Slavery in modern Russia

Slavery flourishes in Russian regions where a weak state, low salaries, and corrupt police make it profitable.


Stepan Fomin
1 June 2015

Every day hundreds of people arrive in Moscow from Russia’s regions and neighbouring states, looking for work, in response to low salaries and/or high unemployment at home.

Most of these peoples' fates are unknown. A fraction of them disappear upon entering Russia's capital, falling victim to 'entrepreneurs' dealing in live goods. These people fall into slavery. 

Undue debts

In August 2013, Alleg Fetkhullov arrived in Moscow looking for work from Mordovia, a central Russian republic. 

'Someone with my qualifications can't find a job with a salary of more than 10,000 roubles [£125] in Saransk [capital of Mordovia],' Alleg tells me. 'And I have a wife and two children. You need at least 30,000 roubles [£375] minimum to survive. This wasn't the first time I've been to Moscow. I'm here every two or three months.'

Alleg has had trouble finding a stable job in Moscow – he drinks. 'I tried to get myself set up as an odd-job man at a building site, a teamster at a shop, but when I got my first paycheck, I went off on a bender. Then they sacked me.' 

'At the time, back in August [2013], I first tried working at a factory making pallets,' Alleg says. 'Then I got my pay, 25,000 roubles [£310], had a few drinks and then got into an argument with management. Then I took on a new job – a packer at a publishing house. I worked two weeks and then I had to leave there too – they kept my advance, and I couldn't pay for my hostel without it.' 

Alleg was already waiting for a train to Saransk when three men approached him.

'They asked me whether I needed a job,' says Alleg. 'When I expressed interest, they suggested going to a cafe at the station to discuss the terms. We were drinking beer, they promised a wage of between 15,000 and 20,000 roubles [£185-£250]. I don't remember anything else. I woke up in the bus.'

Alleg Fetkhullov became a victim of trafficking and slavery after meeting some men at a train station in Moscow. (c) Author

And so Fetkhullov ended up at a brick factory in the town of Kaspiisk on Dagestan's Caspian coast.

That's how I found out I'd wound up in slavery.

'They took me into a train carriage. There were five bunks in there. And some people. I came in and asked: “So, what kind of work are you doing?” One man, he was called Herman, told me that they don't get paid, and that we'd be working for days on end. That's how I found out I'd wound up in slavery. Half an hour later the boss of the factory came in. He introduced himself as Maga and said that I'd be firing bricks. I told him I wanted to go home. But apparently I owed him money, 15,000 roubles [£185] – the amount he'd paid for me. And until I paid it off, I wouldn't be going anywhere.'

People who offer work at the train stations aren't usually employers themselves. As a rule, they work solely in recruiting.

'A recruiter usually gets 15,000-20,000 roubles per person,' says Semyon Loginov, an activist for Alternativa [a volunteer anti-slave labour organisation]. 'So one person works out to ,the cost of a laptop or tablet computer. Why? Take Alleg – that's a classic example.

'The factory where he worked makes 8,000-10,000 bricks a day. A brick sells for 10 roubles. So a factory like that can make 80,000-100,000 roubles [£900-£1250] a day. The income per month works out to something like 3m roubles [£37,000]. And you have to keep the slaves with this money, pay the other workers, utilities bills and taxes. So you can work out for yourself how much the owner gets. Companies which don't make a huge amount of money purchase slaves. Hence the price.' 

A lucky escape

According to Alleg, the workers were not kept by force at the factory and there was no security.

'I could even go for a walk in my free time,' he says. 'But seeing as no one was paid anything, and we didn't know where to go, everyone stayed at the factory. There were roughly 80 slaves at the factory. The conditions were bearable: we weren't beaten and were fed three times a day. They even gave us cigarettes. To be fair, they could hold back food for bad work, and we worked from six in the morning til nine at night, without days off.'

'The conditions were bearable: we weren't beaten and were fed three times a day. They even gave us cigarettes.'

Aleksandr, another worker (under contract and not a slave) turned out to be from the same region as Alleg and occasionally let him use his telephone to phone home.

'At the beginning, I didn't tell her what I'd gotten myself into,' says Alleg. 'It was impossible. Aleksandr was sitting right next to me, listening to me to make sure I didn't say anything out of place. But once she herself asked: “You can't leave there, right? Are they keeping you there by force?” I said: “Yes.” We talked a few more times. My wife would ask leading questions, in the end asking: “Are you in Dagestan? At a brick factory?” Again I answered to the affirmative. This was about a month after I was brought there.' 

Olga, Alleg's wife, tells me how she found out. 'It was just at that time that I read an article about slaves in Dagestan in Vecherny Saransk, [Evening Saransk]'.  'And I realised what my husband had got himself mixed up in. The article gave the phone number of Oleg Melnikov, the head of the social movement Alternativa. I rang him and told him everything. Alternativa's fixer in Dagestan, Zakir Ismailov, helped a lot. And thanks to him, we managed to get Alleg out of slavery.' 

On the night of the 30 October, 2013, a vehicle pulled up to the brick factory. It belonged to Zakir Ismailov. Alleg ran out of the train wagon, jumped into the car and sped off into the night. 

'It took us a week to plan the operation to save Alleg,' says Zakir. 'I talked to his wife, and she passed the details on to Alleg.'

A few days later, Alleg Fetkhullov was back home in Saransk. He continues to travel to Moscow for work, but no longer looks for work at the train station. 

From Donbas to Kalmykia

Kirill Kuzmin fell into slavery in May 2014. 'I arrived in Moscow from Ilovaisk near Donetsk [in Ukraine],' Kirill tells me. 'That whole business with the People's Republic had just started at home. I had a small transport business – driving people into Donetsk in my taxi. But by then many people had left town, and work dried up, it wasn't profitable any more. I decided to leave to find work.'

Straight off the train in Moscow, Kirill decided to go for something to eat in the station cafe. 

'An Asian-looking man was sitting on the table next to me,' says Kirill. 'He introduced himself as Sergei, and asked me if I needed a job. When he found out that I and did, he suggested travelling to a sheep breeding enterprise in Kalmykiya. He asked what education I had, I said: “A degree in economics.” At which point he promised me a manager's position and 40,000 roubles [£495] a month. I agreed.'

'He came out with two cups of coffee. I drank mine, we got in the car and, soon enough, I fell asleep.'

'There, at the station, Sergei also introduced me to Rustam – a Tatar, it seemed. Rustam confirmed that he needed a manager at the farm. We shook hands and set off in Rustam's car. On the way, we stopped to have lunch somewhere in Tambov. After lunch, I went out to smoke, and Rustam stayed behind – I thought he was just putting his coat on slowly. He came out with two cups of coffee. He said they were on the house. I drank mine, we got in the car and, soon enough, I fell asleep.'

Kirill woke up on a farm near Iki-Chonos, 26km from Elista, the capital of Kalmykiya, a predominantly Buddhist republic in the southern part of European Russia where ethnic Russians are a minority.

'I woke up in a wooden house,' Kirill tells me. 'Someone was feeding the fire. The door was locked. There were people in the house, 20 in total. They'd been brought here by bus three weeks earlier. Then Sergei showed up. He'd taken my documents so I wouldn't run away – the locals, they said, would return me anyway and then they wouldn't be as friendly. Of course, I wasn't taken on as any sort of manager – they made me tend sheep.' 

'Four of us worked as shepherds with a 100-strong herd. There were five of these herds. We were also assigned two locals with rifles – so we didn't run away. Three sheep went missing from our herd once. When Rustam found out, he went mad. They set up a fire in the yard. Two local guys took me by the arms and put me face-first into it. For two seconds, no longer. So I didn't get seriously burned. Then they put me back and did the same with the guys on my team.'

Despite Sergei’s warnings about the locals returning escapees, in the end it was a local resident who saved Kuzmin from his captors. 

'It happened two weeks after I found myself there,' says Kirill, 'Some guy “rented” me and two other guys. He said his name was Badma and he needed us for two days of hunting. It turned out that he paid Rustam 3,000 roubles [£37] for us. But we didn't go hunting at all. Badma loaded us into his car and took us to Elista, where he handed us over to the police. On his way he said he was moving to Volgograd, and saved us only for the sake of a good deed.' 

