Anti-gay threats, Geiger counters, and insecurities about John Oliver: HBO’s journey to interview the Chechen leader

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Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
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HBO

On Tuesday’s episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” correspondent David Scott got the rare opportunity to speak to the pugnacious leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The result was an explosive encounter in which Kadyrov voiced his hatred of the West and condoned violence against gay men in Chechnya.

“We don’t have any gays,” Kadyrov told Scott in the segment. “If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

When Scott asked Kadyrov whether he believed America was an enemy of his country, Kadyrov replied:

“America is not really a strong enough state for us to regard it as an enemy of Russia. We have a strong government and are a nuclear superpower. Even if they completely destroy our government, our nuclear missiles will launch automatically. We will turn the whole world over to screw it from behind.”

Scott and his crew went to Chechnya on two occasions to get the Kadyrov interview, one of the few times the leader has allowed a Western journalist to talk to him.

Along with getting Kadyrov’s controversial comments, Scott also delved into how Kadyrov’s state-run mixed martial arts program, Akhmat MMA, has been a breeding ground for his military – over 5,000 people have signed up in the past two years.

Putin and Kadyrov

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Kadyrov at the Kremlin.
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REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA

Stood up by Kadyrov

Scott became interested in Kadyrov last fall, when news circulated of the leader’s Instagram post of his three sons at a children’s MMA tournament. Digging deeper into the man and his love of MMA fighting, Scott also found accusations of human-rights violations in Chechnya, including reports of gay men being systematically captured, and tortured or killed. Scott saw a story that would cross sports and social issues, the kind that “Real Sports” strives to tell.

The show reached out early this year to Kadyrov’s press secretary, pitching the story as a way for Kadyrov to address an American audience. Though it took months, with the help of colleagues the show has in Russia, it got a “yes.”

“But we didn’t know what the ‘yes’ meant,” Scott told Business Insider. “It’s not like they are going to give you a time and a place and a date. What they said was, ‘You can come, you can shoot our tournament, and we’ll make him available when we’re ready. You’ll get 10 minutes’ notice.'”

Real Sports HBO final

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“Real Sports” correspondent David Scott speaking to a man who says he survived the purges of gay men Chechnya.
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HBO

Scott and his team traveled to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and spend nine days there. While shooting Kadyrov’s latest MMA tournament and interviewing fighters in the Akhmat MMA stable, they waited patiently for the call that Kadyrov was available.

But that never came. Their travel visas expired, and they had to go home, with no explanation why they never got to interview Kadyrov.

“We left forlorn, because we got all this good stuff but without the main event, what’s it really going to be?” Scott said.

As planned, Scott and his team then traveled to Moscow to interview men who say they are victims of the gay purge, as well as the journalist who broke the story. But since they were only two and a half hours from Grozny, Scott wanted to try to get Kadyrov one more time.

“We’re going to give it 24 hours, and if we don’t get him, we’ll surrender and do the story without him,” Scott said.

The John Oliver problem

Scott and his crew returned to Grozny, and by 8 p.m. the day they arrived, Scott had a sit-down with the press secretary, who started the conversation interestingly.

“The first words out of his mouth, sarcastically, were ‘Well, I hope no one on your crew is gay, because you know we like to throw them in secret prisons and torture them to death,'” Scott said. “That’s how he opens a booking meeting.”

They spoke for an hour, and John Oliver was repeatedly brought up. The host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” did a segment last year on Kadyrov and his lost cat that went viral.

“I think it was one of the things that had become an obstacle,” Scott said, adding that the press secretary brought up Oliver in Scott’s first visit to Chechnya. “They associated HBO with John Oliver and the ridicule. So that’s the thing they were worried about – that we were coming to make fun of him, to embarrass him, which we had no intention of doing. And so I told them, ‘Look, that’s a satire show, that is a comic show, we are the opposite of that.’ They were comforted by that.”

Soon after their meeting, Scott got word to come to the palace. Kadyrov would do the interview.

He and the crew members went through an intense screening process before seeing Kadyrov. The security guards disassembled all their gear. They learned that the soundman was from Ukraine, so he got a higher-level security screening, including an examination of his shoes with a Geiger counter, which measures radiation. Even Scott’s makeup he applies before going on camera was tested. The guards put it on their skin to ensure it wasn’t something Scott could put on Kadyrov to harm him.

Scott, a cameraman, and their fixer were then taken to the soccer field inside the palace, where Kadyrov was playing with some other men, and invited to film him.

“It had full stadium lighting and bleachers on both sides,” Scott said. “It looked like it had a broadcast booth, too.”

Scott watched as Kadyrov played with the men, who Scott could see were not playing much defense. When Kadyrov was through, he went over to Scott and told him, “You people are saying terrible things about me,” Scott said.

Scott reassured him that they were here to give him the opportunity to address all issues. Kadyrov told them to go set up in the state room. He was going for a swim and would be there in an hour.

“We were set up by midnight, and he shows up at 1:45 in the morning,” Scott said.

‘Every man and boy between the ages of 11 to 75 looks like they are about to kick your a–‘

Scott said the plan was to start the interview with Kadyrov about MMA, then get into the other issues, like the reported gay purge. But looking back, he thinks Kadyrov “saw us coming a mile away.”

Scott said Kadyrov went on a 20-minute rant about gay men – even condoning family members hurting or even killing a relative if they are gay, known in Russia as “honor killings” – and then against the West. Kadyrov blew off the call to prayer at 2:30 a.m., something he had repeatedly said he had to go to.

“He sat there for 45 minutes longer than we expected because that’s the stuff he wanted to say,” Scott said. “That’s what he wanted out of this.”

The interview ended, and Scott and his team rushed back to their hotel. They stayed there until it was time to get to the airport and fly home.

“That’s the point when anything could happen,” Scott said, adding that they had cameras with dual recording and a separate audio recording, just in case any of their equipment was confiscated.

Real Sports Ramzan Kadyrov final

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Scott interviewing Kadyrov.
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HBO/YouTube

Scott and his team had reason for concern. In their first visit to Chechnya, he said, they were eating lunch at an outside cafe when the motorcade for Kadyrov’s three sons, known as “The Princes” in Chechnya, pulled up.

The team was without their cameras, so Scott began recording on his phone. But Abdul-Kerim Edilov, who watches over the princes and is a recent Akhmat MMA fighter now signed to the UFC in America, saw what Scott was doing. In a cursed-filled tirade, he ordered Scott to delete the footage, Scott said.

“This was the most intimidating place I’ve ever been,” Scott said of Chechnya. “Every man and boy between the ages of 11 to 75 looks like they are about to kick your a–.”

But Scott and his team returned home safely after interviewing Kadyrov.

“It’s taken me a while to see this, but in the end, he’s going to be pleased with the piece,” Scott said of how he thinks Kadyrov will react to the story. “He’s not going to like being taken to task on the gay issue, but it’s exactly what he wants, the projection of power. The idea that Ramzan Kadyrov is a buffoon or a puppet is wrong. We’ve gotten that impression from the fun that’s been poked at him, and his Instagram feed looks so ridiculous to us.

“But sitting in his presence, watching his operation, I’m convinced he’s the real thing. He knows exactly what he wants. He’s not to be someone to be underestimated.”

Here’s a clip from the Kadyrov segment: