Andrei Kobyshev had told his family he planned to come home.
It was early March 2017, and for months the 48-year-old had been scrambling to make ends meet as a masseur in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s southern Chechnya region. He’d juggled jobs and was spending his nights in his massage room.
At around 11 a.m. on March 13, 2017, the burly, soft-spoken therapist with a squarish face and graying reddish hair walked into the roadside sulfur bathhouse where he worked just outside the city center and hastily retrieved something from his bag in the staff room, according to a colleague.
“He seemed bewildered about something,” the colleague later told investigators, adding that Kobyshev hadn’t stayed at the bathhouse the previous night as he usually did.
Before leaving for Grozny, Kobyshev had lived with his 80-year-old mother in the tiny farming village of Goncharkovka in the southern Volgograd Oblast, where his sister said he worked as a veterinary assistant. The family received a call from his phone around a week after he left the spa for the last time -- but it wasn’t him on the other end.
The caller said he’d found the phone on an upper luggage rack on a Moscow-bound train from Grozny, and that he'd dialed the number from the phone’s contacts list after he couldn’t find its owner.
More than two years later, Kobyshev officially remains missing. Investigators last year suspended the probe -- formally classified as a murder case -- citing a failure to locate any suspects.
But an alleged eyewitness has now made an explosive new claim: Kobyshev, in the weeks after his disappearance, was being held captive in a Grozny police cellar, where he claimed to have been brutally beaten over suspicions that he was gay.
It's him -- 100 percent."
The claim by Maksim Lapunov, a gay Russian man currently suing Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, adds to the substantial testimony of what rights groups call a violent purge of sexual minorities by police in Chechnya, which is ruled by Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Lapunov, the lone person to publicly claim he was abducted and tortured in the alleged crackdown, said in a statement to his lawyer in February that he and Kobyshev were held together in the same police facility for nearly two weeks in March 2017.
Lapunov said he saw Kobyshev’s photograph on a missing-persons website earlier this year while searching for people who might have been swept up in the purge.
“It’s him -- 100 percent,” Lapunov, who fled Russia last year over fears for his safety following his public testimony, said in a February 2 statement to his lawyer, Vladimir Smirnov of the Committee Against Torture, a Russian NGO.
Smirnov told RFE/RL that he personally presented Lapunov’s claim to the Russian government’s human rights ombudswoman, Tatyana Moskalkova, at a March 1 meeting.
Kadyrov and other Chechen officials deny accusations of an antigay crackdown, and the Russian government has said it found no evidence substantiating Lapunov’s claims.
But a special rapporteur for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in December that he personally interviewed Lapunov and "can confirm his credibility."
And an investigation by RFE/RL has found that in the days after Kobyshev vanished, his phone was in repeated contact -- including stretches of 15 and 18 consecutive hours -- with a cell tower less than 300 meters from the Grozny police compound where Lapunov claims they were held captive.
While it was not possible to contact Kobyshev concerning Lapunov’s claim, RFE/RL has decided to publish his name in connection with the alleged purge, which triggered an international outcry.
This decision was based on the willingness of his relatives to speak on the record about the case, the fact that Kobyshev has been missing for more than two years, and the potential light his story might shine on allegations of grave human rights abuses by authorities in Chechnya.
Russian courts last year upheld investigators’ decision not to open a formal criminal case based on Lapunov’s claims. Smirnov said he told Moskalkova during their meeting that authorities should fold the Lapunov and Kobyshev cases into a single investigation.
Moskalkova’s largely advisory post has limited levers to influence investigators but can bring visibility to specific issues and cases.
“The Kobyshev case is a real murder case. And we’re telling them that we have a witness, Maksim, who says he saw Andrei in his final days,” Smirnov told RFE/RL.
“But the Russian investigation is doing nothing about this. Not only are they putting the brakes on Maksim Lapunov’s own case, but they refuse to take any steps in connection with the Kobyshev murder case,” he added.
Lapunov declined to be interviewed for this report.
