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'There Is No Place For Us Here': LGBT Voices From Russia's North Caucasus Region

Three members of the North Caucasus's LGBT community spoke with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity about the grave dangers they face because of their sexual orientation. (file photo)
Three members of the North Caucasus's LGBT community spoke with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity about the grave dangers they face because of their sexual orientation. (file photo)

As the global LGBT community marks Pride Month, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face growing, state-sanctioned homophobia and violence in Russia, activists say.

In its World Report 2023, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that Russia has adopted “new, homophobic legislation and ramped up homophobic…rhetoric.”

“The [Russian] government continued its trajectory of…LGBT discrimination,” the report said.

LGBT persecution has been particularly severe in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, where the Kremlin-backed strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov has styled himself as the defender of so-called traditional Muslim values. His personally controlled security forces, called Kadyrovites, have been accused of abducting, torturing, and killing Kadyrov’s political opponents and members of the LGBT community.

HRW singled out the region for particular criticism, saying that Kadyrov “continued to ruthlessly quash all forms of dissent.”

RFE/RL’s Caucasus.Realities spoke with two members of the LGBT community from the North Caucasus region and one from the bordering southern Russian region of Stavropol. The two interviewees from Chechnya have left Russia and are living in Europe, although they requested that their location not be revealed. All of them requested that their surnames also be concealed.

'Police…Stuck Him In The Trunk Of Their Car'

Akhmed, 25, Chechnya, left Russia in 2019

When I was a kid, the thought of being attracted to men did not seem abnormal to me. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I understood I was not “the same.”

My father has always criticized everything that he considered nontraditional. I remember once seeing the [pop music] group Ivanushki on television and my father commented that one of the singers was too flamboyant. I mentally compared myself to that singer and he didn’t seem so flamboyant to me.

Later my parents found a photograph on my phone of a young man with no shirt on. Papa started questioning me, but mama stepped in and told him that I just wanted such a physique myself. That’s when I first understood that I needed to conceal my thoughts.

Things are only getting worse. First there is the war [against Ukraine]. Plus no one pays any attention to crimes against LGBT people.

Mama signed me up for an Islamic school and I began to study the Koran. I understood that my desires were bad and against my religion. I convinced myself that I should be with a woman and have a family. I observed the fasts, went to prayers, and asked God to make it so that I would not be attracted to men. For seven years I struggled and refused to accept myself.

And I couldn’t talk to anyone about any of it.

I had no friends in the village where I lived. I only made friends when I went away to university. At 22, I wanted to have a relationship. I started seeing a boy in another region, telling a friend I was going to see a girl. After a while, I confessed to my friend. At first, he didn’t believe me, but he accepted it and we continued to be friends. Later my friend became very religious and stopped answering my messages.

Mama always knew that I was gay. But we only spoke about it for the first time recently. She called me and asked me directly for the first time if I could be with a woman. I gathered up my courage and answered her honestly. She said they would cure me, help me. I tried to explain to her that this wasn’t a sickness, but I couldn’t convince her.

Life has become increasingly harder for the LGBT community in Chechnya under strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. (file photo)
Life has become increasingly harder for the LGBT community in Chechnya under strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. (file photo)

I was shaken for a long time. I went and spoke with a psychologist after that conversation. I decided I needed to be completely open with mama.

I wrote to her and asked her to accept me like I am. I told her I can’t be anything else even if I tried and that I didn’t know how we could get along if she couldn’t accept me. She wrote back a day later and apologized to me. She said that she loved me and many other wonderful things. My heart leapt with joy, and I wept. She understood me.

We haven’t talked about marriage since then. I cannot imagine anything better for a [gay] Chechen than having your mother stop talking about marrying you off or curing you and, instead, just treating you normally.

I realized that a witch hunt against gays was going on in Chechnya back in 2017 from the woman I worked for. She told me that the police had detained a young man out of our building and stuck him in the trunk of their car just because he had a “strange haircut” like mine.

Even before then I’d always been careful. I had been harassed every now and again, but it never occurred to me before that I might be killed. I made the final decision to leave when I saw an interview with Maksim Lapunov. (In 2017, Lapunov, from the Omsk region, reported that he had been tortured in Chechnya because of his sexual orientation.)

Maksim Lapunov, (file photo)
Maksim Lapunov, (file photo)

As long as I was in Chechnya, I was constantly afraid that they would stop me and find something on my phone. It wasn’t just that they would beat you up -- there you have to worry about being abducted, tortured, and killed. In 2019, I left Russia.

Leaving was really scary. But I understood there was no life for me in Chechnya, and there never would be. So I made up my mind, tried, and it worked out. I would urge others not to be afraid and to come out of the closet, where we are so unhappy. Life in Chechnya or even in Russia will never work out normally. Things are only getting worse. First there is the war [against Ukraine]. Plus no one pays any attention to crimes against LGBT people.

You need to leave and follow your own path. That can be scary, but you can find connections, find opportunities abroad, and leave.

'This society...wants to chew up people like us'

Artyom, 24, Pyatigorsk, Stavropol region:

I was born in a village outside of Pyatigorsk into an Armenian family. We have a large diaspora and there are neighborhoods where everyone speaks Armenian.

My family doesn’t know about my orientation. They are very traditional. But my parents are upset that I am not dating anyone. Three times already they tried to force me, but I was able to put them off.

I know what would happen if my orientation became known. My father would beat the hell out of me. My parents wouldn’t let me leave the house.

