Why Russia lionises inmates fighting in Ukraine
The Kremlin has lauded mercenaries with the powerful private Wagner Group, of which thousands are ex-prisoners.
The coffin with Sergey Molodtsov’s body was draped in a vermilion cloth and covered with a Russian flag. Four stern servicemen in parade uniforms carried it to his grave, and war veterans delivered speeches thanking him for “courage” and “heroism”.
That’s how E1.ru, an online publication in the Urals Mountains region of Sverdlovsk, described in mid-January the funeral of the 46-year-old man who had been killed in Ukraine.
It did not specify the date of Molodtsov’s death – but quoted an unnamed official talking fondly about him.
“He was creative, dabbled in bone carving, worked at a jewellery workshop. Relatives remember Sergey as a wonderfully unordinary person who loved life. He was an honest person,” the official reportedly said.
What he did not mention was that in 2017, Molodtsov was sentenced to 11-and-a-half years in jail for beating his mother to death – in a drunken stupor, with his hands and feet.
He broke her jaw and skull, but claimed during the trial that she “fell,” according to the court papers quoted by E1.ru.
‘Houses of the dead’
Almost half a million inmates are serving time in Russian prisons, which are notorious for their cruelty dating back to Stalinist gulags and the Tsarist-era “houses of the dead” described by novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
And tens of thousands of prisoners have been recruited to fight in Ukraine by the Wagner Group, a private military company, according to human rights groups, and Ukrainian and Western officials.
They were promised hefty pay cheques and lavish compensation for their families if they die in combat.
If they don’t – after six months of service – they were promised a presidential pardon and freedom.
On January 20, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the pardons were “classified”.
For some of the inmates-turned-mercenaries, honours seem to be part of the deal. On December 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don to hand awards to dozens of servicemen who had fought in Ukraine.
One of them was Aik Gasparyan, a full-bearded, khaki-clad 31-year-old who smiled awkwardly as Putin was handing him the For Courage medal.
“I serve Russia and the Wagner private company,” Gasparyan said.
He hardly expected this four years ago, when a Moscow court sentenced him to seven years and three months in jail for trying to rob a man in a cafe.
Wagner made Garsparyan a poster boy whose rise to fame and freedom could convince more inmates to join the company.
A day earlier, Gasparyan appeared in a video posted on Wagner’s Telegram channel.
“There’s no f—g cheating, things are like they said – we’re fighting next to other [servicemen]. Now, we’re heading to Rostov to get awards,” he said.
He also thanked Wagner’s head Yevgeny Prigozhin for “doing absolutely everything for us”.
From a troll farm to ‘transnational’ crime
Prigozhin is known as Putin’s “chef” because his catering companies serve the Kremlin and have won contracts to supply food to the military, schools and kindergartens.
He also founded the Internet Research Factory, better known as a “troll farm”, that used social media networks to stifle criticism online and meddle in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, according to Washington.
Prigozhin started Wagner in 2014 to back pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine, even though private military companies are still banned in Russia.
Wagner started recruiting experienced fighters – and branched out to war-ravaged Syria to save President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
However, until late 2022, Prigozhin preferred to stay in the shadows and sued Russian media outlets that reported about Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, Syria and Africa.
Three Russian journalists who went to the Central African Republic in 2018 to film a documentary about Wagner’s role in the civil war and gold mining, were killed contract-style. Their relatives and colleagues claimed Prigozhin was behind their deaths, but Russian investigators said the reporters were killed during a robbery.
The FAN, a Russian news agency connected to Prigozhin, claimed that French intelligence and former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky allegedly “commissioned” the killings.
In January, Washington designated the Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organisation” that has 50,000 fighters in Ukraine. Eighty percent of them are inmates, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.
Wagner started recruiting them only last year, and Prigozhin personally visited dozens of prisons.
“The motherland is in danger,” was the mantra he repeated, according to videos and inmates.
Prigozhin was also fluent in prison slang – in the Soviet era, he served nine years for robbery.
But some of its former officers have shunned recruitment.
“If I were [inmate Gasparyan’s] commander, I’d say, ‘Take him away from me,” Marat Gabidullin, who served in Wagner for four years and led a reconnaissance unit in Syria, told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t need a soldier like him,” said Gabidullin, who wrote a book about his experience and is seeking asylum in France.
Analysts said recruiting convicts is useless from a military viewpoint – and only manifests the Kremlin’s moral degradation.
“It speaks volumes about the [Kremlin’s] moral outlook in general,” Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
The practice cannot be implemented without an order from the Kremlin, he said.
“There’s no advantage in using the inmates – by wasting people, the Kremlin is simply trying to win time. Nobody cares about reporting” their deaths, he said. “We’re dealing with deep moral degradation of Russia’s entire leadership”.
The lionisation of inmates is “mental heritage” of the Russian empire and the USSR, when they were used to settle Siberia and fought on World War II front lines, said Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch.
And the celebration of criminals-turned-war heroes serves as a litmus test of the unhealthy relationship between the Kremlin and average Russians.
“It’s a mutation of their mental code towards a constant feeling of guilt before the state,” Kushch told Al Jazeera.
Wagner mercenaries are often referred to as “the orchestra” and “musicians”.
“The orchestra awaits you,” read the billboards in the Urals Mountains city of Yekaterinburg in July that also listed a contact phone number and the group’s nascent website.
The group has become a bogeyman for Kremlin critics.
Liya Akhedzhakova, 84, a Russian actress whose film and theatre performances have become iconic, repeatedly said she was “ashamed” of Moscow’s warmongering and “tired of Russia’s pseudo-greatness”.
In response, Andrey Medvedev, vice speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, threatened her with Wagner.
“If Akhedzhakova performs with ‘musicians’, the performance won’t be bad. Liya Medzhidovna, do you like Wagner?” he wrote on Telegram in late December. By early February, all of Akhedzhakova’s theatre performances were banned.
A convicted murderer named Yevgeny Nuzhin joined Wagner in July.
Two months later, he was captured near the southeastern city of Luhansk and told Ukrainian media that he had joined the company only to surrender. He described how Wagner’s officers used inmates as cannon fodder and “nullified,” or executed them for disobeying orders.
The term gained popularity in Russia after Putin ordered a nationwide referendum to “nullify” his previous presidential terms.
Even though Nuzhin said he wanted to fight against Russia, Kyiv swapped him for Ukrainian prisoners of war.
On November 12, a video of his execution with a massive sledgehammer was released by the Grey Zone, a Telegram channel linked to Wagner.
Two months later, Sergey Mironov, head of the pro-Kremlin “A Just Russia – For Truth” political party, received a similar sledgehammer from Prigozhin.
Mironov tweeted he was “proud” of receiving the gift – and that his entire party supported the war.
And he couldn’t miss a chance to threaten the war’s critics.
“Kids, keep on tweeting, but remember – I got the hammer in my office,” he wrote.
On Thursday, Prigozhin said Wagner stopped recruiting inmates. He did not specify the reason.