'Never Any Discussion'
In April 2017, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta published a groundbreaking report detailing Chechen authorities’ alleged campaign against gay and bisexual men in Chechnya over the previous months. Several sources in Chechnya’s gay community subsequently told RFE/RL that the crackdown began in earnest in December 2016 -- around a month after Kobyshev arrived in the mainly Muslim region.
He said that he went to visit some friends in Chechnya, but we had no idea that he went there to work."
That Kobyshev had been in Chechnya at all came as a surprise to some in his family, who were under the impression that he had traveled to Moscow.
“He said that he went to visit some friends in Chechnya, but we had no idea that he went there to work,” his brother-in-law, Pyotr Kravchenko, told RFE/RL.
Kobyshev’s relatives, who have been informed of Lapunov’s claim to have seen him in captivity, say they were unaware that Kobyshev might be gay. They say he was unlucky in love, that a woman he was courting married his classmate after Kobyshev went to serve in the Soviet Army.
“There was never any discussion of homosexuality,” his nephew, Sergei Titov, told RFE/RL.
Associates described Kobyshev as a friendly, if reserved, man who would chat with colleagues about life over a cup of tea when business was slow.
On March 14, 2017, the owner of the sulfur bathhouse where Kobyshev worked gathered employees for a daylong cleanup of the premises, according to a co-worker’s timeline. It was a day after Kobyshev had been seen walking out of the spa for the last time, and when he didn’t show up to help pick up around the property, a colleague sent him a WhatsApp message asking where he was.
The colleague later told investigators that Kobyshev responded that he was visiting a friend in Khasavyurt, a city in the neighboring North Caucasus region of Daghestan.
“I responded to him: ‘I’m glad everything is fine with you,’” the colleague told investigators. “After that we didn’t exchange any more messages or call one another, and he didn’t show up for work.”
Whether Kobyshev was merely skipping out on work, or whether there was another explanation for his reply, remains unclear. But his phone was definitely still in Grozny, according to billing records that his mobile provider handed over to investigators.
And just days later, according to Lapunov, Kobyshev was being held in a police compound in the Chechen capital.
'His Name Was Andrei'
Lapunov is an ethnic Russian from Siberia who worked as a party planner and balloon artist at a local street stand after settling in Grozny. Testimony he gave less than three months after his purported release from captivity accurately described a man fitting Kobyshev’s profile.
“His name was Andrei, and his last name, I think, was Kopanin, or something like that,” Lapunov said in his statement provided to Russian authorities, adding that Andrei was an ethnic Russian and appeared to be about 40 years old.
While he may have given the wrong last name, Lapunov provided other details that hew closely to Kobyshev’s biography, including that he was from Volgograd Oblast and worked as a masseur in Grozny.
Lapunov said Andrei looked “severely beaten up” with “numerous abrasions and bruises” visible on his back and arms. He also said he learned that Andrei had “landed there because he was gay.”
The man identified as Andrei made only a brief cameo in Lapunov’s original detailed account of his alleged ordeal in the Grozny police cellar. But after he identified Kobyshev’s picture earlier this year, Lapunov provided a more exhaustive recollection in the statement to his lawyer.
Lapunov claims that the picture he saw of Kobyshev showed him wearing the same dark-blue sweater with “light, asymmetrical stripes” that he sported while being held by police in Grozny.
In the same statement, Lapunov claimed he and Kobyshev discussed the beatings that another man being held on suspicion of being gay had been subjected to. Kobyshev said the man “had 'got off easy,' because [Kobyshev] had been beaten even more severely,” Lapunov said.
At one point, Lapunov said, he heard Kobyshev telling a police officer that he had a wife and child, though he suspected it was a lie aimed at obscuring his sexual orientation. Kobyshev had, in fact, never married and had no children.
Lapunov claims he saw Kobyshev’s health seemingly deteriorate, saying Kobyshev “hardly ate or drank anything. Why, I don’t know.”
Kobyshev “lost significant weight during this period,” Lapunov said.
