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A Gay Russian Singer Disappeared One Year Ago in Chechnya. These Activists Want Answers

LGBTQ activists are demanding justice for Zelim Bakaev one year after the openly gay singer went missing in Chechnya.

Mourners gathered in front of the historic Stonewall Inn on Wednesday for a candlelight vigil marking the first anniversary of his tragic disappearance. Bakaev was last seen in the Chechen capital of Grozny on August 8, 2017, where reports claim the 27-year-old was pulled into an automobile while en route to his sister’s wedding.

Members of New York City’s LGBTQ Russian immigrant community and their allies gathered yesterday evening with bouquets of flowers and picket signs demanding justice: “Where Is Zelimkhan Bakaev?”

Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA LGBTQ, claimed Bakaev’s story is a “reminder that [LGBTQ people must] not give up.”

Photo: Daniel M. Virga

“Zelim’s story is a story about us, for us, and for those who believe that queer rights are human rights, which are jeopardized nowadays,” he said in a speech. Look at Zelim’s portrait carefully and ask yourself: ‘Am I safe? Am I afraid? Am I capable to resist?’ And when you turn around, you will find others asking the same question.

“This means that you are not alone in your struggle,” he added. “Zelim’s story unites us in the face of fear, which we shall overcome.”

New York City activists were joined by others in Amsterdam, Chicago, and Omaha, where LGBTQ community groups held similar demonstrations lobbying for Bakaev’s return. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has continued to deny his regime’s involvement in the alleged kidnapping, saying that Bakaev was likely murdered by members of his own family in an honor killing.

“His relatives, who didn’t keep an eye on him and were ashamed that he was one of them, now say that Kadyrov took him,” he claimed in January.

Photo: Daniel M. Virga

“His family couldn’t stop him, and then called him back home, and his brothers, it seems, accused him of being one of ‘those,’” Kadyrov added, the latter a vague reference to Bakaev’s sexual orientation. “Isn’t there anyone in the village, any man in the family, who can admit: ‘We did this?’ They know full well who their relative was.”

Furthermore, the strongman has denied that LGBTQ Chechens even exist. If there are queer and trans people in the semi-independent Russian republic, he has urged them to emigrate to Canada.

“Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home,” Kadyrov claimed. “To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

Even while the Chechen government has denied responsibility for his disappearance, a video surfaced last September appearing to show Bakaev alive and well in Germany. Family members noted, however, that the video appeared staged. The curtains in the room are drawn, and both the rocking chair and couch are made by Russian manufacturers.

Although Bakaev’s mother has pleaded with Kadyrov for a full investigation into the case, there remain no answers as to his whereabouts.

The singer’s story is just one of dozens, however. More than 100 LGBTQ people have been rounded up, beaten, tortured, and murdered since Chechen authorities began cracking down on its local queer and trans population last year. Many detainees remain missing, and at least four have been killed.

Organizations like Voices 4, All Out, RUSA LGBTQ, and LGBTQ World Beside are calling for a full investigation into the ongoing purge. Since the Russian publication Novaya Gazeta first broke news of the crackdown in April 2017, there has been just one report surrounding the crisis — from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).

Photo: Daniel M. Virga

President Donald Trump has remained silent, despite his closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization, protested Trump’s inaction during a July meeting between the world leaders.

“Trump and Putin: Stop the crimes against humanity in Chechnya,” the advocacy group proclaimed in a projection on the side of Finland’s presidential palace in Helsinki. “Investigate LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya. Bring the perpetrators to justice. The whole world is watching. Silence is deadly. #EyesOnChechnya.”

Activists who gathered at this week’s vigils say they will keep fighting until Bakaev is returned home.

Photo: Daniel M. Virga

“To the protest we brought a sign with Elie Wiesel’s quote: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest,’” claimed Voices 4 Founder Adam Eli Werner in a statement to INTO. “We do not know where Zelim is, we do not know if he is dead or alive, and we do not know how to get these answers.”

“We only know that a queer person has been abducted,” he added, “and silence is not an option.”


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.