Interview with Misha Cherniak, a Russian musician and activist. Interviewer: Kaja Puto.
KAJA PUTO: Some time ago the media was stormed with alarming news about concentration camps where Chechen homosexuals were meant to be held and tortured. From the accounts of the persecuted we know what kind of tortures the victims were subject to, but we know little about the political context. What really happened in Chechnya and why now?
MISHA CHERNIAK: It is difficult to establish the facts. Speaking about the problems of homosexuals in Chechnya we have to remember that this is an extremely touchy subject in the North Caucasus, one that everyone – including officials and local inhabitants – prefer to ignore, as its existence challenges the foundations of the masculinist Chechen culture. Moreover, the victims reluctantly speak with journalists; they are afraid that someone could turn them in to the authorities. We know that persecution of gay people in Chechnya is not a new problem, there were arrests of homosexuals in the past, but this year it happened on a mass scale. Indirectly, the arrests were probably a reaction of Chechen officials to the activities of Nikolay Alexeev, a famous Russian LGBT activist. Alexeev was gathering decisions refusing him permission to organise pride parades in every Russian region, including Chechnya, in order to send them to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This heated the atmosphere. The direct impulse, however, was police’s detention of a man who was under the influence of drugs. Chechen police has this practice that they search the phones of all arrested people, even those who committed minor road traffic offenses, looking for leverages. The detained man had a number of homoerotic pictures on his phone. His all contacts, people who called him, automatically became suspected of homosexuality. And that is how, step by step, several hundred people were arrested, including public figures: a Chechen TV presenter and a famous hair stylist. No system has persecuted homosexuals on such a scale since the Third Reich. We do not know the exact numbers, but at least several hundred people were detained. In prison those people were tortured with electric shocks, starved, tied up, forced to turn their friends in. We know that there were lists of people to be exterminated.
Have any fatal cases been confirmed?
We can talk about over 20 killings, but are not hundred per cent certain. We keep receiving information about honour killings committed by family members. Several people were bought out of prison for huge bribes and killed for dishonouring the family. Snob.ru website published an interview with a Chechen gay man who managed to escape to France. His mother told him something like “I love you very much, but if your brothers kill you, I will not blame them”. Eventually, his brother was not able to kill him and helped him escape. There are a lot of tragedies.
How can one maintain a homosexual relationship in such circumstances?
Most of those people have families, children, they live in a closet. They lead double lives and sometimes even reject their orientation, interiorising homophobic views. Russian homosexuals communicate mostly through two popular dating apps: Grindr and Hornet. When the smear campaign began, the apps informed people in the North Caucasus that they should be particularly cautious. On the other hand, however, the form of the applications encourages provocations by secret services. In the countries of the former USSR we call it “renovation” (remont). Agents turn up at an arranged meeting (in this case a date) to “renovate” you. This method was also used by Russian nationalists to catch, record and blackmail gay people across Russia. Luckily, in this case the Russian state got the job done and the organisers of these actions are now in prison. The owners of the applications do realise the dangers and have introduced certain security measures, for example Grindr does not show the exact distance to the candidate for a date in Russia, like it does in Western European countries.
Are other members of the LGBTQI community persecuted too?
For sure, everything that questions heteronormativity is unacceptable. However, homophobia against gay men manifests itself differently than against lesbians, not only in Chechnya but around the world. As far as we are aware, homosexual women have not been arrested in the recent roundup. But when the Russian LGBT Network opened a secure hotline for Chechens, they began to receive calls from terrified women. An escape of a single woman from rural regions is almost impossible. In the past there were examples of escapes of transsexual people though.
I still do not understand Kadyrov’s political intentions. He has a very strong position in Chechnya, Putin’s backing, he is a social media star…
I think that the behaviour of Chechen authorities – for example the famous words of the parliament’s spokesperson, who said that “there is no problem, as there are no gays in Chechnya” – was more a reaction to the present scandal than a deliberate political game. In effect, however, the whole situation is Kadyrov’s leverage on Putin, as the topic appeared during the president’s meetings with Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, the Council of Europe, the United Nations and several European ministers of foreign affairs. It does not work in Putin’s favour, because he does not like to be seen as a big defender of gay rights and it damages the long-established order in relations with the Caucasus. Putin hates being forced to do anything, put in a corner, he is more of a political gopnik. But he has reacted somehow, as according to our knowledge the arrests have stopped – although we cannot be certain – and the Investigative Committee of Russia has launched an investigation into the matter. It has to be stressed that a number of brave Chechen policemen unofficially cooperate with them, risking their lives, giving journalists, and thus the investigators, the names of detainees and those responsible for what happened.
If that is the case, could Russia give shelter to Chechen homosexuals in other regions of the country?
I think that an evacuation of these people from the country is necessary, ideally overseas, as there is a large Chechen diaspora in Europe, where Kadyrov’s agents might operate. The same goes for Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Kadyrov has a sort of army, an armed network of agents. And this is not only a problem of the persecuted gay people, but all Chechen political refugees who are deadly afraid that they will be caught by the regime even outside of the Chechen Republic. This time Putin has reacted thanks to the international pressure, but his attitude towards LGBTQI people is well-known. Pro-government media does not report on this topic and everyone wants to sweep it under the rug.
Russia does curtail the rights of LGBTQI activists and makes their lives difficult, but it does not exterminate its citizens for being gay…
Yes, they do not bother them too much as long as they do not “show off”. Putin claims that he has LGBTQI people among his closest associates, but neither him, nor them, would fight for gay rights and they surely will not do it Chechnya’s case. Putin would probably like this all to look like his little special operation, in which he plays the role of a knight on a white horse. He would show to the West that the situation is not that bad in the end and that he controls over it, while in Chechnya he would sweep the problem under the rug. The fate of individual people does not interest him in the slightest.
In spite of the various forms of political persecution that Chechen citizens and their families face under Kadyrov’s regime, Europe is reluctant to grant them international protection. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the main migration route from Chechnya leads through Poland, which, under the right-wing populist government, does not allow most Chechens even to submit asylum applications and sends them back to Belarus. Can the media hype around the persecution of homosexuals change Europe’s approach to granting asylum to Chechens?
The problem with refugees from Chechnya is that it is very difficult to verify their stories, as we do not know what is happening in Chechnya, the presence of Western intelligence services is weak there and European countries are afraid of Kadyrov’s agents. Chechen LGBTQI individuals are unlikely to try to get to Europe through Brest in Belarus, as it is too risky given the fact that the Polish Border Guard does not accept the majority of asylum applications. Adam Bodnar (Polish Ombudsman – interviewer’s note) brought up this issue directly with the Border Guard, but you know from your work on the subject what kind of absurd answers they give…
Yes, that Chechens can ask for asylum in Belarus.
Therefore, I do not think that this situation will open the international community to all refugees from Chechnya, but if they had any credible source of information about Chechen asylum seekers, this media hype would surely help in a fairer evaluation of their claims.
What do the evacuations of gay people organised by the Russian LGBT Network look like?
Chechen homosexuals are transported to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they are placed in protected flats. The whole evacuation brings to mind stories from spy novels: people are driven off with one car, then they change to another one. Russian, including Chechen, activists take part in the whole process, risking their lives. Then the Russian LGBT Network consults a number of embassies from various Western countries and waits for visas with which these people are able to leave Russia. This takes up to several weeks. So far, only a few people managed to flee Russia this way, a dozen or so managed to escape on their own, and a few dozen are waiting in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There, they are supported by psychologists who are horrified with the mental state of their clients, trapped between oppression by society and the authorities and the lack of self-acceptance. I do not envy those guys, I was in a similar point in my life when it comes to self-acceptance and I know how damaging it is.
You are an activist yourself, you work in Poland in an organisation for Christian LGBTQI people called “Faith and Rainbow,” you conduct an LGBTQI choir. But you were born in Russia and you are Russian. Today we are meeting at the Warsaw Pride, several dozen thousands of people ready to confront homophobia create an amazing atmosphere. Nevertheless, Poland is not and has never been a paradise for LGBTQI people, and the current political climate portends changes for the worse. Why did you decide to move to Poland?
