In early April, Chechnya was suddenly back in the news. This time, however, the grim headlines didn’t feature jihad or civil war but rather a brutal purge of gay men. The reporter to break the story was Elena Milashina, a writer for Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few remaining independent newspapers.
Following a two-week investigation, Milashina detailed how scores of men suspected of being gay in this Muslim-majority region of Russia had been rounded up by police, held in cramped underground cells, and tortured. At least three of the suspects were killed. When her story first broke on April 1, a Chechen official dismissed it as an April Fools’ joke. Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, responded with disdain, explaining that the story couldn’t be true because, in his words, “We don’t have those kinds of people here. We don’t have any gays.” If there are any, he told an American reporter, “take them to Canada.”
Milashina and her colleague Irina Gordiyenko responded by releasing the next installment of their reporting — graphic testimonies given to them by survivors, who said they’d been beaten and subjected to electric shocks until they made false confessions. Major foreign media outlets (including the Guardian and the New York Times) soon corroborated Milashina’s findings. And though the Kremlin rarely acquiesces to Western pressure, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened an investigation after complaints from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Parliament. Several European countries and Canada also quickly granted asylum to dozens of endangered LGBT Chechens.
Despite her relief at the widespread global condemnation, Milashina registers a certain irritation with what she sees as selective outrage. “The West closed their eyes to human rights abuses in Chechnya for so long,” she says. “State terror happens to all sorts of people in Chechnya, but it’s only this time that Western countries showed they can raise their voice against Kadyrov’s regime.”
Milashina has reason to be frustrated: She has reported on the turbulent region since the early 2000s, doggedly exposing various forms of injustice and carefully protecting her sources. In 2009, Human Rights Watch awarded her its Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism. “Despite Russia’s attempts to silence its critics and hide abuses, Milashina remains outspoken,” the New York-based organization said at the time.
Milashina knows full well how dangerous her work is. Shortly after her April story appeared, Novaya Gazeta’s staff was threatened with reprisals by Chechen religious and social groups. And this was only the latest warning. Milashina’s mentor and colleague Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 after reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya. One night in 2012, Milashina herself was beaten up in Moscow by two men, who broke one of her teeth. Since the story broke, she has been forced to live in exile outside Russia. Yet she continues to report on the story. “I do not regret choosing this profession,” Milashina says.
Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy‘s Moscow correspondent.
Milashina spent her senior year of high school in Brush Prairie in Washington state. She still remembers with great fondness her “typical American graduation, with those special hats.”