On June 30, HBO released Welcome to Chechnya, a documentary film about activists carrying out secret evacuations to get LGBTQ people out of Russia’s repressive Chechen Republic. Filming began in 2017, when the persecution of suspected gay men in Chechnya was at its height. During the documentary’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Meduza spoke to one of its main subjects, activist Olga Baranova, about the making of the film, how the situation in Chechnya has changed in the last three years, and how LGBTQ people who fled the region are rebuilding their lives.
“This is a film about what forms homophobia can take. What a horror it can be,” says Olga Baranova, when asked what the documentary Welcome to Chechnya is about. “To destroy people simply because they aren’t of a specific sexual orientation, [or] of a specific gender identity. How can this happen in the modern world?”
Baranova is referring to the purges targeting LGBTQ people, which began in Chechnya in 2017. In April of that year, journalists from the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed that members of the Chechen security forces were leading a crackdown on suspected gay men, rounding up and torturing more than 100 people, and reportedly killing at least three.
“When this first started happening, many [people] didn’t believe it, because [your] brain simply refuses to accept it. Even many of my friends said it was some kind of fiction,” Baranova recalls.
The documentary focuses on Baranova’s work with David Isteev, the coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network’s emergency assistance program. In 2017, they were secretly evacuating LGBTQ people from Chechnya, taking them to temporary shelters in Moscow or even helping them flee abroad.
Baranova says that filming was difficult. The crew used cell phones and even hidden cameras, which allowed them to film in forbidden locations like at the airport and at police stations. She herself watched the second-last cut of the documentary for “safety reasons” — to make sure the streets around the shelter where evacuees were housed couldn’t be identified.
Baranova says that members of the team that worked on the film are undergoing rehabilitation with a psychologist: “You are seeing only a part [of it], but there was a lot of footage, a lot of things were filmed. We lived through it and moved on, but the film crew watched it all several times, edited it. Of course, everyone is traumatized.”
“In addition, the entire team, with rare exceptions, belong to the LGBT community, part of the team from Russia are gay,” she continues. “They understood that all of this could happen to them.”
The way Baranova sees it, the film will likely provoke some kind of reaction in Chechnya, but she’s not sure how it will actually be received. Especially since the persecution of LGBTQ people in Chechnya is still ongoing. “They are continuing to capture and kill gays, what else can be done? I can’t imagine,” she says.
To this day, the motivation for the violent crackdown remains unclear. “No one knows what triggered it. There were rumors [that it happened] after they filed an application for a gay parade. The other version is that […] they allegedly caught a guy who was either drunk or on drugs, and he turned out to be gay, too. They began finding people in his phone, and started to catch them,” Baranova tells Meduza.
In 2017, suspected gay men were rounded up, imprisoned, starved, and tortured — some of them died. According to Baranova, however, there is no exact figure on the number of deaths. Activists have been forced to rely on reports from those who reach out to them when their friends or family members go missing. From there, they try to figure out where the person was last seen. “This is how we are trying to count the number. But there’s no exact data, we can’t verify it either. According to the information we have, ten people were definitely killed in the [last] three years,” Baranova maintains.
Baranova says that while there have been fewer instances of mass persecution lately, the crackdown has “taken a different form.” “At first many left immediately — those who were suspected [of being gay], those whose friends had been taken. Because they were torturing people and everyone understood that […] this is impossible to endure,” she explains. “Then the wave became smaller, but it still happens.”
More recently, the Chechen authorities have started forcing LGBTQ prisoners to confess to petty crimes under torture, making it impossible for other people to help them escape the region. “If an 18-year-old, adult person decides to leave, this is his decision, but if a person is declared a criminal and we help him leave, this is a crime on our part,” Baranova tells Meduza, explaining that activists could face criminal charges for harboring “felons.”
At the same time, Baranova’s work has changed its focus. Since the number of appeals for emergency evacuations has gone down, she now helps run a support group for queer women from Russia’s North Caucasus region. “We only work with women. Over the course of three years, we have taken about 50 women out of the region [and] helped them leave,” she explains.
While queer men were main the targets of the official crackdown in Chechnya, Baranova says that queer women fleeing Russia’s North Caucasus are usually subject to “constant sexual violence at home.” Nevertheless, they often find it hard to leave. “In extreme cases they run [away]. Because to flee is to live in another country, to abandon all relatives, to be left alone on the entire planet. They break off relations with [their] relatives forever. Sometimes they leave [their] children,” Baranova says.
While some LGBTQ people have fled the region but tried to remain in Russia, many have left the country all together, going to Europe and beyond. “They build a new life, take a new name, and come up with a story about their old life, because even in Europe it’s better not to say that you’re from the North Caucasus,” Baranova explains.
“Emigration is difficult in general, but people from the North Caucasus have very developed family institutions, they are attached to [their] families and this is a great test for them,” she continues. “Plus girls who were never allowed to go out, who suppressed their desire to study and make decisions, are suddenly left on their own.”
While severing these ties is difficult, Baranova underscores that it is “often a matter of life and death.” Keeping in touch is tempting, but it only leads family members to try and lure escapees back. “If a person flees, he understands that there is no way back,” Baranova underscores. “Those who can stay, stay.”
At the same time, Baranova says that securing asylum abroad is becoming increasingly difficult. “When there was noise and mass violence a lot of countries came forward — for example, Canada opened a special program and helped a lot. Many countries gave out special visas,” she recalls. “Now it’s individual cases […] Before they helped everyone, but now it’s selective, according to some criteria. It’s a separate, complex procedure.”
Meanwhile, the problems in Chechnya are the same as they have always been. Baranova is hoping that the documentary will help attract international attention and assistance. “That’s why this film is important for us — it’s an opportunity to talk about this, to say that yes, there isn’t such a big stream [of evacuees], but nothing has changed. These people needed help, and they are still in need,” she emphasizes.
Summary by Eilish Hart