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Russia, land of slaves

Last month, a number of slave migrant workers were discovered in the cellar of a Moscow store. It was, alas, just one example of a much a wider practice exploiting vulnerable groups across the country. In a special oDRussia investigation, Grigory Tumanov reports on the worrying prevalence of modern-day enslavement within Russia.

In October a group of bloggers and activists freed a number of Central Asian slaves who had spent years imprisoned in the basement of a Moscow store. This awful tale of medieval serfdom in the centre of the capital became the hot topic of conversation among a generally shocked liberal intelligentsia. But this is far from an isolated case and not in the least exceptional. As Marina Galitskaya, director of the ‘Fatima’ women’s crisis centre, which is active in the campaign against human trafficking, tells me, Russia is in fact unique in its use of slave labour. ‘It’s not even like the Middle Ages, it’s pre-medieval. If Eastern Europe is the main supplier of slave labour, and Israel the main employer, here in Russia we provide both supply and demand, and act as a transit zone as well.’

Moreover, it is not just unprotected and desperate work-seeking migrants from Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan who fall into slavery; it can happen to Russians as well. ‘There is a huge range of types of slave labour and illegal exploitation of workers in Russia,’ says Marina Galitskaya, ‘and it can take the most exotic forms.’ The organisers of the slave trade are not psychopaths or sexual predators; they are just people who want to make a fast illegal buck. It’s always about profit and tax evasion, and its scale varies enormously, from firms who organise the trafficking of people abroad to individuals who force people to beg on the street for them. 

The army

It may sound odd to a western reader, but the most common way to become a slave in Russia is to join the army. Here every man has to do a year’s obligatory military service, unless he can get it deferred or is excused on health grounds. According to Irina Khrunova of the Russian human rights organisation Agora, conscripts are just as likely, or even more likely, to be sent off to build a dacha for the colonel as to undergo actual military training. And army commanders are extremely unlikely to pay the soldiers for this work or cover their medical costs if they are injured while doing it.

'Conscripts are as likely to be sent off to build a dacha for the colonel as to undergo actual military training. And army commanders are extremely unlikely to pay the soldiers for this work or cover their medical costs if they are injured while doing it.'

The story of Andrey Rudenko, from Komsomolsk –on- Amur in the Russian Far East, is a case in point. At the age of 22 Andrey, like many of his contemporaries, enlisted for his military service. He was sent to join Unit No 48432 of the railway troops near the city of Chita. In 2006, his unit commander Nasimi Nazarov had a visit from an acquaintance, a building contractor who needed a bulldozer. Nazarov found one in an army garage and sold it to the builder for 65,000 roubles, and as a ‘bonus’ he threw in Andrey Rudenko, who knew how to operate it. ‘In other words,’ says Irina Khrunova, who has been looking into the young soldier’s case, ‘the 65,000 roubles was the cost of the vehicle. Rudenko was just unlucky; if there had been another conscript around who could operate a bulldozer, they’d have sent him.’ 

Andrey spent several months working at the building site, living in a builders’ hut without heating or light. No one fed him, so in the evening, after work, he would return to his army base in search of something to eat, and from there he would be forcibly ejected and returned to the building site. One evening Rudenko was seriously injured, and as a result was left permanently disabled.


Russia media outlets regularly report examples of Russian army officers using conscripts for private construction work (photo:

‘He was walking along the road towards the army base’, Irina tells me, ’when there was a collision between two cars, and one of them hit him. He flew into the air and landed in a drainage ditch, and initially nobody even noticed.’ The young soldier was lucky: while the cars’ owners were sorting things out between them one of them went to search in the bushes for a broken headlight and happened on Andrey, bleeding in the ditch.

‘The army brass insisted that the soldier had been injured while going AWOL. It was only when Rudenko recovered consciousness and told investigators about his commander’s deal with the contractor that the truth began to come out.’

