Why Russia praises prisoners fighting in Ukraine | Russo-Ukrainian War
The coffin with the body of Sergey Molodtsov was covered with a vermilion cloth and covered with a Russian flag. Four dignified servicemen in marching uniforms carried it to his grave, and veterans gave speeches thanking him for his “courage” and “heroism.”
That’s how E1.ru, an online publication in the Urals mountains of Sverdlovsk, describe in mid-January, the funeral of the 46-year-old man who was killed in Ukraine.
It does not specify the date of Molodtsov’s death – but quotes an unnamed official who spoke affectionately of him.
“He is creative, passionate about bone carving, works at a jeweler. Relatives remember Sergey as a wonderful extraordinary person who loved life. He is an honest person,” the official said.
What he doesn’t mention is that in 2017, Molodtsov was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison for beating his mother to death – in a drunken state and with both hands and feet.
He broke her jaw and skull, but claimed during the trial that she “fell,” according to court papers cited by E1.ru.
‘House of the Dead’
Nearly half a million prisoners are serving sentences in Russian prisons, whose infamous atrocities date back to the days of Stalinist concentration camps and the tsarist “house of the dead” by the novelist. Fyodor Dostoevsky described.
And tens of thousands of prisoners were recruited to fight in Ukraine by Wagner Corporationa private military company, according to human rights groups, and Ukrainian and Western officials.
They were promised generous salary checks and generous compensation to their families if they died 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 “top secret”.
For some prisoners turned mercenaries, honor seemed to be part of the deal. On December 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don to present awards to dozens of servicemen who fought in Ukraine.
One of them was Aik Gasparyan, 31, shaggy, dressed in khaki, smiling awkwardly as Putin presented him with the medal For Courage.
“I serve Russia and the private Wagner company,” says Gasparyan.
He hardly expected this four years ago, when a Moscow court sentenced him to seven years and three months in prison for trying to rob a man in a cafe.
Wagner turned Garsparyan into an advertising boy whose fame and freedom could convince more prisoners to join the company.
A day earlier, Gasparyan appeared in a video posted on Wagner’s Telegram channel.
“No cheating, everything is as they say – we are fighting alongside the others [servicemen]. Now, we are heading to Rostov to receive the award,” he said.
He also thanked Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin for “doing everything for us”.
From troll farm to ‘transnational’ crime
Prigozhin has been dubbed Putin’s “chef” because his catering companies cater to the Kremlin and have won contracts to provide food for the military, schools and kindergartens.
He also founded the Internet Research Factory, better known as the “troll farm,” which uses social media to suppress online criticism and interfere in the 2016 presidential election. 2016 in the United States, according to Washington.
Prigozhin founded Wagner in 2014 to support pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine, although private military companies are still banned in Russia.
Wagner began recruiting experienced fighters – and branched out into war-torn Syria to save the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
However, until the end of 2022Prigozhin prefers to stay in the dark and has sued Russian media outlets for reporting on Wagner’s activities in Ukraine, Syria and Africa.
Three Russian journalists who traveled to the Central African Republic in 2018 to film a documentary about Wagner’s role in the civil war and gold mining, were contract-killed. Their relatives and colleagues believe Prigozhin was behind their deaths, but Russian investigators say the reporters were killed during a robbery.
FAN, a Russian news agency affiliated with Prigozhin, claims that French intelligence and former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky are accused of “commissioning” the killings.
In January, Washington is appointed The Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organization” has 50,000 fighters in Ukraine. White House national security spokesman John Kirby said 80% of them were prisoners.
Wagner only started recruiting them last year, and Prigozhin has personally visited dozens of prisons.
“The fatherland is in danger,” was the mantra he repeated, according to the video and inmates.
Prigozhin is also fluent in prison slang – in Soviet times, he served nine years in prison for robbery.
But some of its former officers have shied away from recruitment.
“If I were [inmate Gasparyan’s] 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 Written a book about her experience and is applying for asylum in France.
Analysts say the prisoner recruitment is futile from a military standpoint – and only represents the Kremlin’s moral decline.
“It says a lot about [Kremlin’s] moral perspective,” Pavel Luzin, a defense analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“This could not have been done without an order from the Kremlin,” he said.
“There is no benefit in using prisoners – by wasting people, the Kremlin is simply trying to buy time. “Nobody cares about reporting” their deaths, he said. “We are dealing with a profound moral deterioration of the entire leadership of Russia.”
Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch said the cult of prisoners was the “spiritual legacy” of the Russian and Soviet empires, as they were used to settle in Siberia and fight on the front lines of World War II.
And the celebration of war heroes turned criminals serves as a test of the unhealthy relationship between the Kremlin and ordinary Russians.
Kushch told Al Jazeera: “It was a mutation in their mental code for constant guilt before the state.
Wagner’s mercenaries are often referred to as “orchestras” and “musicians”.
“The Orchestra Is Waiting For You,” read billboards in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg in July that also list the group’s contact phone number and newly formed website.
This group has become a boggart for critics of the Kremlin.
Liya Akhedzhakova, 84, a Russian actress whose film and theater performances have become iconic, has repeatedly said that she is “embarrassed” of Moscow’s belligerence and “tired of the grandeur” Russia’s great fake”.
In response, Andrey Medvedev, vice president of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, threatened her with Wagner.
“If Akhedzhakova performed with the ‘musicians’, the performance wouldn’t be bad. Liya Medzhidovna, do you like Wagner? he wrote on Telegram at the end of December. By the beginning of February, all performances at Akhedzhakova’s theater were banned.
A convicted murderer named Yevgeny Nuzhin joined Wagner in July.
Two months later, he was arrested near the southeastern city of Luhansk and told Ukrainian media that he joined the company only to surrender. He described how Wagner officers used prisoners as cannon fodder and “neutralized” or executed them for disobeying orders.
The term became popular in Russia after Putin ordered a nationwide referendum to “nullify” his previous presidential terms.
Although Nuzhin said he wanted to fight against Russia, Kyiv traded him for Ukrainian prisoners of war.
On November 12, a video of his execution with a giant sledgehammer was released by Gray Zone, a Telegram channel affiliated with Wagner.
Two months later, Sergey Mironov, head of the pro-Kremlin political party “Just Russia – For Truth”, received a similar sledgehammer from Prigozhin.
Mironov tweeted that he was “proud” to receive the gift – and that his entire party supported the fight.
And he could not miss an opportunity to intimidate the critics of the war.
“Children, keep tweeting, but remember – I have a hammer in my office,” he wrote.
On Thursday, Prigozhin said Wagner had stopped recruiting inmates. He did not specify why.