In 2017, the closed Southwestern Russian republic of Chechnya became the center of a massive human rights crisis when the government started arresting, abducting, killing, and torturing LGBTIQ+ people. Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov (a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin) has claimed, “in Chechen society there is no such thing as nontraditional [sexual] orientation.” Kadyrov justifies his country’s rampant xenophobia by claiming to defend Russian “traditional values,” when, in truth, it is a full-blooded homophobic purge. Those who are “outed” by their community are subject to torture by Chechen authorities, and interrogation methods include stripping the arrestee and putting a burning pot on their back with a rat underneath, so the animal claws its way through their skin. Once arrested and tortured, should the victim survive, authorities encourage the families of LGBTIQ+ children to kill them upon returning home. Once outed, survival is painstakingly difficult (survivors often “disappear”) and fleeing Chechnya without outside aid is nearly impossible.
These atrocities caught the attention of human rights activist and Oscar-nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague) who installed hidden cameras to capture the stories and escapes of Chechen victims in his newest documentary, Welcome to Chechnya, which premiered on HBO this month.
The film follows a Russian activist group, the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives (MCC), as they risk their lives to help victims out of Chechnya. They aid in the victims’ applications for asylum, and safeguard them in unidentifiable safe houses while they await refugee status so they can start new lives outside of Chechnya. This process can take months, and victims are instructed not to leave their housing under any circumstances—as Chechen authorities are constantly searching for escapees. In the film, an activist recalls the story of a refugee being abducted while taking out the trash at her safe house; another 21-one year old refugee spends months inside a window-less apartment.
We spoke to Olga Baranova, MCC’s director and a leading activist in this fight, to get a glimpse of what it’s like to spearhead these unimaginably high-stakes escapes.
How, why, and when did you first start rescuing Chechen people?
I was in the right place at the right time. I met and placed the first people who arrived in temporary housing. I don’t know how it happened. It just turned out this way and that’s it. If you saw a person who is drowning and asking for help and no one else is around, you would rush to help and not think about whether your jeans get wet—you would jump in the water to help them.
Shooting with hidden cameras must have been nerve-wracking, not knowing what the consequences would be if you were caught. Was there any point during filming that you felt uncomfortable, or that things were going awry?
No, the fact that we could be caught with hidden cameras didn’t bother me. My fears at that moment were much higher than the hidden camera. There were times when I generally felt uncomfortable, but this was not connected with the filming, rather with specific situations. The cameraman who filmed it all is amazing—he knew how to make it so that I did not feel the camera, I just lived my life and worked. I did not think there would be so much of me in the film. I thought that, in the film, there would be only the people that we save.
In 2013, by Russian law, your relationship with your partner became illegal and cause for imprisonment. I cannot imagine the emotional impact that has had on you. How did that change your day-to-day life in Moscow?
Yes, 2013 was a very significant year for representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community. After [the passage of this] law, the situation with LGBTIQ+ rights and with human rights in general grew increasingly worse for LGBTIQ+ families. This law didn’t greatly affect my life because I was already taking an active part in the struggle for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. When the law was adopted it was just confirmation for me that I had chosen the right path as an activist and that I have to fight to ensure that my son does not think that his family are some kind of “perverts.” My son was then only two years old, and I did not want him to think his family was somehow not “normal.”
How large was your underground network?
If you mean the network that was involved in the evacuation, then at first, it was just a few people. If you saw the scene in the film when I had a working meeting in shelter, you could see how many people were on the team and, besides the team, there were people in Chechnya who helped us. There was a case when a guy helped bring out one person, and after that [the Chechen authorities] also came for him but he miraculously managed to leave. Due to the high risks, we tried to engage minimal numbers of people. Not only did we have to trust people but we had to find people who were aware of the risks and ready to work in these conditions.
A large portion of the film was shot with hidden cameras. What was your creative process like working with director David France?