Lapunov says that when he was finally released on March 28, 2017, Kobyshev was still in police captivity.
Lapunov has stated that his captors were from the criminal-investigations department of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Chechnya branch, which is located across the street from the police facility where he believes he was held. Certification documents for the second building, which were included in the Lapunov probe, identify it as the Grozny city police department.
Lapunov says Google location data he recovered from his phone shows that he was brought to the site on the evening of March 15, 2017, marking the beginning of his nearly two weeks of alleged captivity.
Both on that day and the following, Kobyshev’s phone was in near-constant contact with a cell tower two blocks away.
While Moskalkova, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handpicked rights ombudswoman, has said publicly that Lapunov’s claims of his abduction and abuse in Chechnya warrant a formal criminal investigation, the Russian government has publicly said it found no evidence supporting his allegations.
But an analysis by RFE/RL of billing records for Kobyshev’s mobile number indicate at the very least that the masseur’s mobile phone was in the vicinity of the police compound where Lapunov says the two men were held captive together -- and during the same time period described by Lapunov.
The records, which Russian investigators obtained as part of their murder probe, begin on March 8, 2017 -- just under a week before Kobyshev went missing -- and include what is known as “historical cell-site data” showing which specific cell towers his phone was connecting with over a two-week period.
A working mobile phone regularly scans for the strongest signal from local cell towers. As the phone moves around while being used, it can connect to another tower in order to ensure more efficient routing of incoming and outgoing communications. Mobile network providers keep this historical cell-site data, which is routinely used as evidence of phone users’ general whereabouts in criminal cases throughout the world.
Historical cell-site data -- particularly from a single tower -- is less precise in identifying a person's location than the Global Positioning System on a mobile phone. And while it cannot be used to pinpoint a handset's location, in urban areas with good cell coverage -- a description that fits Grozny -- it can place a phone’s location to within a kilometer of a tower it connected with, a U.K.-based cell-site analysis expert told RFE/RL.
Using addresses and other location descriptions for the cell sites in the records that Kobyshev’s mobile provider gave to investigators, RFE/RL mapped out which towers his phone was communicating with -- and when -- in the days before and after he vanished.
Prior to his disappearance, Kobyshev’s cell phone was connecting to various towers throughout Grozny, most frequently to those in the general vicinity of the sulfur bathhouse where he worked and slept just southwest of the city center.
But as of the early evening on March 14, 2017 -- the day his colleague says he missed the cleanup at the spa -- his phone began connecting almost exclusively with a cell tower on Gvardeiskaya Ulitsa, located less than 300 meters from the Russian Interior Ministry’s regional branch in Chechnya and the police facility across the street where Lapunov says he was held.
During the previous eight days, Kobyshev’s phone had connected with that specific tower only once -- on March 13, 2017, about an hour after a colleague saw him leaving the sulfur bathhouse for the last time.
Most of the activity in Kobyshev’s billing records following his disappearance appears to show his phone making data contact with the cell tower near the police buildings in regular one-hour increments. During one 15-hour period and another 18-hour period, his phone contacted only that tower.
The billing records show that Kobyshev’s calling and texting ground to a halt after his number began its continuous contact with the cell tower on Gvardeiskaya Ulitsa shortly after 5:30 p.m. on March 14, 2017.
In the following days, just one outgoing call -- at 12:17 p.m. on March 15, 2017 -- was made from his mobile account, which two hours later received a call from the same number it had dialed.
Precisely what was discussed during those two calls is unclear. RFE/RL’s calls to the other phone number went unanswered.
Lapunov and other gay men have alleged that after being abducted by police in Chechnya, they were forced to call gay acquaintances from their contacts list and lure them into the clutches of the police.
Beginning the evening of March 16, 2017, Kobyshev’s phone number failed to contact a single cell tower for five days before linking with a tower near a hospital in southwestern Grozny. Chechnya’s regional Health Ministry told investigators it had no record of Kobyshev entering one of its facilities.
He might not have even gotten on [the train]."
After connecting with the tower near the hospital, Kobyshev’s phone was hit with text messages, including from relatives, but no responses from his number followed.
Later that day, the phone contacted cell towers along a railroad line between Grozny and Moscow before going silent. When it resumed contact with its network, the phone had already arrived by train from the city of Voronezh, some 1,000 kilometers to the north -- and with Kobyshev nowhere in sight.
According to Lapunov’s account, Kobyshev was still in police captivity when his phone arrived in Voronezh, where the man who found it in the train contacted Kobyshev’s family and arranged to send the handset to them.
And while there is no evidence that Kobyshev was physically on the train, someone used his passport details to buy a ticket for that specific rail journey, according to case materials.
It was the first of two bizarre train-ticket purchases using Kobyshev’s passport details in the months after he disappeared in Grozny, and it remains unclear who might have bought them.
“He might not have even gotten on [the train],” Pyotr Kravchenko, Kobyshev’s brother-in-law, told RFE/RL. “Someone might have just tossed the phone on the upper luggage rack.”
The railroad attendant working the car for which the ticket out of Grozny was purchased quit her job months later and told investigators she was unable to recall seeing him on the train.
More than a year later, in May 2018, investigators asked the responsible subsidiary of state-owned Russian Railways to provide a passenger manifest for the train in question.
The response said such records are only stored for nine months, and therefore “it is not possible” to provide that information.
The second purchase of a train ticket using Kobyshev’s passport details occurred on June 18, 2017, in the city of Salsk, 500 kilometers northwest of Grozny and 250 kilometers east of Kobyshev’s home village.
The ticket for a Volgograd-bound train was bought at the Salsk railway station and was returned the very same evening, 25 minutes after the train had departed, according to records obtained by investigators.
Kravchenko said in a statement to Lapunov’s lawyer earlier this year that an investigator in Chechnya informed the family of the purchase in August 2017.
“I contacted the investigator and demanded that the security-camera footage be obtained and that witnesses at the scene be questioned,” Kravchenko said. “After that, the investigator told me that the footage hadn’t been stored and that the witnesses didn’t say anything. The investigator also kept telling me that all information confirms that Kobyshev...left the Republic of Chechnya.”
The Investigative Committee ultimately requested security-camera footage from the Salsk train station six months later, after it had taken over the case from police in Chechnya and launched a murder probe.
The head of the train station testified that the footage is only stored for 30 days, while the cashier on duty at the time said she didn’t recognize a photo of Kobyshev and didn’t remember anyone exchanging a ticket, according to case materials.
“The investigators rang us up and said: ‘Why are you messing around with us? He’s already over there on your side, in Russia. He bought a ticket in Salsk. Why are you harassing us?” Kobyshev’s nephew, Titov, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.
The case of Chechen pop singer Zelimkhan Bakayev also featured strange purported evidence of his whereabouts following his disappearance in August 2017. A month after Bakayev vanished in Grozny, a video posted on YouTube showed him claiming that he was in Germany and having a great time. The video, shot in an apartment with the drapes drawn, was picked up by Chechen state TV almost immediately as purported evidence that Bakayev was abroad. But it contained no evidence that Bakayev was, in fact, in Germany.
LGBT rights activists subsequently said that they had received confirmation that Bakayev was detained by authorities amid the alleged antigay campaign.
Kadyrov later hinted that Bakayev may have been killed by family members and that there was no evidence of authorities’ involvement in his disappearance. It was the first public suggestion by a Chechen official that the singer might be dead.
Bakayev remains missing.
In a November 2017 query to an official with Russia’s national Interpol bureau for Chechnya, an investigator speculated that Kobyshev might have been planning “to leave for a country in Europe.” But investigators had no records showing Kobyshev possessed a passport allowing him to travel internationally, the letter said.
The official replied that he found no record of Kobyshev through initial Interpol channels and requested more information, including details of any foreign-travel passport he might have. Case files reviewed by RFE/RL show no response to that request.
