Putin Is Down With Polygamy

In assenting to coerced, teenage marriages in Chechnya, Russia’s Christian warrior has made a devil’s bargain with an Islamist thug.


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It’s not news that Vladimir Putin has become a hero for the European right wing. Far-right activists and party leaders from Britain to Hungary see the Russian president as a bulwark against American hegemony, a centralized European project, and the erosion of what they see as traditional Christian values.

Putin’s prohibition of “gay propaganda” at home and pronouncements that gay marriage deepens Europe’s demographic crisis fell on fertile soil among the right wing in France, which bitterly fought the legalization of gay marriage. (Russia returned the favor by nicking the flag of a French anti-gay marriage organization and refurbishing it as a “straight pride” flag, and Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front party has infamously even taken a 9 million euro loan from Moscow.) The message also plays well in Eastern Europe, where people like Krasimir Karakachanov of Bulgaria’s ultranationalist VMRO say that “the symbol of Europe must be Joan of Arc and not Conchita Wurst,” the “bearded lady” who won last year’s Eurovision.

Moreover, the European far right increasingly sees Putin as an ally against the rising phantom of Islamization. “Everywhere in Europe, Islam is on the rise,” far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders told an Austrian journalist. “Our leaders lead people by the nose when they claim that all cultures are equal. I say that our Western culture, which is based on Christianity or Judaism, is much better than Islamic culture.”

At a winter rally of the German nationalist, anti-immigration group Pegida, people waved signs that read, “Putin, help us!” For them, Putin is their Christian warrior. He pledged in his 2012 presidential campaign to defend Christians the world over and, in their view, has brought Islamists to heel, while the rest of Europe drowns in a flood of Muslim immigrants. Economic sanctions only add insult to injury. “Why wage a commercial war on the main bulwark against the spread of barbaric, Islamic extremism?” Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s Northern League, asked at a gathering of European rightists in December. Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, even called on the West to unite with Putin to fight what he sees as the biggest threat to the European way of life in several generations. “In the war against Islamic extremism, whatever we may think of him as a human being, he is actually on our side,” Farage said of Putin. “Let’s not go on provoking Putin whether we like him or not.”

And yet I wonder how much these people know about what Putin’s Christian Russia really looks like. Do they know that Putin very much does not have things under control and that there are parts of his empire where Islamization is not only tolerated but encouraged? How would these Islamophobic hell-raisers feel if they knew that there is now a serious discussion underway in Russia about potentially allowing — or at the very least turning a blind eye to — polygamy among Russia’s estimated 16 million Muslims?

The discussion was sparked by what appeared to be the forced marriage, in May, between a 17-year-old Chechen girl named Louisa Goilabiyeva and a 57-year-old police chief in her village, Nazhud Guchigov. The cop began flirting with the girl when she was 16 and then insisted on marriage even when she balked: She had a much more age-appropriate boyfriend. A Moscow reporter got wind of the story and wrote it up, saying that Guchigov had set up checkpoints around the village to prevent Louisa’s family from fleeing with the girl. Moreover, Guchigov, it turned out, was already married. The story kicked up a media firestorm in Moscow, and the wedding was quickly canceled.

Until Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stepped in.

Kadyrov is the ruthless, slightly deranged 38-year-old son of a Chechen mufti and warlord who switched to Moscow’s side in its second war with Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov continued his father’s tradition of cooperating with the Kremlin in exchange for the vast sums of money required to rebuild the war-shattered republic — and line his own pockets. Under the younger Kadyrov, however, the Chechen Republic has become a state within a state, ruled through corruption and sheer terror. In the meantime, Kadyrov has created a small Islamic state within the borders of the Russian Federation. Alcohol is hard to find, as are “un-Islamic” energy drinks, and during Ramadan, eateries are shut during the daytime. Women must wear headscarves in government buildings, and there was even an incident several years ago when police shot, using paintball guns, women with uncovered heads. This, just to reiterate, is happening within the borders of the Russian Federation, ruled and bankrolled by Christian warrior Vladimir Putin.

And yet, it is often unclear who rules whom. Russian observers of the region complain that Russian law and authority stops at the Chechen border. “The power vertical does not function in Chechnya,” says Alexander Cherkasov, head of Russian human rights group Memorial, referring to the highly personalized system of governance Putin has set up in Russia. “If even a high-ranking detective tries to question a simple Chechen cop, he won’t show up. Not the federal prosecutor’s office, not the Investigative Committee — none of them can do anything in Chechnya.”

