The invasion of Ukraine is part of a larger problem: religious fanaticism in the Russian Federation. Don't forget the gay purges in Chechnya.
In 2019, a brutal ‘gay purge’ took place in the Russian republic of Chechnya. It was not the first. Since 2017, gay men have been hunted, abducted, and tortured by the Chechen authorities. Some have been murdered.
The story was briefly covered by Western media. Thinking that the return (yet again) of concentration camps to Europe might prompt serious action from the Western democracies, I added my voice to those calling for action.
But no action was forthcoming, the news faded, and another autocrat felt the warm embrace of impunity: Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic.
Kadyrov denied all accusations, suggesting that 1) Chechnya is too pure to even have homosexuals among its population, and 2) if such people did exist, they would have been murdered by their own families long before the authorities could get to them.
Such denials were self-evidently absurd, and the truth has been exposed, not least thanks to those courageous individuals who have spoken up. These include Maxim Lapunov, the first person to do so. He was tortured and raped over a 12-day period in Chechnya, and the story of how he made it to safety is just one of those told in the moving and angering 2020 documentary Welcome to Chechnya.
This film also shows the efforts of Russian and Chechen LGBT activists to rescue their brothers and sisters from the murderous Chechen authorities. One such effort concerns a young lesbian, “Anya” (not her real name), who contacts the activists for help: her uncle has learned that she is a lesbian, warning that if she doesn’t have sex with him, he will tell her father, a high-ranking Chechen official. We follow the activists as they mount a cloak-and-dagger operation to rescue Anya, but in the end, unable to take the claustrophobic stress of being in hiding, she disappears, her fate unknown.
While the targets of the purges have been primarily gay men, then, Anya’s story shows that homophobia in Chechen society is deep, broad, and longstanding—no surprise when the population is extremely religious. Kadyrov, whose smug responses to the accusations are truly sociopathic, is the son of an imam, and Chechnya is mostly Muslim.
All this is part of a larger theme: the ultra-conservative, quasi-theocratic nature of the Russian Federation.
Vladimir Putin’s crimes in Ukraine are partly motivated by religion. And his war, like the missiles with which he slaughtered Syrians, has been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin and his intellectual father Aleksandr Dugin see themselves as restorers of a pure Russianness, one based on a rejection of secular and liberal modernity and in search of an imperium over which to rule. For them, Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values and Moscow is the “Third Rome” (the second being Constantinople).
Perhaps this is why, in an interview with The Atlantic, President Zelensky recently seemed to doubt any link between religion and morality.
For in-depth analyses of Putin’s ideology, see Juliet Samuel’s ‘How Putin found God’ in The Telegraph and Oliver Waters on Dugin’s philosophy in Areo Magazine.
Russia’s treatment of gay people is much better known than the worse treatment they have suffered in Chechnya. Understanding the link between Kadyrov and Putin is key to understanding the unfettered freedom enjoyed by Kadyrov. He serves at the pleasure of Putin, and in return for his slavish devotion, Kadyrov is given free rein for his ultra-conservative, dogmatically religious dictatorship.
Ideologically, the two men are similar: it is just that one claims to be the avatar of true Christianity, the other of true Islam. And Chechen units have been fighting on Russia’s side in Ukraine (though anti-Kadyrov Chechens have bravely joined the fight against the invaders), while Kadyrov has even recently claimed to have been in Ukraine fighting for Russia. Though this turned out to be a laughably transparent lie, Putin promoted him to lieutenant general.
The irony of religious purists allying with equal and opposite fundamentalisms is nothing new: remember that all the world’s faiths lined up to condemn Salman Rushdie rather than Ayatollah Khomeini. Better a fanatic than an apostate, or so their view seemed to be. It is even more perverse in the Russian case, given that Putin’s ideological vision is one of traditional Russian Christianity reasserting itself in its old dominions—this is redolent, to me, of Franco’s fascist crusade to restore the ‘true’ Catholic Spain with Moorish soldiers.
That Russia’s Muslim population is large (and well represented in its army) and that one of Putin’s most loyal underlings leads a Muslim republic within the Federation would be amusing were this all too holy alliance not so dangerous. And the fact that Putin’s church-backed, corrupt, fundamentalist regime is a nuclear power is disturbing: the threat posed by nuclear-armed fanaticism cannot be overstated.
So, let us bear in mind that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are part of a much larger problem in the Russian Federation: the poison of fanaticism. Whether it comes in Orthodox or Muslim flavor, such fanaticism represents a complete rejection of modern liberal secularism and is thus a threat not only to those who are unfortunate enough to live under it but to the rest of the world, too. The invasion of Ukraine and the torture of gay people in Chechnya have this much in common. The enemy should be recognized for what it is, and categorically condemned and rejected in those terms.
It was cheering to read last year that a criminal complaint of crimes against humanity had been filed against several members of Kadyrov’s inner circle over the gay purges. But I fear that, with the invasion of Ukraine, the crimes of the junior dictator who serves at Putin’s pleasure might fade from memory once more. As Putin becomes ever more fanatical and dangerous, the situation for gay people in Russia, let alone in Chechnya, is likely to become much, much worse. So let us not forget the gay people who have been tortured and mutilated at the behest of Ramzan Kadyrov, for these too are crimes that must be laid at the feet of Vladimir Putin.