that included a “promise that retribution will catch up with the hatemongers wherever and whoever they are, without a statute of limitations.” How did you and your editors take this statement?
After this meeting of religious figures, one thing became obvious. This statement was, in some ways, a signal of the determination of the Chechen leadership, its fury that we at Novaya Gazeta are continuing to work in Chechnya, that I am continuing to write on what is happening there. They wanted to make us understand that they are really, truly and seriously, determined to solve this problem in one way or another. And they only know how to solve problems in one way: as with Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and Natalia Estemirova. [Nemtsov was a former deputy prime minister who became an outspoken opposition figure, and was gunned down, in Moscow, in 2015; Estemirova was a human-rights worker and journalist who lived in Grozny; she was abducted and killed in 2009.]
What about the reaction of the Kremlin? How did those around Putin respond to your reporting and the national, and even global, sensation it caused? What do you make of the Kremlin’s recent decision to send a fact-finding mission to Chechnya to investigate the claims?
In the beginning, the Kremlin simply did not believe that such a thing could happen. They asked for confirmation. We at Novaya Gazeta were asked to provide information through the Russian human-rights ombudsman. We were guaranteed that the confidentiality of victims would be preserved, that their names would not end up anywhere. Officials in the Kremlin wanted to understand how serious the situation is, and whether or not we, in fact, have data on the dead and the number of detainees. When they demanded this information from us, I began to understand that, in general, the Kremlin does not quite understand what is happening in Chechnya and, again, in principle, they do not believe the facts of the anti-gay campaign. The first statements of officials in Moscow showed this: they said it was nonsense, it cannot be, it’s unbelievable.
But then it’s clear they transformed. They went from saying such a thing is impossible to saying there are no victims, and when those victims met with official state representatives they said, “O.K., but we still don’t have formal criminal complaints.” And now Kremlin officials are saying that it is necessary to create a commission to guarantee state protection to victims in order to secure their testimony. Because without this such protection, the victims will not speak. Not even because they are afraid for themselves but because they are afraid for their relatives who stayed in Chechnya—even though these same relatives might kill them for being gay. And so the Kremlin authorized this pre-investigation review. Even though they really should have instituted criminal proceedings, straightway and unconditionally, this is the first time in ten years of Kadyrov’s reign that such an investigation will be carried out into mass detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions inside Chechnya. How will Kadyrov respond? He may not be able to restrain himself. This, of course, would present a very serious moment for the Kremlin to determine whether this person is under control or not under control, whether he is dangerous or not. What’s clear is that a key moment has arrived.
Author: The New Yorker