“It’s impossible to make these people follow federal laws,” says Igor Kalyapin, chair of the Committee Against Torture, a Russian NGO that had an office in Chechnya. “Moscow knows it and knows it can’t do anything about it.” Others complain of members of the Chechen security forces wreaking bloody havoc in the center of Moscow, sometimes even torturing and extorting money from local Chechens. “These people exist outside the legal framework, even if they’re in Moscow [and] even if they commit crimes,” Kalyapin says. He told me of an incident when active-duty Chechen cops were arrested for torturing a local Chechen, who was found bloodied and wandering a Moscow highway. Within an hour of their arrest, the police precinct where they were being held got a call from their higher-ups, demanding the cops’ release. The usual mechanism is simple: The Chechens call their higher ups, who call Kadyrov, who has a direct line to Putin. “People [in the Russian Interior Ministry] understand that if it gets to the level of Kadyrov calling Putin over this, this person will end up without a job,” Kalyapin says. “You absolutely cannot irritate Kadyrov.” (Kalyapin would know: He irritated Kadyrov, so his Chechen office was torched and his NGO labeled a foreign agent in a Russian court. Earlier this month, Kalyapin, rather than abide by the label, closed the organization.)

So when Kadyrov stepped in for his friend Guchigov and said that Louisa’s family consented to her marriage to the man (whose age was quickly revised down to 47), the wedding was back on, and Moscow eagerly sang along to Kadyrov’s tune. The Kremlin’s ombudsman for children’s rights — who was behind Russia’s ban on American adoptions — said that Louisa’s marriage wasn’t premature. After all, he said, in the North Caucasus, puberty hits earlier, so 16 was a great age for marrying. “There are places where women shrivel up by 27,” he said.

He later apologized for his remarks, but it didn’t stop the wedding. The bride was taken from her family’s home by one of Kadyrov’s most notorious adjutants and taken to Grozny, where the union was celebrated with great pomp. Kadyrov attended the lavish reception, and Kremlin television provided breathless coverage, calling it the wedding of the century or, in some cases, the millennium. (Louisa, in the meantime, looked like she was about to faint.)

At the reception, Louisa had her picture taken with Guchigov’s first wife — though the photo was later removed from Instagram.

All of this sparked a debate in Russia: How could this happen in 2015, in a secular state that outlaws underage marriages, let alone forced ones, and polygamy? And yet, many veteran observers of Chechnya and the Muslim North Caucasus noted that polygamy was now commonplace in the region. People simply have religious weddings and do not register the unions with the authorities, making it impossible to calculate how many there are — or to prosecute people for them. The phenomenon, however, has been widely observed for years, ever since Kadyrov pushed Chechnya on the path of religious revival.

Louisa’s wedding, however, brought the debate to Moscow. Russian pollsters started running numbers on what Russians thought about allowing polygamy among Russian Muslims. (Most are against it, but a full third thought it wasn’t such a bad idea.) In May, nationalist pseudo-politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said polygamy among Muslims already exists and so should be legalized; the following month, Kadyrov proposed legalizing polygamy in the North Caucasus — which, let me remind you, is a territory of the Russian Federation. Even the Russian Orthodox Church was ready to talk. Meanwhile, when a lone member of the parliament proposed a law criminalizing polygamy, the initiative was duly shot down by Yelena Mizulina, the parliamentarian who was among the most vocal supporters of Russia’s anti-gay laws and other “traditional values” initiatives. Criminalizing polygamy, Mizulina said, was “absurd.” The reason for polygamy, she argued was that “there are not enough men, the kind with whom women would want to start a family and have children.” Last week, Mizulina was promoted to the upper chamber of parliament.

Louisa’s wedding happened two months ago, but the debate in Moscow continues. On July 21, the Russian edition of Esquire printed a long article that tracked the stories of three Russian converts to Islam who had become second or third wives, and how they didn’t mind — but even liked — their status. Moreover, the women live not in the North Caucasus, but in the Russian capital.

Why is homosexuality officially stigmatized but polygamy an option in Russia? Because Chechnya, after two brutal, bloody wars, is a sore spot, a symbol for Putin of how he and Kadyrov the elder prevented his own personal nightmare: the further dismemberment of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has showered the republic with cash and turned a blind eye to the cruel excesses of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule — the assassinations of personal enemies in foreign countries and the forced Islamization — just to keep it in the fold.

In the meantime, however, he’s given Kadyrov so much power that many in Moscow now wonder if Putin has become Kadyrov’s hostage. As for the wedding and debate on polygamy, it happened a couple months after several Chechen men, some with very close ties to Kadyrov, were arrested on suspicion of killing opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February. This time, Kadyrov wasn’t able to get them out of jail, and observers wonder if this isn’t the transactional logic of the Putin-Kadyrov relationship at work: You get these guys, my guy gets the girl.

In Russia, this isn’t news, either. But it should be to a supporter of the European right or to a European casually drifting in that direction. Vladimir Putin may seem an alluring alternative to a mealy-mouthed François Hollande or a schoolmarmish Angela Merkel, but if you think he stands for traditional, Christian values in his own country — think again.

Photo credit: MICHAIL KLIMENTIEV/AFP/Getty Images

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

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