By Isabel Oakes
The horrific purges of gay men in Chechnya made headlines earlier this year and shocked human rights activist across the world. Over 100 male Chechens were abducted and tortured and at least three have reportedly been killed by the authorities due to their perceived sexual orientation. Something that to us in the West may seem unimaginable, Australia having just joined the ever-growing list of countries legalising same-sex marriage, comes as no surprise to the oppressive and violent Chechen government where state sponsored abductions and murders are nothing unusual. Political rivals, as well as outspoken civilian opponents to the regime, have been beaten and forced to issue public apologies, or in extreme cases have been killed. Violence appears to be an intrinsic part of order in Chechen society which may stem from their violent struggle for independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Chechnya bitterly fought for its autonomy from Russia in two violent secessionist movements that ultimately ended in Russian victory and since 2009 Chechnya has been a federal subject of Russia. Though Chechnya operates as a ‘quasi-autonomous’ state and enjoys more independence than most other federal subjects, it is evident that Russia still holds a firm grip over the region. The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, is a close friend of Putin’s and reports have alleged that in return for Kadyrov’s loyalty Putin has turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses undertaken by Kadyrov’s regime. Violence therefore becomes an essential tool for order as well as a fundamental part of Chechen identity and nationalism.
Chechen nationalism was borne out of the brutal secessionist movements following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was a call for national self-determination and theocratic rule (Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim country.) Since historically Chechnya has not been an incredibly united nation, there was a need to rally behind certain ideas and ideologies which is why increasing importance was, and still is, placed on Islam and gender roles. Traditional gender roles are embodied by the strong hetero-sexual male and the fragile female. As homosexuality is perceived to be innately un-male and feminine it does not fit into the establishing Chechen identity and therefore does not fit into the nationalistic discourse either. Moreover, Kadyrov’s focus on eliminating gay people has turned attention away from the secessionist undertones that still pose a threat to the ostensible order in Chechnya.
Violence is also a gendered issue in Chechnya since it is seemingly synonymous with masculinity. The belief prevails that men go to war to protect the women and the nation, thus denoting that violence is a solely male trait. Kadyrov has actively sought to portray himself and his regime as hyper-masculine through the use of violence and the enforcement of gender roles as this reflects a physically and morally strong nation. It is evident that homosexuality has no place in this traditional discourse of masculinity and therefore poses a threat to Kadyrov and his regime whose legitimacy is grounded in hyper-masculinity. Kadyrov has not only attempted to hunt down gay people in Chechnya but has completely eradicated their right to a gay identity stating that ‘Chechen society does not have this phenomenon called non-traditional sexual orientation.’ As homosexuality is perceived to be weak, eradicating this ‘weakness’ within society results in a seemingly ‘strong’ and unified Chechen identity.
Kadyrov has placed emphasis on collective and family responsibility to ‘deal’ with the perceived threat of homosexuality. He even stated that ‘if there were such [LGBTQ] people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement… wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them’, implying that families would take care of ‘such people’ through so called ‘honour killings’. It is rare that officials have actually killed gay men themselves: they are usually identified, tortured and brought back to their families. Following this, there is a shared responsibility to execute or disown this family member. The vast majority of gay people in Chechnya have not, or cannot, reveal their sexual orientation to their family as they would face alienation at best and death at worst. Supporting or carrying out the murder of a family member shows allegiance to the state, which takes priority over family loyalties. This phenomenon reinforces Kadyrov’s vision of the state as an all-encompassing entity with him at the top.
Moreover, homosexuality is associated with Western corruption and immorality and since the West is often portrayed as the enemy, anything synonymous with it is labelled as an opponent to the state. Discourses of ‘otherness’ are essential for creating nationalist identities as the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ allows for hierarchical social structures. Creating a concrete idea of what the ‘other’ is facilitates coming together and rallying against it; it constructs a common enemy. Portraying homosexual men, and to a lesser extent homosexual women as ‘the enemy from within’, the corrupting western force threatening to destroy Chechen society reinforces this. Ostensibly, purging the nation of gay people purifies it and clears it of western immorality and weakness. Anti-western sentiments fuel nationalism in Chechnya, which is why Kadyrov is so adamant on heightening them.
Why has Kadyrov so brutally implemented masculine and nationalist notions into Chechen identity? Though one could blame it on his violent personality and hunger for power there has been a trend of emphasising masculinity in politics throughout Russia. The ‘90s were seen as a decade of humiliation in Russia as the Soviet Union lost its perceived might and modernisation swept the region (homosexuality was decriminalised during this period.) The post-Soviet states were faced with an identity crisis as they encompassed such an ethnically and socially diverse area, and newly established nations underwent a process of identity building that is still taking place today. To counteract the humiliation and instability of the ‘90s Russia and other post-Soviet states attempted to foster strength and stability as well as unify its people through a process of ‘remasculinisation’ based on might and traditional gender roles. This was not only enforced by the state but also by the people, who often turn to nationalism and traditionalism in times of change and instability.
It is evident that re-masculinisation has accompanied the rise of nationalism in Chechnya to form a Chechen identity that adheres to binary gender roles where homosexuality does conform. However, national identity is not fixed and continually requires reinforcement, which is why there has been a recent intensification of the brutal purges against gay men. There needs to be a continuous flow of violence to emphasise the intrinsic nature of this violence and masculinity in Chechen society. It is therefore unlikely that a homosexual identity will be allowed to flourish in Chechnya unless society and nationalism reimagine themselves. If order and stability remain synonymous with masculinity, homosexuality will always be considered as a weakness and a threat to the state.
Isabel Oakes is a third Year English/German student studying IR with an interest in international economics and political philosophy.