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Russia Blog / April 23, 2017

The current hysteria about Russia ain’t going away, that much is clear. There’s an enormous amount of propaganda, paranoia, fear, and comic lunacy about most of the reporting we’re getting out here. There’re also a lot of locally-generated horror stories coming out of Russia that we’re not receiving here. And once in awhile, if we’re lucky, there’s a small overlap between what we read here, and what goes on there. Anyway, I’m going to start writing about it, because my writing muscles are rusty (how about that mixed metaphor eh?) and there’s more than enough Russia material to pick through. I want to make these posts short, but this first one turned out long, which is a problem. It means I haven’t figured out a way to post one a day, which woulda-shoulda been the workout goal of this literary cross-fitness death wish. So I’m not going to make grand promises to myself or anyone else just yet. First just gotta get back on the writing treadmill here.

I have no appropriate segue to my topic for this first post—the persecution of gays in Chechnya, the latest big horror story coming out of Russia (and it is horrific)—so I’ll just get down to the part of the story no one here is talking about: Who or what is GayRussia.ru, the organization cited by everyone from Novaya Gazeta (which first broke this story) to the New York Times as having played a central role in “inciting” the vicious Chechen crackdown on local gays.

In case you haven’t heard about it yet, over the past couple of months there’s been a gruesome crackdown in Chechnya on gays, including allegations of mass roundups, concentration camps, torture, and murder by Chechen police—which is a synonym for death squads under Chechnya’s truly scary sociopath-in-chief, “king” Ramzan Kadyrov.

According to Novaya Gazeta—the opposition muckraking newspaper where Anna Politkovskaya published until she was assassinated in 2006, most likely by Kadyrov’s Chechens—since March, hundreds of suspected homosexuals have been rounded up in Chechnya and thrown into prisons, where they’ve been tortured and forced to give up names of other homosexuals. At least three gays have been murdered in custody so far, possibly many more. It’s part of a wider crackdown that’s been going on for several months by an increasingly paranoid and eccentric Kadyrov—targeting gays, drug users, and alleged Islamic State (IS) jihadis.

A quick word about Kadyrov—he took power in Chechnya in 2004 after his father and Chechnya’s president at the time, Akhmad Kadyrov, was blown up by a bomb planted under his VIP soccer stadium seat. Ramzan was just 27 years old at the time, his only experience was leading a Chechen death squad. He didn’t have anything like his father’s stature. Akhmad Kadyrov was the head of a powerful Chechen clan, a hero of the first Chechen War that the Russians lost in the mid-1990s, and chief mufti of the briefly-independent Chechnya from 1996-1999. During its brief independence, Chechnya, whose cause had stolen the hearts of every romantic western hack and human rights crusader, quickly morphed into the scariest place on earth—a magnet for every dumb young male psycho Salafist from Hamburg to Karachi and points in between. For them, it was paradise on earth—slave markets, public executions, beheadings, roaming bands of Wahhabi-inspired militias trying to out-Wahhab and out-jihad each other.

(Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri tried setting up base in Chechnya in 1996, but was arrested in Dagestan and freed under murky circumstances, likely involving Gulf bribes; the 9/11 hijackers led by Mohammed Atta had originally wanted to go to Chechnya to fight, before their Al Qaeda commanders gave them a new assignment in the US. I wrote an article awhile back on the intertwining links between Chechen separatists and Al Qaeda, a story that officially never happened, until too many Islamic State Chechens finally broke that charade.)

It was this ugly turn to violent, Saudi-backed Wahhabi extremism that pushed Ramzan’s father Akhmad, then the chief mufti of Chechnya, to cut a deal with Yeltsin-Putin in 1999 against the Wahhabis.

To get a sense of how bad it was in Chechnya during that brief period of independence, try reading this old Los Angeles Times article about kidnap victims and Chechen slave markets:

Chechnya’s Grimmest Industry

The stories of survivors are like the relics of some wild, half-forgotten era of warlords and lawless barbarism. Victims have been kept in earthen pits or small cells that are often scrawled with the initials of hundreds of earlier captives. They have been used as slaves to dig trenches or build large houses for relatives of the kidnappers.