On his arrival at hospital one leg was immediately amputated, and he still can’t see out of one eye. He spent 13 days in a coma. The army brass meanwhile reacted to repeated attempts to establish what had happened by insisting that the soldier had been injured while going AWOL. It was only when Rudenko recovered consciousness and told investigators about his commander’s deal with the contractor that the truth began to come out, and he was transferred to the prestigious Burdenko military hospital in Moscow and treated at MOD expense (until then the army had refused to spend money on a ‘deserter’). In 2007 Nazarov was found guilty of a number of cases of official misconduct, including the sale of Rudenko into slavery, and sentenced to three years in a penal colony settlement.

Sexual Services 

According to Marina Galitskaya of the ‘Fatima’ centre, the enslavement of women from the most disadvantaged social groups is equally common. Stuck in the sticks with a poorly paid job and a husband on the bottle, these women can be easily tempted by an offer of easy money to be earned abroad: basically their only chance to earn a decent income and see some other country. This is how Anna R, from the Smolensk oblast, ended up in a Turkish brothel. Anna left school early and married a local lad, with whom she had a child. The marriage didn’t work out; her husband, a drug addict, beat her, and he died soon after their divorce.

‘If Eastern Europe is the main supplier of slave labour, and Israel the main employer, here in Russia we provide both supply and demand, and act as a transit zone as well.’ 

Anna went back to live with her parents, got a job as a cleaner and after three years got married again, but this marriage also failed, for much the same reasons. After her second divorce Anna’s mother started saying she would get her daughter’s parental rights removed if she didn’t get a job. A job turned up surprisingly quickly: a woman she knew offered her work in Turkey, as nanny to a wealthy family. With a constantly grumbling mother and two underfed kids at home, Anna agreed to take the job, and in 2008 she flew to Istanbul.

From that moment, Anna lost all her rights for many months. In Turkey her passport and other documents were taken away from her and she was told that she would be working as a prostitute. She received no pay for this. Remembering her time in Turkey, Anna says that in general she wasn’t treated badly by her pimps: they didn’t beat her; they allowed her to go out for walks during the day. The only thing she still gets hysterical about was the clients.

After she had been there seven months, the police mounted a raid on the district. The brothel was shut down and Anna was handed over to the local branch of an international humanitarian organisation dealing with migrants, in whose shelter she lived for several months. The first time she phoned home her family sounded less than happy to hear from her. In 2009 Anna returned to Russia and moved into the ‘Fatima’ rehabilitation centre in Moscow. Her parents, meanwhile, chose that moment to take the children off to Moldava on holiday for the whole summer and stopped answering their phone. Now the people at ‘Fatima’ don’t know whether Anna managed to get her children back and move in again with her parents; they have had no contact with her since she left the centre. 

‘She didn’t see beatings and humiliation as an infringement of her rights’

As Russia is also an active consumer of slave labour, it is just as frequent to find citizens of other countries, usually former Soviet states, among the victims of the slavers. Nor is it always people from Central Asia who are being exploited on building sites and other workplaces. Inna C, for example, came to work in Moscow from Ukraine, and was forced to beg on the street after meeting a Gypsy woman who promised her an easy way of making some money. Her passport was taken away from her and the she was taken to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, where she was put up in a private house along with other slaves. She begged on the streets until she happened to be stopped one day by the police, who handed her over to social services. As Marina Galitskaya explains to me, here you uncover another problem. Often the people who end up as slaves are very vulnerable as a result of their way of life or state of health, and they don’t always even understand that they are being exploited, which seriously impedes the investigation of their case. ‘Inna, for example’, says Marina, ‘just asked the police to make her exploiters hand over the money she had earned. She didn’t see the beatings and humiliation she had suffered as an infringement of her rights, so we couldn’t get any proper evidence from her.’

'Nina’s husband openly exploited her learning difficulties – she couldn’t see what was wrong with the way he treated her and was totally dependent on him not only materially but psychologically as well.' 

