Chechnya is trying to exterminate gay people. Our silence only emboldens Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov.


Activists display placards in front of the Chancellery in Berlin on April 30, 2017, during a demonstration calling on the Russian president to put an end to the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. PHOTO/ John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Torture. Rape. Murder. I cannot get the gruesome images of these brutal crimes out of my head. “Welcome to Chechnya: Inside the Russian Republic’s Deadly War on Gays,” which premiered at the Sundance Festival in January and airs on HBO next week, is one of the most harrowing films I have ever seen.

“Imagine in the 21st century, in a supposedly secular country,” says David Isteev, at the start of this acclaimed documentary, “you have cases where people are killed simply because they are homosexual — where they are maimed, where the families of these people are urged to kill their children and siblings. It’s unreal.”

“Welcome to Chechnya” follows Isteev, emergency program coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, and his fellow activists as they risk their lives trying to protect gay Chechens from being targeted both by the authorities and their own families.

Chechnya is a small Muslim-majority republic in southwestern Russia. It is also a place where gay people live in terror. Since 2017, there have been a series of state-sponsored anti-gay purges across Chechnya, in which hundreds of gay men have been arrested and detained in secret prisons. The purges were first revealed by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April 2017 and later corroborated by Human Rights Watch, among others.

“We documented a large-scale, vicious, anti-gay purge” marked by  “torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings,” Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, told me in a phone interview from Moscow. In 2017, a detainee told Human Rights Watch, “They electrocuted us, beat us with pipes, kicked us, and punched us, they made other inmates beat us, they called us names, spat in our faces.”

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