The kidnappers have been known to mutilate their captives, even children, severing their ears or fingers. Gangs have sent videotaped recordings of mutilations and beheadings to relatives to terrify them into finding the ransom. Russian authorities have used the gruesome videos to feed anti-Chechen sentiment and boost public support for Moscow’s latest war in the separatist republic.

When the kidnapping industry reached its peak a few years ago, there was even a relatively open “slave market” in Grozny, near Minutka Square, where the names and details of human livestock circulated on lists for interested buyers. Gangs often traded hostages or stole them from one another.

… Kirill Perchenko, 22, the son of a Moscow art dealer, was kidnapped in August 1999 from one of Moscow’s fashionable streets and trucked to Grozny. He was sold to Ramzan Akhmadov… and saw hundreds of names, going back to 1992, scratched on the walls of the warlord’s cells.

He says that during his captivity he watched seven men being executed by his captors. One of his friends was bashed to death.

Once, a hostage, a Russian officer, attacked and wounded one of the guards with a knife. Punishment was immediate.

“They put him on the ground, and four hostages had to hold his arms and legs,” Perchenko remembers. “They took a two-handed saw and killed him. He was lying on his stomach screaming. They cut from the back. From the back you hit the spine first, and it’s very painful.”

“The next day they took us all out of our cell and cut off the head of an 82-year-old man they had taken in Grozny. They just took it off with a knife and said, ‘For Allah,’ before killing him. They put both [men’s] heads on poles. And they took out the heart of the old man and nailed it to a tree.”

I could go farther back if you want to pinpoint where this all starts — to Yeltsin’s first failed war, far deadlier and bloodier than the second Yeltsin-Putin war; or to the Chechens’ brutal mistreatment/expulsion of ethnic Russians as the Soviet Union collapsed; or Stalin’s savage mass deportation of Chechens in 1944…there aren’t too many happy moments here. But you can see why a lot of Chechens—and Russians in the region—would develop a yearning for something as basic as not-dying. And for stability, order, simple basics like that.

Now, it’s hardly a secret that homophobia is standard in the North Caucasus, and government policy in Russia to various degrees ever since Putin adopted a kind of Nixonian red state strategy against the country’s urban liberals a few years back. However bad it is in Russia proper—and it really did go from bad to worse (one of my wife’s closest friends from her magazine industry days in Moscow was granted political asylum here a couple of years ago, and for good reason if you’ve heard his stories)—it’s much worse in the conservative North Caucasus; and as bad as homophobia is in the North Caucasus, nowhere is it possibly scarier than in Kadyrov’s Chechnya.

Which brings me to the role in this crackdown played by GayRussia.Ru—or more specifically, Nikolai Alekseyev, the gay rights activist who runs the site (photo at top). It’s all in the original Novaya Gazeta reports (here and here) but I’ll quote the Pulitzer Prize-winners at the New York Times re-reporting of NG’s scoops, and then I’ll tell you why this is really weird—and then we’ll both ask ourselves why the Times won the Pulitzer for Russia reporting.

Here’s from the NYTimes’ first article on the crackdown:

It began, Novaya Gazeta reported, after a Moscow-based gay rights group, GayRussia.ru, applied for permits to stage gay pride parades in four cities in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is a part.

The group had not focused on the Muslim areas. It had been applying for permits for gay parades in provincial cities around Russia, and collecting the inevitable denials, in order to build a case about gay rights and freedom of assembly with the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France. It had applied to more than 90 municipal governments. Nikolai Alekseev, a gay rights activist coordinating this effort, told Novaya Gazeta he had chosen this tactic rather than staging risky, unsanctioned gay parades.

Now here is where Novaya Gazeta’s story diverges widely from the New York Times’ version (and the rest of the western media’s). See, you can’t really bring up Nikolai Alekseyev’s name in a story like this without bringing up his very weird, ugly politics—which includes a lot of unhinged anti-Semitism and a long fruitful relationship with Russia’s xenophobic ultranationalist right-wing party.

Here are some choice quotes from GayRussia.ru’s Nikolai Alekseyev, whom Novaya Gazeta and the New York Times both say sparked the Chechen crackdown:

These tweets weren’t some random outbursts, or a Kremlin troll hacking his Twitter account—or as some of his former gay activist friends in the west had theorized, proof that Putin had got to him. This is who Alekseyev is.

A decade ago, Alekseyev got famous for organizing one of the first Moscow Gay Pride parades. He invited activists and parliamentarians from across Europe and the US. Local Russian activists were shocked when they learned that Alekseyev had brought into the center of the event a far-right politician from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist LDPR party, Alexei Mitrofanov. Mitrofanov is a notoriously xenophobic figure, known for racist public attacks on Muslims from the Caucasus.

Aleksei Mitrofanov

In 2004, when Mitrofanov ran for governor of Pskov, his campaign slogan was “Criminal southerners [ie from the Caucasus], Get Out of Pskov!” He belittled murders of minorities and claimed “southerners” from the Caucasus owned everything in Russia:

“they’ve seized all the positions. . . . Russians don’t understand where this is leading. They will be slaves in their own country.”

Leading Russian human rights groups pulled out of the 2007 gay pride event rather than share a stage with the far-right politician. Alekseyev however stood by Mitrofanov and attacked Russian human rights groups for allegedly selling out Russia’s gays. During a Pride conference, Alekseyev boasted that he planned to run for a seat in the Duma—on Zhirinovsky’s far-right ticket. Even though just a few years earlier, as Duma vice speaker, Zhirinovsky called for the death penalty for male homosexuals.

So now we go back to the Novaya Gazeta story about the current deadly anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya, and the role Alekseyev played in sparking it.

Novaya Gazeta tried understanding what the angle was for Alekseyev. That’s what any reporter would and should do, given Alekseyev’s history of wild racism, anti-Semitism, and his coziness with Russia’s far-right. The Pulitzer winners at the New York Times figured that would be too confusing—after all, the Times has published only hagiographic portraits of Alekseyev.

On March 9, one of Alekseyev’s GayRussia.ru activists sent an official notification (uvedomlenie) to the Muslim North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria’s administration, and the administration of its capital city Nalchik, requesting the right to hold a gay parade through the center of town and its historic districts, with up to 300 gay activists. Novaya got a scan of the uvedomlenie:

Similar notifications were sent to city officials in the North Caucasus cities of Cherkessk, Stavropol, and Maykop.

Nalchik officials quickly denied the parade, as expected. (Nalchik and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria have had their own Islamist problems, spillover from nearby Chechnya and Dagestan. A decade ago, local Islamist radicals stormed Nalchik, leaving over 100 dead.)

But somehow the story about GayRussia.ru’s intent to hold a gay parade there got all over the local media, leading to outrage across the North Caucasus, and calls on social media to murder gays. As Novaya Gazeta reports,

“It was at this moment that Chechnya created a special squad to conduct a ‘preventative cleansing’ operation, and that led to real murders.”

NG interviewed GayRussia.ru’s Alekseyev about this, and one of the first questions they asked him was, why the Hell would they tip off officials in notoriously homophobic, violence-prone republics of the existence of 300 gay activists in their midst willing to march in their city centers—when Alekseyev was telling everyone else he never planned to hold marches, only to make a point that he could later take up with the European Court for Human Rights? Surely Alekseyev feared for the safety of local gays, who have to live and move underground?

NG writes,

Alekseyev couldn’t answer anything concretely. He explained that in case they agreed to allow the gay parade and promised protection, that Moscow and St Petersburg gay activists were ready to head to the Caucasus and participate in a gay parade.

That said, neither Alekseyev nor his lawyers went to Nalchik—not to hand in the parade petition, nor for a hearing on the denial of the gay parade petition. Alekseyev said this was because he feared for his personal safety (!).

It turns out that Alekseyev runs something of a business in human rights lawsuits against Russia at the European Court for Human Rights—with payouts in the six figures, according to NG. It’s not clear who those fines go to, but what is sure is that Alekseyev is very proud and very open of his strategy of forcing cases that can then be brought to Strasbourg with the intent of maximizing Russia’s fines.

So finally the Novaya Gazeta correspondent asked Alekseyev straight up: Is he aware that his gay parade petitions incited local investigations in the North Caucasus against LGBT activists—leading to mass arrests and murders in Chechnya?

