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‘Welcome to Chechnya’ documentary details anti-gay purge

In 2016, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Southern Russian republic of Chechnya, promised to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ Chechens.

Kadyrov’s method of achieving this goal was simple — He implemented a government-sanctioned policy that included arresting, torturing, and killing them.

Ever since, LGBTQ citizens have lived in secrecy and fear and been traumatized by the constant threat of detention and death.

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But one group has stepped forward to help.

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‘Welcome to Chechnya’

The documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” spotlights Chechen LGBTQ activists who risk their lives in fighting this torture campaign that has escalated in the country.

“Welcome to Chechnya,” which had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, will debut June 30 on HBO and stream on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and HBO Max.

Oscar nominated director David France (“How to Survive a Plague) directed “Welcome to Chechnya.” Showrunner Neal Baer (“Designated Survivor,” “ER”) is one of the executive producers.

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The searing documentary exposes these underreported crimes against humanity. It’s worth noting that the global community has given only a faint condemnation of these atrocities, and the Kremlin has done nothing to stop them.

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Danger in Chechnya

In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that “it is difficult to overstate just how vulnerable LGBT people are in Chechnya, where homophobia is intense and rampant. LGBT people are in danger not only of persecution by the authorities but also of falling victim to ‘honour killings’ by their own relatives for tarnishing family honor.”

Kadyrov had encouraged extrajudicial killings by family members as an alternative to law enforcement – in some cases, gay men in prison have been released early specifically to enable their murder by relatives, according to a story in the International Business Times.

Getting worse

Experts at the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement in 2019 that said the situation for LGBT people in Chechnya had become worse: “Abuse inflicted on victims has allegedly become more cruel and violent compared with reports from 2017. It is no longer only gay men in Chechnya who are being targeted but women also.” People who tried to flee the republic were stopped by the authorities.

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Bravery, courage

The extraordinary LGBTQ activists who have made it their mission to confront the brutality tell stories filled with bravery and courage.

The filmmakers, who fiercely protect the refugees’ anonymity with digital technology, are given unfettered access to chronicle the day-to-day challenges of this vast and secretive pipeline of activists.

Though they have little experience in such dangerous work, these  valiant citizens have taken matters into their own hands. In the process, they have faced unimaginable risks to rescue their fellow LGBTQ citizens.

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Russian LGBTQ activists

Since 2017, David Isteev, the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, have offered a safe and secure hotline. People call it for comfort, assistance in escaping, and a safe passage to freedom.

Isteev and Baranova often hide at-risk LGBTQ people at a Moscow shelter. Their underground network of collaborators stretches around the globe.

Apart from the activists, “Welcome to Chechnya” shares harrowing stories of gay men and lesbians, whose faces and voices have been digitally altered, who share their first-hand accounts of survival and escape.

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At the end of the film, it says that 151 people have been located with the help of the LGBTQ pipeline, but 40,000 others remain in hiding.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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