I can’t make up my mind to tell them. I’m afraid of what they might do. There are rich and influential people in my family. I don’t think they would kill me, but they wouldn’t let me leave. In Daghestan, for instance, if they find out that you are LGBT, they might report to the police that you stole something or whatever so that you would be detained and not allowed to leave the country. We are learning such things here too.

Pyatigorsk is considered a relatively progressive city. I know a lot of people in the LGBT community who came here from Chechnya or Ingushetia. Of course, they have to live quietly and are constantly afraid they will be found out. It is only a three-hour drive to Chechnya and I have often seen how they come and search for Chechens and spy on them.

Personally, I don’t face such serious threats. No one is going to kill me or throw me in a mental hospital. But the pressure would get much worse if people found out about my orientation. My family wouldn’t let me come into the city or any of the Armenian neighborhoods. I might have problems finding work in Pyatigorsk – that’s why I left to study in another city. In order to get away from the diaspora. I don’t ‘friend’ any of my relatives on social media. I don’t use my real photograph on Telegram.

I know what would happen if my orientation became known. My father would beat the hell out of me. My parents wouldn’t let me leave the house. They would take away my phone, my books.

They want to force me to get married, which happens a lot in our community. My father is always sending me the profiles of various girls on Instagram and saying that he’ll find me a good bride -- a pretty virgin.

I’m 24 now and there is still time. But when I hit 30, the pressure to get married will become more serious.

Recently I found my younger brother on a gay dating site. Turns out he is either bisexual or gay. If my relatives find out that two brothers in one family are gay, they will take it very badly. I tried to talk to my brother about it, but he denies it because he knows it isn’t acceptable in our circles.

It isn’t possible these days in Russia for anyone to fight for their rights. So I advise LGBT people to be as discreet as possible. Even the smallest suspicions can lead to serious problems with your health or reputation – even your life. I hate to say this, but I don’t see any opportunity to fight for our rights in Russia. This society isn’t going to change. It wants to chew up people like us.

There is no place for us here. We need to find a community with different norms and more tolerance.

'Everyone Knows The Pipe'

Ibragim, 29, Chechnya, left Russia in 2019

I never experienced any internal contradictions or lack of acceptance. I am not a rough, typical man of the Caucasus who is always playing soccer or boxing. I never felt like there was something wrong with me.

When I was 13, a boy from my neighborhood began paying attention to me, and I developed feelings for him. There was no sex -- just love and kisses -- but it didn’t last long. Soon a girl appeared in his life and I was pushed into the background. Later I was with another guy who told me honestly: “You know why I am with you? Because I don’t have a wife. Until I get married, I’ll do it with you.”

In one police station there is a guy who is infamous for raping people. He doesn’t consider himself gay. He just says, “I’m a dominator, a bull.”

[In the North Caucasus], sex with women isn’t really available, so they find a guy to satisfy them. In the Caucasus, “brotherly love” is quite common. Often, it is a neighbor or some friend…. I once had a married partner. First, he would chase me away and threaten to kill me if I didn’t leave. Then a few months later he’d want to meet me again. And then he’d go back home to his wife. It worked fine. The wife didn’t know.

Around that time, I was subjected to violence. At the age of 23, I realized how horrible it was, but I still can’t talk normally about it.

The most dangerous places for sex are rented apartments or hotels. It is more dangerous in the entranceways than it is inside. Rented apartments in Chechnya have cameras installed by the police. But if you go to a friend’s place, you can have a night of “brotherly love.”

I have always been amazed that there are famous gays and nothing happens to them, but ordinary guys go to one wrong meeting and that’s it. You are done. About 97 percent of gay dating announcements are traps. Either they work for the police or they will abuse you themselves. A lot of gays extort other gays.

I was detained, just like a lot of other guys. A guy I know betrayed me. They have the common tactic of catching a chain of people by finding their information on someone who is detained but didn’t manage to clean their phone. The police also demanded that I name names of others “like me” and threatened me with violence.

Sometimes they beat detainees or spit in their mouths. They’ll beat them with a pipe – that’s their favorite. “Everyone knows the pipe” -- that’s a joke to them. They’ll rape you with that plastic pipe; sometimes they’ll wrap it with a wire connected to the current.

I know three guys who experienced that and couldn’t use the toilet for three days because of the pain. They were all bruised from the beatings and couldn’t sit because of the pain. That’s what the Kadyrovites do for fun.

In one police station there is a guy who is infamous for raping people. He doesn’t consider himself gay. He just says, “I’m a dominator, a bull.”

Some [LGBT] women have been there too. They are accused of witchcraft or illegally selling alcohol. They just say, “You are a fallen woman,” even though they don’t come up with any evidence. You can be accused just like that. The women had their arms bound, and they were beaten….

The police demand money to release these detainees. Two or 3 million rubles ($25,000 to $37,000), depending on how rich the family is. You can negotiate with them. Maybe get a discount. They demanded 1 million ($12,400) from my family. But on television they just tell you what a great region it is and how high the salaries are.

Four years ago, I began thinking it was time to leave. We have always had mass detentions and killings, but everything got worse in 2017. Even if your immediate family accepts you, your other relatives -- even if you have never seen them in your life -- will say that “we need to purify the blood” and “wash away the shame.” These relatives will demand your death without even talking to your parents.

I’m really happy that I left the region and have no regrets. My mother had a very hard time letting me go, but at least she knows that her son is alive. She doesn’t need to wonder every time I go out whether I will come back alive. Although I’m relatively safe now, I will always be careful and avoid telling people I’m Chechen. And with leadership like that, I don’t want to call myself a Chechen.

Translated from Russian by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by Yekaterina Neroznikova.

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