Russian prisoner fighters come home
He was released from a Russian prison and thrown into battle in the Ukraine with a promise of freedom, redemption and money.
Now Andrei Yastrebov, one of the tens of thousands of convicted soldiers, is part of a return from the battlefield with potentially serious implications for Russian society.
22-year-old Yastrebov, who was serving time for robbery, returned home a changed man.
“We all felt like he was in some kind of hypnosis, like he was a different person,” said a relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“He has no emotions.”
Thousands of convicts have been killed, many within days or even hours of arriving at the front lines, Russian rights advocates and Ukrainian officials say.
Those who survive and return home remain largely silent, wary of reprisals if they speak out.
The President’s Decision Vladimir Putin to allow a group of mercenaries to recruit Russian convicts to support their flagging war effort marks a turning point in their 23-year rule, human rights activists and legal experts say.
Politics eludes Russian legal precedents and, by returning some brutalized criminals home with pardons, he risks unleashing further violence throughout society, underscoring the cost Putin is willing to pay to avoid defeat.
Since July, some 40,000 prisoners have joined Russian forces, according to Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government and an association for the defense of prisoners’ rights, Russian Behind Barswhich combines reports from informers from all Russian prisons.
Ukraine claims that almost 30,000 have deserted or been killed or wounded, although this number could not be independently verified.
Most of the recruits were serving time for petty crimes such as robbery and theft, but records from a penal colony seen by The New York Times show that the recruits also included men convicted of aggravated rape and multiple murders.
“There are no more crimes and no punishment,” said Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars.
“Now everything is allowed, and this has very far-reaching consequences for any country.”
More than six months ago, Russia’s largest private military company, Wagner, and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, began systematically recruiting convicts on a scale not seen since World War II to bolster a bloody assault on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
However, the operation remains largely hidden in secrecy and propaganda.
Wagner has been able to evade supervision by exploiting Russia’s most marginalized citizens, the 350,000 inmates men from their harsh penal colonies, human rights activists and lawyers said.
Dozens of survivors of the first prisoner assault units began returning to Russia this month with medals, large paychecks and documents that Wagner says grant them their freedom.
The releases are likely to accelerate as Wagner’s six-month service contracts expire, potentially facing Russian society with the challenge of reintegrating thousands of traumatized men with military training, criminal records and poor job prospects.
“It’s about people psychologically wrecked who return with a sense of righteousness, with the belief that they have killed to defend the homeland,” says Yana Gelmel, a Russian prisoners’ rights lawyer who works with enlisted inmates.
“They can be very dangerous people.”
Neither Prigozhin, through his press office, nor the Russian criminal service had any comment.
To document the recruitment drive, the Times interviewed rights activists, lawyers, legal workers, family members of recruited inmates, deserters, and prisoners who chose to remain behind bars but keep in touch with companions in front.
They described a sophisticated system of incentives and brutality built by Wagner, with the support of the Kremlin, to pad Russia’s decimated military ranks using questionable and possibly illegal methods.
Andrei Medvedev stated that he joined Wagner within days of finishing his sentence for robbery in southern Russia.
Ex-con with military experience, says he was put in command of a detachment of prisoners who were sent to near suicide missions around Bakhmut.
“They told us: ‘Keep going until they kill you,'” Medvedev said in a telephone interview from Russia after defecting in November.
Since then he has escaped to norway and has applied for political asylum.
The campaign to recruit convicts began in early July, when Prigozhin began to appear in the prisons of his St. Petersburg home with a radical proposal for inmates:
pay off his debt to society by joining his private army in the Ukraine.
In videos posted on social media, Prigozhin promised prisoners they would receive 100,000 rubles a month, the equivalent of $1,700 of the time, and almost twice the average monthly wage in Russia.
He also offered bravery bonuses, $80,000 per kill and, if they survived the six-month contract, freedom in the form of a presidential pardon.
Those who fled, used drugs or alcohol or had sexual relations, he warned, they would be killed.
“There is no chance to return to the colony,” Prigozhin said in a speech to the inmates published in September.
“Those who get there and say ‘I think I’ve gone to the wrong place’ will be branded as deserters and shot.”
Prigozhin, a former inmate, understood prison culture and skillfully combined the threat of punishment with the promise of a new and dignified life, according to human rights activists and family members.
“It wasn’t for money, he was too proud for that,” says Anastasia, referring to a relative who enlisted with Wagner as an inmate.
“It was because he was embarrassed in front of his mother, he wanted to clear his name“.
Prigozhin’s prison visits immediately raised legal questions.
The recruitment of mercenaries is illegal in Russia, and until last year Prigozhin had denied that Wagner even existed.
On paper, the prisoners never went to war, they just went transferred to Russian prisons near the Ukrainian border, according to requests for information submitted by their relatives.
When Anastasia, who asked that her last name not be used, tried to find out the whereabouts of her enlisted relative in her prison, she said the guards just told her that I was not available.
Igor Matyukhin was a convicted robber who decided to enlist.
A 26-year-old Siberian orphan, Matyukhin said he was serving his third sentence in the remote Krasnoyarsk region when Prigozhin arrived by helicopter in November, offering his eventual freedom in exchange for conscription.
Fueled by the opportunity for a new life, Matyukhin immediately enlisted.
Days later, he was at a training camp near the occupied Ukrainian city of Luhansk.
What he found there, he says, was very different from the patriotic band of brothers he had been led to expect.
Matyukhin described a fear climate instilled by Wagner to keep the convicts fighting.
He said they were threatened with summary executions, and that at least one man from his unit was transferred after disobey orders and never came back.
When his training camp suffered a surprise Ukrainian attack, Matyukhin seized the opportunity to escape in the confusion.
Since then, he has tried to return to his prison from a hideout in Russia.
A relative of Matyukhin confirmed that he had enlisted in Wagner, but other aspects of his account of the war could not be independently verified.
To increase the number of recruits, Wagner has lately heightened the rewards for survivors, posting videos of returned prisoners being granted their freedom.
“I needed your criminal talent to kill the enemy in the war,” Prigozhin says in a video.
“For those who want to return, we are waiting. Those who want to get married, baptized, study… go ahead with a blessing.”
In some videos, inmates receive documents described as pardons or set asides.
However, none of these documents have been made public, raising questions about their legitimacy.
Human rights advocates claim that pardons are weird legal proceedings long and complex, which have never been awarded in Russia on such a grand scale as Wagner announced.
Only Putin can issue a pardon under the Russian constitution, and the Kremlin has not published such decrees since 2020.
In 2021, Putin pardoned just six people, according to the Kremlin.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Friday that Wagner’s enlisted convicts are being pardoned “in strict adherence to Russian law.”
He declined to comment further, implying that the procedure was a state secret.
“There are open decrees and decrees with varying degrees of secrecy,” he said.
Under Russian law, all pardon petitions are evaluated by specialized regional commissions before reaching the Kremlin.
However, two members of said commissions said they had not received any requests for enlisted convicts.
One of those officials represents the city of St. Petersburg, Yastrebov’s residence.
Human rights activists say the ambiguous legal status of the returning inmates undermines the Russian judicial system and links their fate to Wagner.
After spending just three weeks at home, Yastrebov declared that he was already preparing to return to the front, despite the extraordinary number of casualties his prison unit suffered, according to Russia Behind Bars.
“I want to defend the Motherland,” he declared Friday in a brief interview.
“I liked everything there. Civilian life is boring.”
c.2023 The New York Times Company