For this reason, among the victims of forced labour one often finds people with mental health problems or cognitive difficulties, such as Nina M, who grew up in a boarding school for children with learning disabilities and is registered as disabled. It was at the school that she met her husband, who had a neurological condition - which, however, did not stop him turning Nina into his slave. He pocketed her entire incapacity benefit and frequently beat her. Apart from doing all the housework, Nina was forced to go on the streets begging. And according to the staff at the ‘Fatima’ aid centre for woman who have fallen into slavery, he openly exploited her learning difficulties – she couldn’t see what was wrong with the way he treated her and was totally dependent on him not only materially but psychologically as well. 

Nina came to ‘Fatima’s’ attention by chance, when she had her parental rights taken away. She had given birth to two children, neither of them in any way impaired, but lost them soon afterwards: social services decided that the children were living in unacceptable conditions and a court ruled that they should be taken into care. After that Nina started seeing ‘Fatima’ volunteer counsellors, who after lengthy discussions with her persuaded her to leave her husband and move into a separate flat. Their report states that ‘since Nina was not good with money, she was provided with aid in the form of clothing and groceries. She was also signed up for free lunches at a ‘social canteen’’.  However, the volunteers’ efforts almost came to nothing. Nina’s husband made repeated attempts to get her back and eventually succeeded. He waylaid her at the bank where she was collecting her benefit, and took her back to his flat. He took her ID document away from her and sent her out to beg again, and because of her learning difficulties she didn’t realise that she had fallen back into slavery.


In February the city of Voronezh, 500 km south of Moscow, was shocked by the discovery of more than 20 slaves in working on a local farm. They lived in hidden barracks, received no pay and were regularly beatten up by their guards (photo: windowsuser.livejournal)

Thanks to further intervention from the ‘Fatima’ volunteers, Nina is now back in her own flat, protected from any contact with her husband and working as a cleaner. The only thing that worries the volunteers is her husband’s increasingly frequent applications to have the children returned to him. ‘We believe he might be doing it in order to sell one of the children’, they tell me.

The homeless

Another common practice in Russia is to use homeless people for forced labour,  targeted because they will be grateful for the smallest pittance and are unlikely to have family who will miss them, while the police will be only too pleased to see fewer tramps on the streets. Take for example homeless Kazan resident Igor I, who one day while begging on the street bumped into a stranger who offered him building work on the construction of a country villa. Igor agreed, and has not since received a single rouble. For a month he lived in a bunk house, unable to leave the construction site, and subjected to endless humiliations and beatings.

His list of duties was also endless, from helping with the harvest to bricklaying. Sometimes he was hired out to other farmers. Eventually he managed to escape back to the city and went to the police, who passed his case from one department to another and then handed it over to their colleagues in the district where the building work was happening. There, so as not to spoil their statistics, they closed the case, while Igor, without ID documents or an address, has no means of redress or appeal.

Migrants prey on their fellow migrants

In Russia, the most common vulnerable group - migrant workers – are often exploited by others like themselves. Daler Azimov arrived in Moscow from Tadzhikistan with his wife and brother in 2011. As Karomat Sharipov, chair of the All-Russian Movement for Tadzhik Migrant Workers, tells me, Azimov, like many others, found a job as a labourer. ‘Other Tadzhiks helped him find work on a building site on the outskirts of Moscow, and promised he would see some money very soon, but in fact he had become a slave, and in the end he and his family had to hand over a large sum of money to buy his freedom.’ Last December a gang of armed men burst into the flat he shared with his Uzbek wife, grabbed him and drove him away. ‘We had a phone call on our hotline from Daler’s brother, Mansur’, says Karomat Sharipov. ‘He said that Daler had been kidnapped by criminals who were demanding 250,000 roubles (£5,000) for his release. Naturally no one had that kind of money.’ Azimov’s relatives arrived at the metro station where the handover was to take place, accompanied by volunteers from the Tadzhik migrant movement, people from the Tadzhik Embassy and local police officers. ‘We couldn’t of course raise 250,000 roubles, and were only able to take about half of that, but the kidnappers ‘generously’ accepted that amount and released Daler.’