Turning a blind eye 

Sitting in the kitchen with Olga Fetkhullova in Saransk, I hear about her attempts to save Alleg: 'When I found out that Alleg had been kidnapped, I got in touch with the FSB straight away: a former student of mine works there,' Olga tells me. 'But he told me that this is beyond their remit. He recommended I go to see the police. They didn't even take my statement there. When he heard about Dagestan, the officer on duty said: “That's where you need to make your complaint!” 

'The state doesn't like talking about slavery at all,' says Semyon Loginov, 'The security services in the Caucasian republics are often the ones protecting this business. You don't even need to go that far: the factory where Alleg was held belongs to the son of a federal judge.'

Loginov brings up another curious piece of information. On 29 October 2013, the day before Alleg Fetkhullov escaped from the brick factory, the Prosecutor's Office of Dagestan published the following statement on its website: 

'In accordance with the plan of work for the second half of 2013, the Prosecutor's Office, together with other ministries, has investigated the legal status of brick factories operating on the territory of the republic, with particular attention to evidence of forced labour.

The inspection did not find evidence of forced labour of any form. All persons involved in labour activities in brick-production facilities have given statements on the circumstances of their travel, hiring as well as working and living conditions.'

Alleg Fetkhullov was unaware of any such visit.

Stepping in when the state won't

'Do you remember that story from a few years back?' asks Loginov. 'When they freed those slaves in the shop in Golyanovo?'

In 2012, the police found 11 people – citizens of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – in a grocery store in the Moscow neighbourhood of Golyanovo. They had been kept in slavery by a couple, ‘entrepreneurs’ by the names of Zhansulu Istanbekova and Saken Muzdybaev: they were beaten, poorly fed, and forbidden from going outside. Two of the slaves had spent 10 years in captivity. Though this story caught the national news, the criminal case was quickly wound up and shut down by the Prosecutor's Office. The reason given: no evidence of wrongdoing. 

In Russia it is mainly left to volunteer organisations to combat slavery and trafficking. 

'We have nine activists here at Alternativa,' Loginov tells me. 'Nevertheless, we've managed to save 158 people over the past four years. The most difficult part is finding out the location of the person who's been kidnapped. Only then do we have to worry about getting them out. I can't tell you how we operate – I don't want the slave traders to find out.' 

'After being set free, people often find themselves with nothing. But I don't know any cases where people wanted to stay in slavery.'

In addition to Alternativa, there is also Social Patrol, a group which focuses mostly on children living without adult supervision. The movement works under the aegis of the Moscow Department of Social Protection. But representatives of Social Patrol decline to comment on the issue of slavery in public. 

'Those guys work with homeless people, many of whom have found themselves in situations of forced labour. The Patrol tells us where they live, and then they tell us where slaves are being kept. Unfortunately, we can't do anything more for a person than free him. After being set free, people often find themselves on the streets with nothing. But I don't know of any cases where people have wanted to stay in slavery.'

Closing the gap

The activists at Alternativa believe that only a series of government measures can properly tackle the problem of slavery. Firstly, there needs to be recognition of the problem at a government level. Right now, the security services prefer to keep silent on the issue: primarily, to maintain cordial relations with their counterparts in the North Caucasus – where the problem of forced labour is most acute. Secondly, there needs to be an active information campaign; and the volunteer organisations that rescue the victims of forced labour don't have the resources for it. Thirdly, the quality of life in the provinces has to be raised. 

The difference between life in Moscow and the regions is significant. The average wage in the capital is 60,000 roubles a month (£740), in a wealthy region (largely those which produce oil) it is from 25,000-44,000 (£310-£540), and in the majority of regions, no more than 25,000 per month.

Even in the current crisis, the level of unemployment in the Moscow region is 2.8% of the working population. But in Russia as a whole, according to official statistics, it is 5.8%.

'If we start to close that gap, giving people in the provinces, jobs with decent salaries, then we'd definitely see less stories like Alleg's,' says Loginov. 'But that's a question of changing the state's priorities.'

Standfirst image: Alleg Fetkhullov (c) Author.

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