Now that I live in the USA, I know that David is a famous director, especially among activists. At the time, [the journalist] Masha Gessen wrote to me explaining that a famous director would like to make a documentary about what is happening. I did not have time to do research him but I trusted Masha and believed that she would not recommend a bad person. When we met David, I just believed him. Honestly, I didn’t think that all of this would turn into something people would want to watch. I sincerely believed that this movie would only be interesting to a few people. The most important thing for me was that the safety rules were carefully observed and that the people who were in the shelter agreed to be filmed based on the conditions that David proposed. For the guys in the shelter, this was interesting and out of the ordinary, and it seemed to me that it could be useful for them. I thought, okay, let them film, and then we’ll see.
In the film, we see you work with the Moscow LGBTIQ+ Community Center to bring LGBTIQ+ refugees out of Chechnya and place them in apartments throughout Eurasia as they await papers to grant them refugee status and move freely without threatening their lives. Two refugees in the film grew tired of waiting, left their apartments, and effectively disappeared. Have you heard from them, and did this kind of thing happen often to those you were trying to help?
Fortunately, there were not many situations like that. Basically, people fled and continue to flee in extreme situations, when it’s an issue of life and death, and when that’s the case, there is no question of going back. Waiting for months is really hard. And when people find themselves in a safe situation, the sense of danger is dulled and it seems everything is fine. There was one guy who waited a long time for the opportunity to be granted a Visa, and when he finally got one, he called home and was told that his adoptive mother was dying. Of course, he went back to Chechnya to say goodbye to her without asking us for advice. He just wrote me a message. Then we realized that it was a ploy to lure him back home. Unfortunately, we all learned from our mistakes. This guy is gone and no one knows what happened to him.
The film relies on advanced facial obscuration to protect the identities of the refugees, yet your face is unaltered. Do you feel there is any risk to you with the release of this film?
Of course, there is a risk, but I am always assessing my risks. After the release of the film, my risks will not increase much, because I have been working openly almost from the very beginning when one big newspaper printed my photo even though did not consent to it.
What do you hope happens in terms of LGBTIQ+ advancements now that the film is released?
This is a very powerful messaging tool for activists and a great chance for homophobes to consider their stance. I hope this film, for many people, clearly illustrates what forms homophobia can take. This is an occasion to tap into history, about how at different times, different governments have singled out a certain group of people and tried to extinguish them.
You live in New York now with your wife and son. Are you still involved with the Moscow network? What do you do in New York?
Yes, I am still working closely with the Moscow Community Center. I do everything that can be done remotely. For example, I am the coordinator of a COVID-19 aid project for LGBTIQ+ people. One of my favorite projects is the Open Art festival, which was supposed to be held in March 2020 (I am hoping we can have this festival in October.) In addition, I volunteer with a group that is helping queer women in the North Caucasus. Evacuating women is very different from evacuating men. In 2018, we began a separate project for women, and have only recently made the decision to talk about it for security reasons. [Because I am in the US,] I am the only one from our team who can talk and work openly on this project.
How did you escape Russia for New York?
When I realized that it was better for me to leave Russia for a while, my son and I went to stay with my sister in San Francisco. I was hoping I could wait a while and go back. While we were in San Francisco, new circumstances arose that increased my risks of being in Russia. I left my child in the USA and went to Russia to continue working. After a short stay in Russia, my risks increased and I realized I cannot live in Russia now, much less bring back my child to Russia. At this time, I had to go on a business trip to the United States and at border patrol, I was told I can only stay in the United States for one month. Since I could not return to Russia at that time, I asked for asylum here. After a year of consideration including two interviews, the US government granted me asylum.
Have you seen any progress made with LGBTIQ+ rights in Russia since you left? Do you see hope for Russia and Chechnya in securing basic LGBTIQ+ human rights?
Of course, there is progress. We try to notice and note even the smallest improvements. For instance, we were able to hold two independent art festivals. This reinforces the hope that our work yields results.
Russia is currently experiencing a difficult political period. In general, in Russia there has never been any political stability in terms of human rights. We had endless communism, with the promised hope of socialism, now we have endless Putinism and a new constitution—which you are handed in its new edition at the entrance to the polling station before you vote. Of course, the situation in Russia is now difficult, but the support and pressure on our government by the international community helps us fight for our rights. We know how Stonewall began, and we feel international support, and it helps to work.