Anti-gay threats, Geiger counters, and insecurities about John Oliver: HBO’s journey to interview Ramzan Kadyrov

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Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov. HBO

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

The result was an explosive encounter in which Kadyrov voiced his hatred for the West, and approved the alleged capturing, torturing, and killing of 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 if 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 occassions 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 (MMA) program, Akhmat MMA, has been a breeding ground for his military (over 5,000 have signed up in the last two years).

Stood up by Kadyrov

Scott’s interest in Kadyrov started last fall, when news circulated of an Instagram post the leader put out of his three sons being involved in a children’s MMA tournament. Digging deeper into the man and his love for MMA fighting, Scott also found accusations of human rights violations in Chechnya, including the alleged purge of gay men. Scott saw a perfect story that crossed sports and social issues, which “Real Sports” strives to tell.

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

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‘Real Sports’ correspondent David Scott speaking to one of the alleged survivors of the gay purge of Chechnya. HBO

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

But that never came. Finally 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 travelled to Moscow to shoot interviews with 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 returned to Grozny and contacted the press secretary. By 8 p.m. the day they arrived, Scott had a sit-down with the press secretary, who started the conversation in an interesting manner.

“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.’ That’s how he opens a booking meeting,” Scott said.

They spoke for an hour, and on numerous occassions John Oliver was 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, noting 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.

They then went through an intense screening process before seeing Kadyrov. The security disassembled all their gear. They learned that the sound man was from Ukraine, which led to him getting a higher level of security screening, including his shoes being examined by a Geiger counter. Even Scott’s makeup he applies before going on camera was tested. The security put it on their own skin to make sure it wasn’t something Scott could potentially put on Kadyrov to harm him.

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

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

Scott watched as Kadyrov played with the men, who Scott could see were obviously not playing much defence against Kadyrov. When Kadyrov was through playing he went over to Scott and said to him, “You people are saying terrible things about me.” 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, and then get into the other issues, like the alleged gay purge. But looking back at it, he thinks Kadyrov “saw us coming a mile away.”

Kadyrov went into a 20-minute rant, Scott said, about gays — even condoning family members to hurt or even kill a relative if they are gay, known in Russia as “honour killings” — and then against the West. He completely blew off the call to prayer that happens at 2:30 a.m., something Kadyrov insisted numerous times 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, and stayed there until it was time to get to the airport and fly home.

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

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David Scott interviewing Ramzan Kadyrov. HBO/YouTube

Scott and his team had reason for concern. In their first visit to Chechnya, they were eating lunch at an outside cafe, and the motorcade for Kadyrov’s three sons, known as “The Princes” in Chechnya, pulled up. Without their cameras, Scott took out his phone and began recording. But then Abdul-Kerim Edilov, one of the people 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.

“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 nothing happened to Scott and his team after interviewing Kadyrov, and they returned home safely.

“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: