The anti-gay purge in Chechnya began in 2017.
During a drug raid, police found suggestive texts and photos on a man’s cell phone that led them to believe he identified as gay. He was tortured by the police, beaten, slashed, and demeaned until he would turn in more men like him. They, too, were rounded up and tortured, then returned to their families who were advised to kill them.
People suspected of being gay or trans have been kidnapped and taken to secret holding cells—compared by survivors to concentration camps—where they are tortured, starved, and raped. Beatings with fists. Beatings with batons. Stabbed. Electrocuted. Suffocated. Waterboarded. One eyewitness reported that a guard put a rat on someone’s back, covered it with a pot, and then heated it until the rat tried to escape by crawling through the man’s skin. He died.
Some of these people were forcibly disappeared. Some were killed. Some were eventually killed by their families out of shame. When the media began reporting on the story, that by spring of 2017 over 100 men had been rounded up and at least three murdered, Kadyrov answered for it by claiming that gay men did not exist in Chechnya. Three years have passed since.
It is a crisis of humanity. Yet only a brave few are doing anything about it.
Welcome to Chechnya, a documentary that debuted this week at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of a premiere on HBO this summer, has left audiences in Park City in shock, heartbreak, and outrage. Directed by David France, who previously helmed How to Survive a Plague and The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, the film spotlights the crisis by following those brave few and the persecuted Russians whose lives they are saving by risking their own.
The film reveals an underground pipeline of activists working tirelessly to secretly remove at-risk LGBT+ Chechens and those who have survived being detained from the republic, transport them to safe houses, provide them with financial and psychological support, and help sneak them out of the country and find asylum.
“If they don’t kill you, you’re a winner,” says David Isteev, one of the activists who heads up the operation.
France was inspired to go to Russia after reading Masha Gessen’s New Yorker article, “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge,” which reported the accounts of Chechen survivors.
On his first fact-finding trip, he gained the trust of Isteev, who is the crisis intervention coordinator for the country’s largest gay-rights group, The Russian LGBT Network. Isteev and Olga Baranova, who is the director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives, are responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of persecuted gay Russians.
The film follows them as they work to shepherd several victims to safety.
(The documentary uses aliases and cutting-edge technology to digitally disguise the identities of people who are not only fleeing for their lives, but actively being hunted by the Chechen government.)
There’s “Grisha,” a 30-year-old man who has been in a relationship with his partner for 10 years. After surviving 12 days in one of the torture camps, he turns to Isteev and Baranova for refuge not just for himself and his partner, but his entire family, who is also being threatened after it comes to light that they did not kill Grisha when he returned.
The other major subject is “Anya.” A phone call to Isteev from Anya begins the documentary. Her uncle had discovered that she is gay and told her that, unless she has sex with him, he will tell her father, who is a high-ranking official in the Chechen government. The only recourse for her safety is to escape Chechnya.
After an intense, rapid smuggling out of the country, she is placed in a safe house that she cannot leave, not even for groceries, because the stakes are too high given who her father is. After six months of being trapped in the walls of an apartment, she still had not received a visa that allowed her to travel to safety. One night, she broke out. Her whereabouts are unknown.
The transport missions, each harrowing in their own right, are intercut with footage recorded on cell phones and security cameras that had been attained by LGBT+ activists.
In one, gays who were caught kissing in a car are gruesomely attacked.
In another, a gay woman is dragged into the middle of the street by her relatives. One leaves to retrieve a boulder from the side of the road. He bashes her head in with it.
Another video shows a man anally raped by police as punishment.
The videos are horrific, the kind of atrocities no human should be meant to see. And it’s exactly why everyone must see it.
It is one thing to hear survivors use words to describe abuse; we can project whatever we need to onto words in order to protect ourselves from a graphic reality. It is wholly another to bear witness to what is happening to these people, the harm being inflicted on people for no other reason than their sexual orientation—who they are attracted to, who they love.
It’s a horrific and shameful reality about where we are as a human race that even now in the year 2020, a person who thinks about their sexuality intrinsically and viscerally associates it with death.
There is no accounting for the experience of a person in Chechnya who is captured, beaten, electroshocked, raped, and threatened with death because of their sexuality, or of the men thrown off buildings by ISIS because they are suspected of being gay, or of the LGBT teens driven to suicide. But the knowledge of this and a spiritual connection to it lives inside every gay person, no matter how local the atrocities may be or far away the tragedy seems.
It doesn’t reside in the darkest recesses of a person’s consciousness. It is the gatekeeper that every thought and emotion must check in with, that every brave decision about love and sex must seek approval from before moving forward. It is omnipresent, constant, always.
Love is supposed to be a life-affirming experience. Imagine associating it with death. Imagine needing to hide it, for the sake of your life. Happy endings, safety, marriage rights, civil rights, and even life: These are things that should be given. Instead, in every case, they are triumphs against the odds.
In the first two years of Russia’s anti-gay purge, the activists in Welcome to Chechnya helped 151 people resettle. Canada has taken 44 people seeking asylum alone.
The Trump administration hasn’t taken a single one.