‘We couldn’t even get a charge made against the kidnappers; the police wouldn’t take a statement from Daler – he was only a migrant worker, after all’

The police observed the handover, but all attempts by representatives of the Tadzhik Diaspora to persuade them to arrest the gang red handed failed. ‘They just said they had come without flak jackets, so they weren’t going to get themselves into a gunfight, explains Sharipov, with anger in his voice. ‘So we had to sit and watch as a horribly beaten-up Daler was brought out of their car and they drove away with the cash. We couldn’t even get a charge made against them; the police wouldn’t take a statement from Daler – he was only a migrant worker, after all. So he not only lost his work at the building site, but he had to pay for it as well.’ Now Daler, who has only recently recovered from the injuries he received during the kidnapping, is looking for new work, to earn some money to pay off his ransom. Meanwhile it turns out that his kidnappers were themselves Tadzhiks. ‘They have a system all worked out’, says Sharipov. ‘They look out for other Tadzhiks, get them construction work, collect their wages and then sometimes kidnap them to earn a ransom as well. According to our sources, this gang is still operating in the area around Moscow’.

According to the Movement for Tadzhik Migrant Workers, between 10 and 15% of members of the Tadzhik and Uzbek communities in and around Moscow are involved in gangs that seek out fellow migrants and hire them out to construction firms, siphoning off all their wages for themselves.

They explain to the hired workers, ‘as one Tadzhik  to another’, that the firm is late with payment, but that they’ll have it soon, and if they see that a migrant’s family has some other source of income, they kidnap him and  hold him for ransom. What happened to Daler, Sharipov tells me, was no isolated incident, but police reluctance to get involved and accept victims’ statements just encourages the growth of this ‘black market’.

How rehabilitation turns into exploitation

Alongside all these examples of exploitation, that of recovering addicts in private rehab centres in Russia may seem somewhat exotic, but it is nevertheless just as widespread. Russian police are at present investigating businessman, art historian and former MP Yevgeny Roizman’s ‘City Without Drugs’ Foundation , accusing him of illegally imprisoning the addicts who are sent to him for rehabilitation. Roizman’s prosecution is, however, less about a desire on the part of the police to see justice prevail, and more about hostility from other rehabilitation providers and the great support he enjoys for his methods, which include isolation, forced labour and even handcuffing addicts. Many people see this approach as barbaric, but some agree with Roizman that you can’t combat Russia’s growing drug epidemic with replacement drug treatment methods such as Methadone. So despite their over-zealous approach, such centres are fairly popular, and some addicts even turn to them voluntarily.

Quarantine ward at Yevgeny Roizman's 'City without drugs' rehabilitation centre in Yekaterinburg. Roizman's harsh practices have been largely condemned by human rights activists. Photo Andrey Rylkov Foundation

'Roizman’s prosecution is less about a desire on the part of the police to see justice prevail, and more about hostility from other rehabilitation providers and the great support he enjoys for his methods, which include isolation, forced labour and even handcuffing addicts.'

In 2011 Nikolay K decided to quit his heroin habit and applied for treatment to the ‘Transformation of Russia’ Foundation, whose approach is similar to Roizman’s. However, having seen what was going on at their clinic, he became a convert to replacement drug treatment. This organisation, founded by former prisoners and drug users who had decided to beat their addiction, was checked out by the Ministry of Justice in 2011. The Ministry’s inspectors concluded that its volunteers subjected residents to physical abuse and also received an income from their labour, which is categorically forbidden under Russian NGO legislation. Not long before the session of the Supreme Court at which ‘Transformation’ was closed down, news came out about a staff member at one of the organisation’s rehab clinics beating to death an addict who was receiving treatment there.

