MOSCOW -- Eight years ago in Moscow, 40-year-old Denis adopted Aleksei, who was two years old at the time. The abused baby of a teenage alcoholic, Aleksei had behavioral problems from the beginning of their life together -- orphanage staffers told Denis that Aleksei would hide under tables, wouldn't speak, and would generally act "wildly." It took months of rehabilitation and massage for him to learn to walk properly.
"It was strange to me that he never asked for anything like other children do," Denis, who asked that his real name and the name of his child not be used for this article for fear of repercussions, told RFE/RL. "He never paid attention to the television. When we went to the store at the beginning, he didn't seem to understand that you could buy things there."
Their time together has been full of challenges, but none has been as terrifying as what they have endured this year. In February, the authorities took Aleksei away and handed him over to Moscow child-protective services. Denis found himself being questioned -- albeit as a "witness" -- in a criminal investigation into alleged physical abuse. After prosecutors hinted that he might soon be charged as a suspect, Denis fled Russia on the advice of his lawyers. From abroad, he continues to fight to get Aleksei back.
An investigator told Denis's lawyer that the two men in plainclothes who attended Denis's interrogation before he left Russia were Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who had long been monitoring what the investigator described as this "strange" family: Denis is gay and his partner, who is also Aleksei's godfather, is a German who splits his time between Germany and Moscow.
The family's nanny, Lyudmila Abramova, said the accusation that Aleksei was subject to physical abuse is absurd.
"In eight years, he has been told to stand in a corner two or three times," Abramova told RFE/RL. "He was normally punished by being deprived of treats. He loves ice cream and candy."
"Every day Denis would come home from work and, tired or not, he took Alyosha for a bike ride," Abramova added. "They had two nice bicycles that are still hanging on the wall."
"I will never believe that his father beat him," agreed one of Aleksei's teachers, who asked not to be identified. Aleksei's swimming instructor, Aleksandr Kaluzhsky, told RFE/RL the same.
Aleksei's behavioral issues became really problematic when he made the transition from kindergarten to elementary school, his adoptive father said.
"He didn't want to study," Denis said. "He would throw school things around, wander around the classroom, take things from other kids…. The complaints started from the very first day."
After two months in first grade, Aleksei was sent home for the rest of the year. Denis tried to hire tutors, but Aleksei's behavior drove most of them away. He enrolled Aleksei in three private schools but he never lasted more than three months.
"Intellectually, Aleksei is fine," Denis said. "He keeps up with the program. But he has social problems."
A school commission recommended Aleksei be enrolled in a special program for children with speech issues, although Aleksei did not have any such problems. But the program had more resources and smaller classes.
However, Aleksei continued to act up, throwing things out the window and once biting a teacher. He was put on a part-time schedule, completing half of his classes at home and half in a one-on-one situation with a school instructor.
The Moscow Education Department and the administration of Aleksei's school declined to be interviewed for this story.
Aleksei did somewhat better when the school was forced to go to distance learning in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But his problems continued as soon as in-person classes resumed. He went through four instructors, Denis said, and was often sent home from school early by the fifth.
'Looking For An Excuse'
"I had the impression that she had run out of patience with him," Denis said. "She began criticizing Alyosha very harshly because of his behavior and the disruptions he caused. At the end of 2020, the school began asking parents if they intended to continue sending their kids to the school the next year. Of course, we told them we did."
"They began strenuously recommending that Alyosha be sent to a special school for dangerous children," Denis continued. "We went there and met with the administrators, but…we didn't want to send my son there. I think our school was looking for an excuse to get rid of us."
It didn't take long to find one, Denis added.
In addition to his academic program, Aleksei had a full schedule of physical activities aimed at helping him develop his attention span and patience. His behavioral issues were a problem in this area as well. Denis said they went through numerous swimming pools and gyms.
"Sometimes it took a month, sometimes three months," he said, "but they always asked us to leave."
In February, Aleksei got into a conflict during a swimming lesson and cut himself on a lane divider. The instructor complained to Denis, but he took it as just another in a long line of similar incidents.
But soon after a school administrator noticed the bruise on Aleksei's neck and contacted Denis. He told her about the incident at the pool, but three hours later, a school counsellor called and asked Denis to come in for a meeting. At the same time, the school summoned a doctor and child-protective services. Alyosha was taken to a police station.
When Denis went to find his son, he was taken into the criminal-investigations unit and questioned.
The police were particularly interested in who lived at home with Aleksei and asked about his "second papa."
When Denis was sent back to the juvenile-affairs department, Aleksei was gone. Police told him that he had been taken to a hospital. When Denis asked why, they said: "Because we can't hand him over to you."
Police told him that Aleksei had told them not only that he was being raised by "two papas" but also that he was frequently beaten and often went hungry.
"The child has a tendency toward pathological fantasy," said psychologist Natalya Volgina, who has worked with Aleksei. "The family makes an excellent impression. The father is actively involved and participates in everything, in all the consultations. We can see that he has been doing everything correctly."
Initially, social workers told Denis, the Investigative Committee was considering charges of physical and sexual abuse. But the latter charge was dropped because of a complete lack of evidence. Officially, Denis has been classified as a witness.
Investigators questioned all of Aleksei's teachers and relatives, as well as Denis's friends. Only the swimming instructor who saw how Aleksei was injured has not been questioned, Denis said.
Investigators and a representative of child-protective services searched the family's apartment. After the search, Denis was summoned again to investigators. His phone was confiscated. He was asked if he had particularly adopted a child "with issues" because he "wouldn't understand what they were doing to him." The two FSB officers in plainclothes observed the questioning.
Later, investigator Vitaly Martynov told Denis's lawyer that the men were with the FSB and had been monitoring the "strange" family for a while. He said that they "know" that the two "fathers" have valuable assets abroad and take yachting vacations. Denis said these assertions are not true and that neither man owns significant property or a yacht.
'I Told Him We Love Him'
According to the lawyer, Martynov hinted that investigators don't believe Denis did anything wrong but want him to testify against his partner.
Shortly thereafter, Martynov asked Denis to take a lie-detector test. From this, Denis's lawyer concluded that Denis was likely to be named a suspect in the case and could even be charged. He advised Denis to leave the country. Around the same time, investigators indicated to Denis that the whole matter could be dropped for 9 million rubles ($125,000). With no guarantee of success, Denis was unwilling to get caught up in an illegal bribery scam.
Aleksei was handed over to the central Moscow Center for Support of Families and Children. Denis said that his son's condition has deteriorated significantly, and his behavior has become more erratic. At one point, he was hospitalized.
Nonetheless, authorities have either rejected or failed to respond to requests from Denis's mother, Aleksei's godmother, Denis's brother, and the family nanny that they be allowed to care for Aleksei while the case proceeds. Denis's mother and others applied repeatedly to be allowed to visit Aleksei, but none of their requests was granted.
Denis and the nanny were able to speak with the boy a couple of times by telephone, to assure him that they were fighting to get him back.
"They had told him that his father went away on a business trip," Abramova said. "He was crying and told me, 'I want to come home. It hurts.' When I asked where it was hurting, he said: 'There, where my heart is, granny. As if a bee stung me."
Authorities have also refused to allow the family to send Aleksei any packages. He is forced to wear institutional clothing. During one phone call he requested wet wipes to use in the toilet. An RFE/RL correspondent was present when officials agreed to take a package from Aleksei's godmother on the occasion of his birthday.
Abramova sometimes goes to the orphanage to watch Aleksei as he plays.
Recently "I went to the orphanage and was watching the children play through the fence," she told RFE/RL. "He came out with a social worker and saw me. He ran to the fence, calling 'Granny! Granny!' He latched onto the fence and the social worker had to pull him away. I told him that we would definitely get him back and that he needs to be patient and that we love him."
Nowhere To Turn?
After numerous requests, Denis was allowed to speak with the facility's doctor. "The doctor's answers were monosyllabic," Denis recalled. "Everything is fine. He's studying."
In the weeks since Denis left Russia, the case has stagnated.
"I think that I spoiled their fun by leaving," Denis said. "Apparently they haven't collected any evidence of guilt except for the child's words about the two fathers and stuff…. The child was always in view. He went to school every day. He went swimming three or four times a week and was even monitored there in the showers. If he was being beaten, someone would have seen something. They can't proceed with the criminal case. They can't name me as a suspect. But they also can't return my child and close the case."
Denis's lawyer, Artyom Lapov of the LGBT-rights group Stimula, has filed several court requests asking investigators to turn over the document under which they ordered Aleksei removed from his home.
Because the office of the Investigative Committee that is handling the case is in a different district than where Denis lives, the courts have refused to hear his cases on jurisdictional grounds.
"We don't know where to appeal," Denis said. "We tried to appeal the refusals, but the Moscow City Court refused to hear both of the appeals."
Psychologist Alyona Sinkevich, of the NGO Volunteers for Child Orphans, told RFE/RL that Aleksei's fate in a state institution would likely be unhappy.
"When such a child ends up inside the system, he will likely be hospitalized," she said. "Most likely, he'll end up in an orphanage where they will try – to use a euphemism – to 'calm' him. In reality, that means keeping him on psychotropic medications so that he will be less dangerous to those around him."
"That is absolutely the wrong thing to do in such cases, but I can't throw stones at anyone," she added. "When you have a lot of children living in a group situation and there is one child like that and the adults who are responsible for everyone's health can't keep him under constant control, that is the only alternative. But will that alternative be good for Alyosha? No, it won't."
In the end, she predicted, such a person would end up spending his life in a psychiatric facility for adults.
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Sergei Khazov-Cassia