Extortion, violence and fear: One gay man's harrowing experience in Russia's Caucasus region

Being a gay man in Russia's Caucasus region means living a life of secrecy, lies and constant fear of exposure.

"If you don't hide it, no one will let you live," said Orhan, a 24-year-old Muslim man from the region near Chechnya, who agreed to share his harrowing story of being outed in a place where even the suggestion of being gay can be a death sentence.

"I lost my work ... I was a waiter and a singer. They chased me out of my workplace," he said. "In one day, I lost everything I had worked for in 10 years."

In an exclusive interview in his mountain village not far from the Caspian Sea, Orhan provided access to his life and family as he struggled to cope with the aftermath of having his secret revealed.

He also agreed to allow his face to be partly shown in images and on video. CBC News has decided not to use his real name, and to omit details about his hometown, in an effort to make it harder for his enemies to locate him.

Orhan said his motivation for speaking out is rooted in a deep fear and desperation to get out of Russia. He hopes that by sharing his story, his plea for help will be heard.

"It would be my pleasure to go to any place, it doesn't matter [where]. Somewhere more civilized — like Canada, or somewhere else."

Intolerance persists

In 2013, Russia passed a "gay propaganda" law, which prohibits public demonstrations or discussions of a gay lifestyle. Even so, homosexuality is not a crime.

Recent public opinion surveys indicate that overall, some Russians are growing more accepting of LGBTQ rights. The independent Levada Centre reported in May that almost half of Russians supported equal rights for the LGBTQ community — a 14-year high.

Corinne Seminoff/CBC
Corinne Seminoff/CBC

Yet in the same poll, Russians named same-sex couples as their least-wanted neighbours (they scored about the same as members of a religious sect). A Levada survey from a year ago reported that 83 per cent of respondents found gay sex "reprehensible."

In the religiously conservative Caucasus' region — which includes places such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan — anti-gay sentiment is extreme. Groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented many cases of gay men being hunted down and tortured with the open approval of local authorities.

In 2018, Canada took in 35 gay Chechen men as refugees who fled the region's so-called gay purge.

Orhan's own life took a tragic turn in July 2018. At the time, he was an up-and-coming singer and entertainer who was in high demand for weddings and local parties. Thousands of people also knew him from his music videos.

"This was the best time of my life," he told CBC News during an interview in the living room of his mother's home, as a video of him singing traditional pop songs played on the television. "I love singing. It's my dream to be a singer."

He said that about a year ago, he was texting with a man he had met online. One night, the man suggested they meet up after Orhan had finished performing at a wedding. Orhan said the text invited him to "take a walk by the sea."

When Orhan arrived at the meeting spot, he said he was jumped by a group of thugs, who stuffed him into a car, covered his eyes and drove away. It was a set-up.

At an apartment, they began a brutal interrogation, which they videotaped. "Here we've caught a pedophile, f--k," one of the thugs can be heard saying on tape. In Russia, if you're gay, you're often labelled as a child molester, too.

"You think this is normal? You wanted to rape that boy," another voice screams at him, referring to the fake persona the thugs created. The video cuts to black just as one of the men swings his fist and strikes Orhan on the head.

The attack continued all night and left Orhan with a broken jaw. But eventually they let him go.

Video extortion

The gang demanded money to keep his secret. Two or three days later, when Orhan said he was unable to pay them, they posted the video on YouTube.

Orhan acknowledged, with a long sigh, that before the kidnapping, there was speculation about his sexual orientation. "No one was sure — 'Maybe he is, maybe he isn't [gay].' But when the video came out, it became clear to everyone."

Anton Vaganov/Reuters
Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Within hours of the video being posted online, Orhan said it felt like everyone he knew had seen it.

"Coming back from the bazaar, kids, people, everyone was looking [at me] and saying, 'That's him. Shame, shame.'"

Orhan said he reported everything that happened to the local police. He said they promised him they would open a case against them and that they would be convicted for kidnapping and extortion. But Orhan said there were never even any charges.

The assailants paid a bribe and the case was closed.

Over the next few months, Orhan said he became a prisoner in his own home, and ended up staying with various relatives in an effort to remain safe.

Orhan took CBC News out to the back of one property to show us where several people had thrown rocks through the windows. On other occasions, he said he was stoned as he walked down the street.

"They also threw glass at me," he said, showing off a welt on the back of his head.

Family at risk

As if the violence and abuse wasn't enough, there's another layer of tragedy and complexity to Orhan's story.

He is married. He and his wife have a baby, and she's pregnant with another.

Orhan said it's common for closeted gay men in this part of the country to agree to arranged heterosexual marriages, as it offers a degree of safety. He said his own family pushed him to have a wife.

In our investigation, we found many online sites with Muslim LGTBQ men looking for "fake" partners — someone of the opposite sex to couple up with so the outside world believes they're straight.

Corinne Seminoff/CBC
Corinne Seminoff/CBC

Orhan admits that when he got married, "it got easier for me. The rumours started to dissipate."

When CBC asked his wife about Orhan's double life and his being lured to the rendezvous on that night in 2018, she didn't directly address it.

"I don't know," she responded. "He's a singer. They think he has money or something."

Orhan said he believes his wife has always understood his sexual orientation, but at the same time, he tries to play it down, and she and other family members try not to believe it.

"She said, 'I will love you the way you are. It makes no difference to me if you play on that team or don't play on that team.'"

Although there was nothing legally stopping Orhan and his family from escaping the homophobic abuse in his community, the reality is that poverty and a lack of support are huge obstacles.

Most of his immediate family has largely abandoned him. He said some relatives even told him he'd be better off to kill himself.

LGBTQ support

The Russian LGBT Network, which is based in St. Petersburg, is one of the few non-governmental organizations operating in Russia that is dedicated to fighting homophobia. It was instrumental in organizing the flight of the gay Chechen men to Canada in 2018.

The group helped Orhan in the immediate aftermath of the July 2018 attack, providing him — though not his family — with a safe house, which is where he stayed while he was in and out of hospital, being treated for the injuries he sustained in the assault.

Orhan returned home after several weeks, hoping enough time had passed that he might be able to resume his life there. But the shaming and taunting was relentless, and he saw little chance of getting a job if he stayed.

Not long after our inquiries, the Russian LGBT Network reached out to Orhan again. This time, they offered to put him and his family in a sort of witness protection program within Russia. They provided them with money and airfare, and the alliance set them up with temporary accommodations.

Kirill Zarubin
Kirill Zarubin

Not long after they arrived in his new locale, Orhan spoke to CBC News again. He said he felt "much better" since his escape.

"I hope this place is not as frightening as it was back home — but this is [still] Russia." He said he didn't expect the fear of being recognized to go away.

A video showing his beating continues to circulate on the internet; the original version was viewed over 100,000 times.

Rainbow Railroad

Orhan's story offers a striking counterpoint to recent comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the topic of homosexuality in Russia. At the recent G20 summit in Japan, Putin insisted Russia has "a very even-handed approach to members of LGBT community. Really, it is absolutely calm and open-minded."

In spite of international condemnation of the gay purges in Chechnya, the Kremlin has never acknowledged the crackdown took place.

Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Kimahli Powell, executive director of the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad, the organization that helped bring gay Chechen men to Canada, said the persecution Orhan faced could make him a candidate for refugee status.

"It's a case that we would take a serious look at, to see what options are available for that individual," said Powell. His group has received more than 1,500 requests for assistance so far this year from LGBTQ people around the world.

"We have to go through a rigorous process to understand the history of persecution and understand if there is a pathway, and then execute that pathway," Powell said.

In the short term, Orhan said his priority is to find a job and prepare for the arrival of his second baby. Beyond that, he said he continues to imagine a life where he doesn't have to hide or feel afraid.

"Before I got married, I had a really good relationship with a guy. We had all these dreams," Orhan said. "But we knew this was not possible — that it would never be."

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