Alekseyev answered by accusing the Novaya Gazeta reporter of “speculating in unsubstantiated information, acting on baseless rumors, and he personally knew nothing about alleged persecutions that had anything to do with what he’d done.”

Novaya Gazeta, whose reporters have been at the forefront of the fight for gay rights in Russia, concluded that at the very least, Alekseyev was guilty of incredible negligence for not taking the local culture into account—and the lives of local gays in the North Caucasus. At the end of the article, they noted that other Russian LGBT groups were forming hotlines and outreach programs for victims of the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya and surrounding regions. They noted that GayRussia.ru was not participating.

So where, alas, did the New York Times coverage diverge from Novaya Gazeta’s? As I said earlier, they did bring up in this article and others that the Chechnya crackdown was sparked by Nikolai Alekseyev’s gay parade petitions. But if that’s all you knew, you’d assume he was a gay activist with the same progressive politics as any gay pride parade activist in Europe. And you’d assume, therefore, he’s the good guy in this story.

And since every story involving Russia needs a bad guy, you can probably guess who the New York Times pinned this on. Here’s a hint: Pinning everything that’s gone wrong in the world on Vlad The Bad just won the Times a Pulitzer. Why mess with a winning formula?

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

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8 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Ken Ku  |  April 23rd, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    Nice to see you writing again!

    Beyond that, hope to see the Almighty Exiled Censor back to work

  • 2. Ilias S.  |  April 24th, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Great article, good to see you back in written form. Very much needed nuance to the bizarro-land that Russia-coverage is. Although, can you substantiate the claim that this guy makes money out of this? Just post a hyperlink to the NG article, on your article. They are gonna try to detract you on that, I think.

    REPLY
    Novaya articles linked in my post above, in the sentence “It’s all in the original Novaya Gazeta reports (here and here)”.

    I don’t fully grasp Alekseyev’s angles on this yet, only have theories — other gay activists I’ve read critical of Alekseyev say he’s shameless about exploiting news of homophobia for fundraising. Scott Long, former founding director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Program, has some great and brutal posts on Alekseyev (Long was at the 2007 Gay Parade march and reported Alexeyev saying he was joining Zhirinovsky’s party for a Duma run). Novaya only alludes without directly accusing him of directly profiting off this, which is what I did too. You should go back to what I wrote, I don’t directly say he makes money off this, because it’s just not clear from the NG article. What’s clear is that he’s intentionally provoking official homophobic reactions in Russia which can then be used for lawsuits in Strasbourg, that are leading to fines totaling in the six figures acc to Novaya. He seems oddly proud of his cynical strategy, not like he’s hiding it, and clearly thinks it’s good for his organization.

  • 3. Joel B. Pollak  |  April 24th, 2017 at 9:55 am

    All hail the return of the Almighty Exiled Censor Johnny Chen!

  • 4. Jieke  |  April 24th, 2017 at 10:13 am

    I just assume the New York Times is wrong about everything these days and it seems to be a good strategy.

    Really enjoyed this article.

    Glad to see this site potentially coming back to life and congrats on the success of the War Nerd podcast.

  • 5. Michael Nikitin  |  April 27th, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    Good article, Mark.
    I just wish you’d mention the fact that “Russia’s ultra-right nationalist party” is a buffonade, and its leader, – the lawyer’s son, – is himself a known homosexual. A part of “the establishment opposition”, LDPR plays its provocatuer part at the bidding of the Kremlin. And so, the NY-Timers did actually get things right; and the collective “Vlad the Bad” is, in fact, beyond the crackdown – if Alekseyev is indeed an affiliate of LDPR.

  • 6. Jussi  |  May 5th, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Good to have you back. Greetings from Finland.

  • 7. Makkah  |  May 12th, 2017 at 2:25 am

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • 8. Amir Kabir تور لحظه آخری  |  May 30th, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Iranian don’t need visa for traveling to Russia, this has motivated so many Iranian citizens for a visit to Russia. Iranians love shopping, this is a very good opportunity for Russia business. Visa free rule has made so many Iranian travel agencies in Iran to start organizing tours from Tehran to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Iran is a historical country as well as Russia. Russian restaurants have been open recently in Iran Tehran, this would direct Iranian tourists to visits Russian restaurants even more on their trips. This was maybe done because of the conflict between Russia and US.


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