'Authorities Know The Truth'
As part of the murder probe opened in connection with Kobyshev’s disappearance, investigators in November 2017 sent a formal inquiry to the same criminal investigations department with Chechnya’s Interior Ministry that Lapunov accused of abducting and torturing him.
It asked whether officers from that department had ever detained Kobyshev beginning in March 2017 and whether they had any “information of a compromising nature” about the missing man.
Authorities know the truth."
The case materials reviewed by RFE/RL do not indicate whether investigators received a response. Chechnya's Interior Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's June 5 inquiry asking whether its officers had ever detained Kobyshev.
Smirnov, Lapunov’s lawyer, said in his appeal to Moskalkova in March that investigators in his client’s case failed to obtain critical information from that department, including a list of employees during the time when Lapunov was allegedly held captive.
Smirnov also told Moskalkova that investigators failed to obtain billing information for Lapunov’s mobile phone that would show which Grozny cell towers it was connecting with during the period in question.
That information could indicate whether or not Lapunov and Kobyshev -- or, at least, their mobile phones -- were located in the same area of Grozny at the time when Lapunov alleges both men were being held in a police cellar.
Kobyshev’s relatives say that when his smart phone was returned to them, they discovered pornographic videos on it. His brother-in-law, Pyotr Kravchenko, did not go into details about the contents of those materials, though he told RFE/RL that he believes they might be connected to his nephew’s disappearance.
After receiving Kobyshev's phone, his family sent it to investigators in Chechnya.
Kravchenko, who said that Kobyshev himself never indicated to relatives that he might be gay, quoted an investigator working on the case as saying of the missing masseur: “He’s not a man.”
“Authorities know the truth,” Kravchenko said.
No criminal investigation was launched based on the accusations made by Lapunov, the lone alleged victim of the Chechen antigay crackdown to file a formal complaint with Russian authorities.
Rights groups say that while Lapunov took great risks by coming forward, the fact that he -- like Kobyshev -- is an ethnic Russian made the move less dangerous than for ethnic Chechens due to the deep social stigma that homosexuality carries in their society.
Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said police in Chechnya earlier this year carried out a fresh round of illegal detentions and beatings of men suspected of being gay -- an accusation Kadyrov’s spokesman called a “lie.” One alleged victim said police outed him to his family and “indirectly” encouraged relatives to kill him, HRW said.
Moskalkova’s office did not respond to questions submitted by RFE/RL on June 4, including whether authorities might combine the Lapunov and Kobyshev cases into a single investigation. Smirnov told RFE/RL that Moskalkova voiced opposition to the idea.
The probe into Kobyshev’s disappearance was suspended in July 2018. But less than a week after Smirnov met with Moskalkova, the Investigative Committee said its colleagues in Chechnya were seeking help in locating Kobyshev in connection with an ongoing criminal case.
In a March 18 letter to Smirnov, Moskalkova’s office said the lawyer’s appeal that included Lapunov’s testimony about Kobyshev had been passed on to the deputy head of the Russian Investigative Committee in Moscow.
The law enforcement agency’s main investigative directorate in Chechnya declined to comment on the status of the Kobyshev case. It referred all questions to the Investigative Committee’s headquarters in Moscow, which did not immediately respond to an inquiry from RFE/RL.
Kobyshev’s relatives said he had kept them in the dark about his massage work.
“He trained to be a masseur, and we only found out about it after” he disappeared, Kravchenko told RFE/RL.
RFE/RL reached two people who said they were clients of Kobyshev, one of whom called him an excellent masseur. Both said they were unaware that Kobyshev was missing.
Kobyshev’s nephew, Sergei Titov, said he had found out “by pure coincidence” about his uncle’s new career prior to his disappearance.
Titov, a resident of Saratov, said his uncle had talked to him about packing up his massage table in Grozny and taking his trade to the city, 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow.
“He said, ‘Find me a place there.' He had just come to visit us over the winter and said, ‘I’ll go get my things and arrive in April or May ,’” Titov said.
“I said, ‘No problem. Cоme on over.’”