It is a long story. Just like the majority of LGBTQI Chechens, I fought my homosexuality for many years, I had a wife, I have a daughter. I grew up in a religious environment and until today I am deeply religious. The circles I was part of were not ready to accept me. After getting divorced, which took place at the initiative of my wife, I analysed my life and came to a conclusion that I have to try to reconcile with my homosexuality, as all the other strategies were destroying me. I knew that if I did it, I would have to leave, as my environment would not accept it. I moved to Poland in 2011, since I had already known the country, the language and mentality, I used to come here earlier for meetings of religious organisations. I also met a man here. I came to Warsaw through Brest, with the same route as the asylum seekers from the former USSR who are looking for shelter in Poland. The times were a bit different back then, a pro-European centrist Civic Platform was in power. It was not perfect, but much easier for people like me: not only am I gay, an immigrant and liberal activist, but also an Orthodox Russian. Now, when the right-wing populist Law and Justice party is in power, I feel that I live in a country which, despite the official anti-Russian rhetoric, copies Russian cultural models, creating the “enemies of the nation”. As if I had never left Russia, or maybe Russia has caught me here, as this is the rhetoric I was running away from. But I have a feeling that the mentality of Poles, despite the political situation, is constantly opening, times are changing. Modern (a centrist oppositional party – interviewer’s note) has nominated an openly gay man as a candidate for Warsaw mayoral office.
You are also active in the association “For Free Russia”, which took part in today’s Pride. This year, oppression of Chechen homosexuals was the main topic on your banners, although the rights of LGBTQI people is not the main area of your work…
“For Free Russia” brings together oppositionist migrants based in Poland. Pro-Western, liberal people, who would like to create a sort of embassy of the other, anti-Putin, Russia in Poland. The association’s members represent a wide range of economic and social views, but we are united in the fight for human rights in Russia, and thus also the rights of LGBTQI people and ethnic minorities, such as Chechens. Our ultimate goal is democratisation of the Russian state, but to achieve this a number of changes are necessary, including the change of Russians’ reputation in Europe, a symbolic separation of Russia and Putin. We organise educational activities, a club for Russian speaking children, different kinds of lectures and projects for journalists and activists. Currently, we are strongly involved in whistleblowing related to the persecution of Chechen homosexuals, we are in contact with Polish human rights organisations, we invite Russian activists to Poland. We are inspired by the history of Polish activism in exile; just like Poles during the Polish People’s Republic we do not want to run away and wait until something changes, but we are trying to act.
How can the readers of NEE support your work with the Chechens persecuted due to their sexual orientation?
Above all, we cannot let this topic disappear. Of course, it is not the only, or even the most important, topic nowadays. But we cannot close our eyes to this little genocide which is taking place not even at our doorstep, but inside of our European home – for the North Caucasus is Europe. Despite the fact that no new information on the persecution is flowing in, those people are still in grave danger, Kadyrov’s agents are hunting them, sometimes successfully, across the Russian territory. That is why until they are transported to a safe place and begin to testify against their oppressors – whether in an international tribunal or remotely, before a Russian court – we cannot deem this crisis finished. We also have to realise that to an extent, we, liberal anti-Putin Europeans, have helped this monster grow in the Caucasus thanks to our indiscriminate support for all forces that fight against the Russian regime. I do not want to blame anyone for this support. But we have to do what we can to help people fleeing this monster, which is after anyone who violates its rules – even by being themselves.
Misha Cherniak is a musician, translator and social activist. He graduated in choral conducting from the Higher Music School, in artificial intelligence from the Russian State University for the Humanities, and holds an MA from the Music Academy in Poznan. He is involved in the Christian LGBTQI group “Faith and Rainbow” and works in the European Forum of Christian LGBT Groups. In 2014 he founded the first Polish choir for LGBTQI and LGBTQI-friendly people “Voces Gaudii”. Since 2015, he has been involved in the work of “For Free Russia,” an association bringing together supporters of democratisation in Russia. He is the editor of “For I Am Wonderfully Made” – the first anthology about the inclusion of LGBTQI people in the Orthodox Church.
Kaja Puto is a journalist, translator and editor focusing on topics related to migration as well as politics and society of Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Caucasus. She is also deputy director of Ha!art publishing house.