Nikolay confirms that conditions in the clinic near Moscow where he spent several months were just like those described in the Ministry report. ‘They give you a place in a house; if you are homeless they promise to help you with ID documents, but all the time I was there they never helped anyone. Everything’s forbidden – smoking, drinking. Periodically they ‘hire you out’ to someone; they send you out with a minder to haul sacks, to build a house for someone. I kept refusing, so they sent me to stick up posters. If they saw that you had nothing and no family ‘outside’, they could do what they liked with you, no problem.’

Nikolay tells me that none of the ‘patients’ ever saw any cash for their labours. After compulsory collective prayers the people in charge would hand out food bought with residents’ wages, and kept the rest of the money for themselves. ‘In spite of their ostentatious ‘spirituality’ I immediately felt that it was just business for them: they drove land rovers and wore gold jewellery. We’d be sitting somewhere and they’d walk past on the way to the sauna with a bottle of pricey cognac, kebabs to grill – the works! Well, I thought, the Christians aren’t doing badly out of the junkies’ wages.’  Nikolay discovered their real attitude to their charges when he was alone with them. ‘They realised that I wasn’t completely on the skids and that I wouldn’t run away, and they started treating me like a human being - even gave me some keys, put me in charge of a work team. But once I was sitting  with them and I suddenly  felt as though I was in prison: they used the same language. They referred to the people they were supposed to be treating as ‘blacks’ and ‘devils’ and more or less openly admitted that they were just cheap labour. I listened to all this and somehow managed to quietly slope off and escape.’

No one knows how many slaves there are in Russia

It is impossible to actually calculate how many slaves there are in Russia today. In the police department responsible for investigating cases of illegal imprisonment and kidnappings, they tell me that all the instances mentioned in this article come under different articles of the Criminal Code, so it is not possible to come up with an overall figure.

‘Russian law doesn’t recognise the concept of slavery’, they say, shrugging their shoulders, ‘so we have no way of calculating the number of slaves in Russia.  And as far as kidnappings are concerned, the figures may even be going down, but the figures don’t distinguish between kidnappings for ransom and kidnappings into slavery.’ 

‘Russian law doesn’t recognise the concept of slavery’, say the police, shrugging their shoulders. ‘So we have no way of calculating the number of slaves in Russia.’

At the ‘Fatima’ Centre, Marina Galitskaya confirms that the subject is a complex one. ‘There are four main articles of the Russian Criminal Code that cover what could be called slavery: the use of slave labour, human trafficking, recruitment into prostitution and the organisation of prostitution. Here you have the whole spectrum of slavery as we know it today, including illegal surrogate motherhood and the trafficking of people for their organs, and all the other forms of exploitation to be found around the globe. The main problem with trying to combat slavery in Russia, however, is the double standards enshrined in our laws.  Begging on the street, for example, can constitute pertinent evidence in a criminal case relating to slavery, or it can be a minor offence.  And of course a minor administrative offence is easier to prove, so sometimes terrible things happen. For example, when police gathered evidence from children whose parents had sent them out begging on the street and the case came to court, the judge sent the parents away with a fine for an administrative offence, rather than sending them to prison for a criminal one. And as a result the children had to beg for the money to pay the fine.’

The authorities also don’t concern themselves with finding slaves, leaving that to the NGOs. Often former slaves are found through the Orthodox Church, shelters and children’s charities whose volunteers work on the streets, but all this is not enough. Meanwhile a vulnerable  labour force continues to stream into Russia, which, surrounded as it is by less prosperous former Soviet states, remains a magnet for migrant workers. Marina Galitskaya sums up the situation. ‘Practically speaking, we are surrounded by suppliers of slaves. This is the fault not just of the leaders of these other countries, who have created an unfavourable economic situation there, but also of an active demand for cheap labour in our country. There is an agreement between Russia and FSU countries on combating slavery, and it runs until 2013, but all it does is state the fact that Russia is unique in term of slave labour. So the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future.’