KALININGRAD, Russia -- Life fell apart for Sergei Rozhkov, a 41-year-old construction worker from the capital of Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, in the first half of 2020.
“Everything changed in May when Sergei and his wife divorced,” said Rozhkov’s younger brother, Vladimir. “He took the breakup very hard. Before, he had been cheerful and sociable, but now he closed up. He began drinking.”
In the autumn, Sergei packed up a few things and left his home.
“It took us a while to notice,” another brother, Aleksandr Rozhkov, told RFE/RL. “We all have our own lives and families. We talk on the phone once a week or so and get together even less often. But after he didn’t return our calls a few times, we got concerned.”
Rozhkov’s family has not seen Sergei since. The authorities have been unable to find out anything about his disappearance, but the family’s own investigation has convinced them Sergei was abducted and is likely being forced to work on a farm in the predominantly agricultural Chernyakhovsky district in the heart of the Baltic Sea region.
“They exploit unpaid labor,” Vladimir said. “We believe Sergei has ended up there.”
The suspicion is not as outlandish as it might seem at first glance.
In 2014, law enforcement authorities liberated 36 men who had been listed as “missing” from Kaliningrad from a farm in the Guryevsky district. Most of the men had been homeless or “lived an antisocial lifestyle,” a police spokesman was quoted as saying at the time.
The enslaved men told police they had been held in primitive conditions against their will and had been beaten frequently.
“The most common forms of enslavement in the country are for agricultural and construction work,” said Oleg Melnikov, director of the Moscow-based NGO Alternativa, which investigates cases of human trafficking and slave labor in Russia. “Every year, between 80,000 and 100,000 people go missing in Russia. Of them, about 5 to 7 percent end up in some form of slavery -- sexual or for physical labor. That would be about 5,000 to 10,000 people a year.”
Melnikov added that since 2011, only about 150 criminal cases have been brought under Russia’s laws against labor exploitation.
“That is because the laws are extremely poorly written,” he said. “They don’t even include a definition of who is the victim in such cases.”
In Kaliningrad Oblast, Yekaterina Presnyakova of the NGO Zapad, which searches for missing people, said her organization received over 220 appeals for help in 2020, including the Rozhkov case.
When the Rozhkov brothers began their search for Sergei, they quickly learned that he had spent a lot of time over the summer with a friend named Leonid Artyukh, who is an official with the Association of Evangelical Churches of Kaliningrad Oblast.
“I met Sergei back in 2003 when he did some construction work at my house,” Artyukh told RFE/RL. “[Last summer] Sergei began having problems with alcohol. I invited him to talk with some of our parishioners. He came only once.
“Then I decided to try to help him, so I suggested that he go to a monastery for spiritual renewal. It is located in the Chernyakhovsky district. Sergei agreed, and I took him there,” Artyukh said.”
Artyukh told the Rozhkovs where the monastery was located on October 22 and, the following day, they made the trip there.
They found a two-story building in the middle of a remote field. It had about 10 bedrooms, each housing three or four men.
“We were able to enter freely,” Aleksandr said. “No one chased us out. People were friendly. But Sergei was not there.”
A man who introduced himself as Viktor and said he was the elder at the facility said that Sergei had been there for only two days.
Viktor said Sergei left during the night, leaving his possessions and his mobile phone behind. He added that Sergei had been calm and had not had any conflicts while he was there.
During this trip, the Rozhkov brothers also learned about the alleged use of slave labor on farms in the district, they said.
“We believe Sergei ended up there,” Vladimir Rozhkov said, adding that the family suspects he was abducted at some point after leaving what he referred to as the “church shelter.”
Abductions, the Rozhkovs said they learned, are something of an open secret in the Chernyakovsky district.
“After 8 p.m., you see almost no one on the streets there,” Aleksandr Rozhkov said. “They are simply afraid to appear outside. There have been very many cases when people walking from one settlement to another just vanished. And no one there is surprised.”
Local resident Nikolai Semyonov told RFE/RL a similar story.
“I have lived here for 30 years,” he said. “Even before, it was dangerous to walk around in the dark. But now it is even more dangerous. I haven’t been out at night myself for a long time now. People just disappear.”
Facing a dead end after visiting the monastery, the Rozhkov brothers returned to Kaliningrad the same day. And on that very evening, Sergei suddenly called from an unknown telephone number.
“Sergei said he’d borrowed the telephone from some woman,” Aleksandr recalled. “He said that he was at a bus stop in a settlement in the Chernyakhovsky district. He said he was lost and asked me to come and get him. He confirmed that he had left the monastery of his own volition. The call came at 19:15. His voice was calm.
“We had no idea that he was in great danger,” he added.
Aleksandr arrived at the bus stop in the settlement of Svoboda about three hours later. But Sergei was not there.
“I asked around whether anyone had seen such a man,” he recalled. “They said that they had. They told me that he was sitting for a long time at the stop. Then two minivans pulled up and stopped in front of him. After a small altercation, they dragged my brother into one of the vans and drove off. I missed him by just 20 minutes.”
The next day, the Rozhkovs filed a missing-person report with the police.
“For a long time, the police didn’t give us any information at all,” Aleksandr said. “Now they tell us that they are looking but haven’t found anything.”
Zapad, the NGO, has also been looking, activist Presnyakova told RFE/RL.
“Our volunteers searched the whole Svoboda settlement,” she said. “We have gone over the entire area with drones, but without result. The police have checked all the farms in Kaliningrad Oblast. The search for Sergei Rozkhov continues.”
Rozhkov is now officially listed as missing, and police have opened a murder investigation. His family has hired a lawyer. The prosecutor’s office told RFE/RL that a criminal investigation is ongoing, and the authorities continue to search for the missing man.
The family’s lawyer, who asked not to be identified out of safety concerns because of her investigation into the alleged use of forced labor, said she has gotten the cold shoulder from farms she has visited seeking information.
“You show up and the owner comes out and says, ‘I swear by my mother there is no one here.’ But it is impossible to verify what is really going on there.”
Beatings, No Pay
After the Rozhkovs went public with their search, other locals came forward with similar stories. One of them, 27-year-old Vladislav Feshchak, even believes he may have seen Sergei.
In September 2020, Feshchak was searching for work when he was approached by a “foreign-looking” man in a minivan.
“I told him I was looking for work and he offered a job on a farm,” Feshchak told RFE/RL. “I was a little drunk and I agreed. When we arrived, he suggested that I get some sleep and start working in the morning. But it turned out they had no intention of paying me or letting me leave.
"There were five other guys there in the same situation. All of them worked without getting paid. I ran off almost immediately, but they caught me after about two hours. They told me that they would make a cripple out of me if I tried it again. I saw them beat several people being held there.”
Feshchak escaped captivity in December but has been living in hiding with relatives ever since. He said he fears for his life. When he filed a statement with the police, he said, he was told “there are quite a few cases” like his.
“They took my statement, but it is unlikely they will do anything,” he said.
While he was in captivity, Feshchak believes he might have seen Sergei Rozhkov.
“I can’t say for sure, but he looked a lot like the photographs [of Rozhkov],” Feshchak said. “When I was on the farm, some guys came to us from another farm. They took away about 400 rams. The guy in charge had four other guys helping him load the animals. And one of them looked a lot like Sergei.”