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Kamila Šebestová
April 26, 2021, 3:43pm
Reading time: 7:42

Being Gay in Chechnya is Considered Such a Disgrace That It's Punished by Brutal Torture, Activist Explains

The country is full of fear and hatred against the LGBT+ community. It's been three years of homosexuals being tortured and locked up over there. They are often hurt by their own families.

Kamila Šebestová
April 26, 2021, 3:43pm
Reading time: 7:42
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Being Gay in Chechnya is Considered Such a Disgrace That It's Punished by Brutal Torture, Activist Explains
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Two boys in love are chasing each other on the shore. They hug each other, hold hands, joke around. Looking at them, one wouldn't think that one of them went through hell because of his sexual orientation. Maxim Lapunov was arrested and tortured in a Chechen prison because he is gay.


He became a victim of an "ethnic cleansing" campaign, which was started by the leader of the Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2017. They have since persecuted, arrested and tortured homosexuals in order to "cleanse the blood". Some did not manage to survive the abuse and disappeared completely.


Maxim Lapunov came out of prison alive. He was the first to speak publicly about what they do to homosexuals in southern Russia. Thanks to volunteers from the Russian LGBT Network, he and his family have managed to hide. The story of Maxim and other LGBT + heroes is captured in the documentary Welcome to Chechnya by David France.


Maxim Lapunov. Source: Hbo Max/Time Warner

Welcome to Chechnya

A country full of great and welcoming people. That's also how Maxim Lapunov describes Muslim Chechnya in the southern part of Russia. Before his life turned upside down, he worked as an event promoter. Due to his profession, he traveled a lot within Russia and he liked Chechnya very much. He came there because of a Honey Fair. Out of nowhere, he ended up getting arrested on the street.


In this article you'll read:
  • Why they are torturing and persecuting homosexuals in Chechnya.
  • Who is Maxim Lapunov and how he survived the Chechen prison.
  • What fate awaits lesbians in Chechnya, Russia.
  • How is it possible to escape from Russia.


"It was a big shock for me when they started discriminating against gays in Chechnya. I didn't understand how these kind people could behave so violently, with such cruelty. At the same time, gays did nothing wrong to them, " says Maxim Lapunov with tears in his eyes in one of the scenes in the Welcome to Chechnya documentary.


"It all started by accident,"  explains David Isteev, the crisis response coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network rescue team at the beginning of the film. He has helped Maxim find shelter. The atmosphere in the country has changed after the police found photos of naked men on the Chechen drug dealer's phone during a raid. They've tortured him to get names of other gays.


"After this incident, they started mass-arresting homosexuals and forced each one of them to give them names of another ten. Then they proceeded to torture them. After the release from their imprisonment, they advised their family members to kill their children,"  explains David Isteev. He adds that having a homosexual in his family is, according to many Chechens, a disgrace that "can only be washed away with blood."



That is why this group helps dozens of boys and girls escape from Russia to safer countries. The Russian LGBT Network also found shelter for Maxim Lapunov and his entire family.


During the filming, Maxim also meets his boyfriend. They have been together for more than ten years, but they haven't seen each other for a year as a result of the incident in Chechnya. They emigrate to Europe together .


"If someone kidnaps you and tortures you, it will change you. That period broke me. What helped were the thoughts of my boyfriend, "  Maxim says in front of the camera. He is the first to decide to speak up about the atrocities in Chechen prison in front of media from around the world.


"If I don't do it now, I'll be on the run for the rest of my life,"  Maxim said, adding that he had filed a criminal complaint on the Chechen authorities. He had briefly returned to Russia from European exile and told his story in front of media in Moscow for the whole world to hear.


"They were preparing to kill me. They beat me with sticks. Every ten to fifteen minutes, someone broke into a cell and shouted that I was gay and that people like me should be murdered, "  Maxim Lapun describes his stay in Chechen prison.


According to him, the detained Chechens were beaten for days. Many have tried to prove to the police that they aren't gay. "It was useless. As soon as they focus on you, you've got no chance, "  says the former prisoner.



In a shaky voice, he adds that he still has bad dreams about that period. "Every evening, every night, they were bringing in new suspects. Those screams and begging for mercy still haunt me. "


At the end of his statement, he urged the media and the government to investigate the cruelties in Chechnya. "I only ask for one thing - the victory of justice. We are all human beings and we deserve fundamental rights. No one knows whose kid or daughter will be kidnapped next, " says Maxim Lapunov.


Lapunov's case was rejected in Russia, so he is still on the run. He has filed a criminal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.


Max Lapunov escaping Russia. Source: Youtube/Hbo Max



Ana escaping Russia. Source: Hbo Max/Time Warner



David Ichejev and other activists from the Russian LGBT Network are trying to provide persecuted members of the LGBT+ community with necessary documents and a safe transfer to a shelter in Moscow, from where they then emigrate abroad. They save them from arrest or death, often at the very last minute. Many refugees, like Maxim, come out of prisons full of trauma. Some even attempt suicide.


With each rescue operation, volunteers risk getting arrested and, in some cases, even losing their lives. Chechen families do not forgive homosexuality. They often want revenge on activists if they find out they've helped their children escape.


A similar thing has happened to Olga Baranova, the director of Russian LGBT Network's Community Center. A group of activists decides to rescue a young Chechen girl Anya, who wants to escape from Russia. Although women are not arrested for sexual orientation in Chechnya, they are often attacked by family members. They might even kill them.


"They are locked and beaten at home. Nobody knows about it and they are dying as a result of physical violence, " says activist David Isteev. When the girls decide to flee the country, it's a huge step for them. They need the help of activists because they're not used to traveling alone.


"If my father finds out that I'm a lesbian, he'll definitely kill me," Anya says desperately to David Isteev on the phone. She explains that her uncle is threatening to tell her father about her orientation if she doesn't sleep with him. Anya's father is a member of the Chechen government and he would not tolerate his daughter's distinctness.


"We're coming, Anya, stay strong,"  David promises to arrange her transfer. They follow her directly to the city of Grozny in Chechnya. A rescue activist meets her at a Burger King, pretending to be her shopping buddy.


Protagonists of the Welcome to Chechenya film. David Istejev (right), Maxim Lapunov and Olga Baranova. Source: Instagram/@welcometochechnya


Activists manage to take Anya to the airport, where she gets stopped by the police. She reservedly explains that she's leaving Russia to visit loved ones. Fortunately, the police releases her. After arriving at a safe place, together with the activists they relocate to an empty house, where Anya must remain in complete isolation for three months before being accepted by a European country.


"We had to help Anya. Her family would discreetly kill her, just to keep her orientation a secret and get rid of the disgrace in the family, ” explains David Isteev.


However, Anya is not happy in hiding. She calls the activists and begs them to allow her to go for a walk. They explain to her that LGBT + refugees have been abducted while taking out the trash before, and that's the reason why they have to stay inside. You can hear in her voice that the separation from people is difficult for her to handle. After a while, the activists find out that Anya was tracked down by her father and taken back home.


Olga Baranova of the Russian LGBT Network starts looking for a Chechen girl. She makes a fatal mistake by providing her personal data to the Russian police when reporting Anya's case. They make it all the way to a Chechen prison where they torture homosexuals.


Olga gets a letter to her personal address from the prison. "In the letter it said that Chechnya has its own traditions that we do not have to understand. If someone helped Anya leave, it's as if that someone took their property. For them it is a matter of honor, therefore they must punish me, " explains activist Olga Baranova. She has to act immediately, so she flies abroad with her little son, where they await asylum. We won't learn anything more about Anya's fate. 


Protagonists of the Welcome to Chechenya film. David Istejev (right), Maxim Lapunov and Olga Baranova. Source: Instagram/@welcometochechnya



  "We have no gays in Chechnya"

Ramzan Kadyrov being interviewed by HBO. Source: Youtube/Hbo Max


Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is the main character responsible for the persecution of gays in Chechnya. He has a long-term aggressive attitude towards the LGBT + community.


"We have no gays in Chechnya,"  Kadyrov said with a cold-blooded expression in an interview with HBO. "If there are any, take them to Canada. Thank God we won't have them at home. This will cleanse our blood. ” He denied the brutal suppression of homosexuals in an interview.


Kadyrov's claim was also supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Chechen leader is responsible for what is happening in southern Russia, but Putin is also one to blame.


"Putin uses homophobia and traditional values ​​as a tool to consolidate power. Kadyrov takes it all to the extreme, "  Olga Baranova comments on the persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya. "It happened under Hitler and under Stalin. And now also under Kadyrov and Putin. "


Her colleague David Isteev adds that although Putin does not torture anyone personally, he is responsible for what is happening in his country. "He doesn't involve himself in Kadyrov's work, Kadyrov is doing whatever he wants to. That's politics. It's not about the people at all,"  explains the activist.

Chechnya today

The documentary from American director David France follows events during two years of the Chechen "ethnic cleansing". Watching it, the viewer gets angry, sad and emotional. In the final scene, when Maxim Lapunov and his boyfriend are holding hands by the sea, one has to wonder whether the Chechen government's gay persecution is really worth it. What bothers him so much about the relationship between two young people who are in love? Why do they have to go through hell in Chechen prisons, to be punished for their relationships?


Meanwhile, the situation in Chechnya is not improving. On the contrary, the community there lives in constant fear of torture or death. Many world organizations have repeatedly pointed out the situation and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene. Amnesty International is one of these organizations. 


"We have long called on Vladimir Putin and Russian federal authorities to take action against this gross human rights violation in Chechnya. We are also putting pressure on countries where LGBTI + people from Chechnya will go and ask for asylum, to do everything within the framework of international law to protect them and not deport them under any circumstance," says Alexandra Demetrianova from Amnesty International Slovakia. According to her, it depends on the international pressure on Russia whether the situation improves .


The good news is that in the first two years of its operation the Russian LGBT Network has helped 151 people that were persecuted in Russia for their sexual orientation. The refugees were accepted in Canada, Belgium and other EU countries. President Trump has rejected them at the time.


Many of them are now leading a new, happier life. Undoubtedly, however, they will forever be haunted by the trauma from Chechen prisons. But the world does not forget the Chechen LGBT + community. Russian LGBT Network continues its operation. HBO activist David Isteev concludes the document with strong words: "If a person is not killed, he is still the winner."


                                                Trailer for the film Welcome to Chechnya




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