The deafening silence on Chechnya shows we have learned nothing
A week ago, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that over one hundred gay and bisexual men went missing and we finally know where — they were kidnapped and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
For those who have been following the human rights abuses against LGBTQ+ people in Russia, the news was not surprising. In fact, the big question was whether the authorities had killed the men outright, such are the dark times we are now living in and yet none of this was ever unpredictable.
In 2013, Putin signed a law banning any show or expression of support for LGBTQ+ people and their rights. The fear was that this was simply the first step in an anti LGBTQ+ war, and it was proved right. Since then, there has been an alarming escalation of violence. Activists are regularly harassed, organisations searched and vigilante groups have tried to trap LGBTQ+ people to film their torture and sometimes murder. In 2014, Yekaterina Khomenko, a lesbian dance teacher, was found in her car with her throat slit.
Activists around the globe warned that Russia was following the same trajectory of the Nazis but this was either brushed off as hyperbole or ignored all together. The international community felt powerless; they didn’t want to risk angering a nuclear state and if the ban just prohibited posters and Prides, then that was deemed an acceptable price to pay.
Yet, Putin has never been in a strong position when he’s been fighting on and off to keep the Russian economy from stagnating. Might, and tapping into to conservative fear, are the only major cards he has to play. The West has largely fallen for it.
While the US and the UK waffled around the ‘propaganda law’, Putin was able to use it to his advantage and say how it demonstrated the West wanted to interfere with Russia. He tied being anti LGBTQ+ with being patriotic, a trick from the McCarthy play-book. The West were attacking Russia’s sovereignty, its value and its religion. Every comment helped serve Putin, and was little more than virtue signalling from the West who did not know what to do. Putin saw the power in ‘othering’. He made LGBTQ+ people and their liberalism the enemy of the state while painting himself as a victim of the West for standing up for Russian people.
Toxic masculinity being branded as a form of patriotism has helped to secure Putin and fueled the rise of Trump. It was this attitude that saw the Duma pass a law that decriminalises domestic and intimate partner violence. There were those willing to challenge this mindset, however.
Putin made every effort to get rid of Clinton as a threat because she recognised the precarious position Russia was in and she was ready to stand up to the school yard bully. The West was largely ambivalent about this, too scared of extremist apocalyptic versions of war so we waved ‘peace in our time’, forgetting that it would give Putin the time he needed to strengthen Russia, and that ‘peace in our time’ inevitably means ‘please, don’t hurt us and we won’t stop you persecuting your own people’.
Attempts to avoid military options are admirable. A war in Syria for instance, (particularly to hurt Russia) would likely lead to a disaster for the Syrian people caught in the middle. We should have at least realised that from the 2000s. Efforts to come up with a long term peace plan though have also been feeble. The G7 have just rejected trade sanctions against Russia. Every route is leading to a brick wall, and behind it are Syrians or LGBTQ+ Russians in the line of Putin’s fire. We’ve established international criminal law, but the plan to enforce it is to let dictators hand themselves in. We have no idea how to resolve this. People are begging for their lives and there are two blocks of voters: those who don’t care because we need to “look after our own” and those who do care but don’t have any answers.
We’re also not a trusted moral authority, and Russia knows that and will exploit it. There have been rightly calls that Trump is a hypocrite for dropping bombs on Syria while trying to block refugees. The UK has a horrific record of deporting LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. Will this change our policy? Russia knows probably not, and it’s willing to bank on our self interest so it can continue with its agenda.
What has also been staggering is the lack of concern in the media about the fact a concentration camp for gay and bisexual men (the latter of whom have been forgotten) has been established. Last night, on its news channel, the BBC dedicated time to showing a man being dragged off a plane but not once did it mention the situation in Chechnya. It was a horrific incident but in terms of scale, it shouldn’t really compare. Nor did the camp feature on a front page today. For years we said “never forget” but that’s exactly what we’ve done, as soon as the stakes have been raised. We’ve shown it’s quite easy to forget, just so long as it’s in our national interest.
In 1938, we knew of Kristallnacht and we did nothing. We meandered until Hitler was too big a problem for us to ignore. We waited until he was approaching our own back yard to think we should finally do something. With the action Russia has taken in the last few years, there’s nothing to stop one camp becoming two. Chechnya’s defence when asked about the missing gay and bisexual men was that such men did not exist. They denied the very existence of queer men, because that’s the reality that Chechnya longs for. The camps are also unlikely to just target gay and bisexual men. One of the first people confirmed missing was a fifteen year old boy. Russia is targeting children because they’re easiest to scare into a confession. Putin will likely not stop there, but exactly at which point when will we start to care? Where have we drawn our own red lines? Right now, it seems as if Russia stays outside our borders then we’re willing to look the other way.