An investigation by a Moscow-based newspaper this spring made headlines around the world that the Russian government in Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus, was committing horrific crimes against gay men. Russia’s leading independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta exposed systematic arrests, torture and in some cases killings of homosexuals in Chechnya.
But few journalists have written about how Russian security agencies gather kompromat, or compromising material, on gay men in the region in order to blackmail and recruit them. An exclusive interview with a young gay man Ruslan (his name has been changed to protect his identity) from the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan by the Caucasian Knot sheds light on a practice which dates back to Soviet times and is still used by Russian security services.
It was a winter day in 2014 and 23-year-old Ruslan was on his way to meet a friend in his hometown of Derebent, Dagestan, when a car pulled up blocking his way across a crosswalk. “Get in,” the driver told him.
A devout Muslim in a region where authorities have battled Islamic insurgency for decades, Ruslan said he was used to unannounced summons for questioning by Russian state security services. The men in the car weren’t wearing uniforms, but he could already tell from the way they spoke that the two were likely to have been from the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency.
“Someone’s come from Moscow who wants a word with you,” they told him.
But instead of the local police station where Ruslan had been previously questioned on several occasions, they drove him to a hotel. There, in a room on the second floor, he was interrogated, shown a secret recording of himself with another gay man and given a choice: work as a spy for the Russian government in Syria or everyone on his contact list would see the video.
Homophobic messages are widely circulated on Russian state television and by politicians, however in the predominantly Muslim republics of the Caucasus being gay can be deadly. In Dagestan and Chechnya where honor killings are still practiced, being gay can get a man killed by his own family.
The Novaya Gazeta investigation revealed that local Chechen authorities were systematically encouraging families to carry out honor killings of their gay sons and brothers. Subsequent follow ups to the story revealed that dozens of men, believed to be gay, had been rounded up and held in secret prisons where they were tortured and in some cases killed. The story was reported across front pages around the world thrusting Russia’s LGBTQ rights record into the spotlight.
There are no concrete numbers, but Ruslan says the FSB’s practice of gathering kompromat, compromising material used for coercion, is well known to members of Dagestan’s secretive gay community. By the time he met his recruiters, Ruslan already knew of a gay friend who went to meet a man that he met online and ended up instead in an apartment with officers from security services. After the encounter he turned into a pro-government activist, participating in government-organized events and filming videos praising the government that he would post online.
Ruslan, a fluent Arabic speaker, was given a different task: to infiltrate and report on Dagestani fighters in the Middle East. According to Russia’s Ministry of Interior close to 1,200 Russians from the Republic of Dagestan fight alongside ISIS troops in Syria; several hundred others fight in Iraq. Islamic extremism fuels a homegrown insurgency in the Caucasus that the Russian government has struggled to crush since the fall of the USSR. Ruslan said that his recruiters wanted him to infiltrate their ranks and help gather intelligence on how people move in and out of Russia to Syria and Iraq.
“They told me that it’s in my interests to work with them, unless I want everyone to find out who I am,” Ruslan told the Caucasian Knot. During his interrogation that lasted for hours in the hotel room in Derbent he was repeatedly shown the video of him and his friend, over and again, if he refused to answer their questions. The agents showed him that they even had access to his social media accounts and messages.
Ruslan refused to go to Syria. The man questioning him then told him, “I am the government. I am offering you a chance to work together.”
Ruslan told the Caucasian Knot that they “told me to accept the offer. That if the government offers something, you need to accept it. They said it was being done for the people, for the country.”
Ruslan was given five days to make his choice: go to Syria or face the danger of being exposed as a gay man to his family. Several days after his interrogation he fled, first to neighboring Azerbaijan and later to Turkey where he is still in hiding today. He cut all contact with his friends and family, fearing that security services would intercept his messages again. Only six months later did he found out that after he fled, his family home was searched and his relatives were threatened by the authorities.
Three years after leaving Derbent he still fears using his real name in an interview and says he will never be able to return home.
Illustrations by Sopho Kirtadze.