CHECHNYA / A group of activists risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ programme raging in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

«It’s politics. People have nothing to do with it.» This attitude is ascribed to Putin in Welcome to Chechnya, by way of explaining how it is that a wave of state-orchestrated atrocities against LGBTQ people could be systematically carried out without the Russian president batting an eye in one of his North Caucasus republics.

When terrorism was growing from Chechnya in the early 2000s, Putin responded by installing a pro-Russia regime, with Ramzan Kadyrov at the helm. In return for the strongman’s loyalty, he gave him free rein to run his country how he wanted — the seed of a growing cult of personality. This lack of accountability has enabled a brutal anti-gay purge of enforced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings in the corrupt, ultra-conservative, and predominantly Muslim republic.

Welcome to Chechnya-documentary-posterDetails of the purge, which started in 2017 and are still ongoing, have leaked out despite the regime’s effective silencing methods. American documentarian and investigative reporter on LGBTQ issues David France now brings them to wider attention in his harrowing, essential film, which debuted at Sundance and has its International Premiere at the Berlinale. It is taut with white-knuckle suspense, as we are brought along on the perilous escape route out of Chechnya and into hiding with some who flee, getting a tiny taste of the all-consuming fear that a regime known for carrying out hits far beyond its own borders can engender. The intensely intimate, emotional yet straightforward and unadorned tenor of the documentary floors us with what Putin and his cronies cannot seem to see: that people, and their undeserved suffering, have precisely everything to do with these inhuman policies.


David Isteev and Olga Baranova, activists of the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental rights organisation, assist those at risk in their clandestine escape bids. With no prior experience in how to hide people in danger, or obtain the necessary paperwork for them, they have plunged in to meet such urgent need, taking in around 25 people per month to their secret shelter in Moscow — a city that, despite its own poor LGBTQ rights record, is safe in comparison to Grozny. They work tirelessly, risking their own lives on missions, and fighting to keep the immense stress at bay. The work makes them, too, the targets of death threats. Olga has incensed the family of a lesbian she helped flee, whose father intercepted her passage at Minsk airport, and she must herself set sights on a safer country in which to raise her infant son. She has crossed the code that considers Chechen women as property, and vengeance a question of honour.

They work tirelessly, risking their own lives on missions, and fighting to keep the immense stress at bay.

For the refugees, reaching a safe house outside Chechnya is by no means the end of their ordeal. By leaving, they arrive at zero, with little chance to speak their own language, resume their professions, or talk to relatives. Their ties to all they have known, irrevocably cut. The stigma of «a shame so strong it has to be washed away by blood» does not, after a lifetime of socialisation and violent reinforcement, instantly evaporate; the trauma of what they have undergone, detained and tortured, lingers. For some, it is too much. One arrival attempts suicide by cutting his wrists in the Moscow safe house; the others rush to bandage him, as the hospital, due to the necessity of secrecy, is not an option. Anya, the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Chechen government and extensive resources to track her down, is deposited into an apartment at an undisclosed location in Eurasia. She has never been at home alone before but must wait indoors, as the activists try to arrange for any country to take her in. Six months pass, a visa elusive. The dislocation and claustrophobia too much to bear, she takes off and has not been heard of since. This US-made production is very pointed in noting that, while Canada has taken in 44 of the 151 survivors that the Russian LGBT Network has helped out of Chechnya, Trump’s administration has agreed to harbour none.

Welcome to Chechnya-documentary-post-1
Welcome to Chechnya, a film by David France

Global reach

Face-altering technology ingeniously allows the film’s subjects to be «digitally disguised,» to safeguard their identities. The repression within Chechnya is so brutal, and the hand of Kadyrov’s henchmen so global in its reach, that scarcely any of those persecuted are willing to go public about their experiences in the purge, which it is suspected has even claimed a prominent pop star, Zelim Bakaev, who disappeared in Grozny in 2017 while on a brief visit from Moscow.

Grainy mobile footage of homophobic attacks provides distressing eyewitness evidence of a fraction of atrocities in a nation that, its leader declares, has no gay people — and insists that if it did, their families would kill them before any state intervention. Maxim Lapunov (who goes by the alias «Grisha» before going public) is the first to talk, going to the authorities to try to prompt an investigation, and holding a press conference in Moscow. The experience of the former aspiring event planner is that of many: bundled into a car and taken to a camp full of other detainees, who are tortured, and whose mobiles are scanned for other contacts to target. Crucially, Lapunov is Russian, a visitor to the region, so was let go — a decision the regime quickly regretted. He’s been changing locations for six months with his entire family, who have been terrorised by a campaign of threats, and his boyfriend of ten years, with whom he has been emotionally reunited. The grave stress and curtailed possibilities of a potential lifetime lived in hiding is palpable for them all — but against this, Lapunov’s act of the highest courage in speaking out is the very essence of a life lived well.