LONG READ: Russia’s ‘last hope’ – the violent criminals turned Wagner mercenaries fighting on the frontline in Ukraine
Murderers buried with honours, robbers given medals by Putin. How the Wagner Group’s latest prisoner recruits are fighting and dying in Ukraine.
By Elizaveta Fokht, Olga Ivshina, Ksenia Churmanova.
Murderers and drug dealers buried with honours. Robbers awarded medals by President Putin. More and more stories are emerging about the thousands of serving prisoners sent to fight in Ukraine for the Wagner mercenary group. The once secretive company has now stepped firmly out of the shadows, but serious questions remain about the legal basis for its operations, and exactly how it is able to free prisoners from jail and pardon them if they survive a tour of duty in Ukraine.
On 31 December 2022, Vladimir Putin travelled to the southern city of Rostov, to preside over a medal ceremony for officers and soldiers who had fought in Ukraine.
In footage posted on the Kremlin website, the president can be seen shaking hands with a bearded young man. He stands out because he is dressed in different military fatigues from everyone else. And unlike everyone else he is introduced by his name, but not his rank.
The young man’s name was Aik Gasparyan, and according to court records, he should have been in prison in Ryazan where he was two years into a seven-year sentence for a violent attempted robbery at a café near the Kyrgyz embassy in Moscow.
But the day before President Putin’s award ceremony, a video was posted on a Telegram channel linked to the Wagner Group showing Gasparyan, a mixed martial arts enthusiast, recording an upbeat message for his former cell-mates:
“Everything’s fine lads,” he says. “It’s exactly like they said. We’re fighting on an equal footing with everyone else. And now we’re off to Rostov for a medal ceremony.”
Another Telegram channel linked to the group, and calling itself the ‘Wagner Orchestra” filled in the blanks. Gasparyan had joined the Wagner Group from prison and been taking part in the brutal fighting for town of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.
The video of Gasparyan meeting Putin was widely shared by Wagner supporters. The message it sent was clear. The inclusion of a Wagner fighter, and serving prisoner, in a presidential ceremony was the ultimate acknowledgement that this once shadowy group had now finally joined the mainstream.
High pay and promise of adventure
The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 and initially its fighters were deployed to help Russian-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine.
But the group quickly began to expand its operations, as growing evidence emerged of Wagner mercenaries being sent to the Central African Republic, Sudan, Syria, and Libya.
For potential recruits the group offered good money and the promise of purpose and adventure.
"Men who are romantics at heart joined this organisation to defend Russia's interests beyond its borders," one former fighter told BBC Russian
The group attracted men from small towns across Russia where the prospects of finding a well-paid job were limited.
Working for Wagner would pay around $1,500 a month, or up to $2,000 if it was a combat deployment. And it frequently was. Wagner mercenaries fought alongside President Assad's troops in Syria and against the UN-backed government in Libya, in support of General Haftar.
Between 2014 and 2021 it’s estimated that around 15,000 men signed up with the group.
Deniability and law suits
Before the war in Ukraine, any journalist who asked questions about the activities of the Wagner group would be met with a blanket denial.
Suggestions that Moscow was using mercenaries to spread its influence in other parts of the world were vehemently rejected. Officials took pains to point out that it was illegal to be a mercenary in Russia and joining such an organisation was a punishable offence.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the St Petersburg businessman whose name was linked to the group, consistently denied being in any way connected to Wagner, and he pursued journalists who reported otherwise through the courts in Russia and beyond.
Media organisations – including the BBC - who reported on the growing evidence that Wagner group fighters had committed atrocities in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic quickly found themselves subject to legal action.
In 2019 when asked by BBC Russian about the presence of Russian fighters in Syria, President Putin said he was only aware of some private security companies working there, but that they were not linked to the Russian state. He made similar statements when asked about Russian mercenaries in Libya in 2020.
The invasion of Ukraine changed all this. After the regular army failed to deliver a swift victory, and instead suffered a string of losses, Telegram channels linked to the Wagner Group lit up with criticism of the military high command. And Wagner fighters began heading for the frontline.
Death and glory
The first reports that the Wagner group were boosting their numbers with prison inmates began to emerge last summer.
On 7 August state broadcaster Rossiya-1 aired a story about a fighter who had been killed in Ukraine, and for the first time acknowledged that he had been recruited from prison.
Konstantin Tulinov, 26, was described as a hero who had blown himself up and in the process killing three Ukrainian soldiers.
The report said that he had “begged to go the frontline”, despite having no military experience.
Tulinov did however have plenty of prison experience, having spent much of the past ten years in and out of jail for car theft, robbery and drugs offences.
Russian human rights media outlet Gulagu.net recognised Tulinov from the pictures shown on television. They had seen him before in a leaked video showing abuse in Russian jails. In it, Tulinov can be seen beating another prison and demanding money from him.
It’s not clear exactly how Tulinov ended up in Ukraine.
The BBC has discovered that on 6 June he filed a petition with a St Petersburg regional court asking for early release. As a prisoner who had already served two thirds of his sentence and had less than two years to go, he was entitled to do this.
However at the end of the year the court website showed that his request had been refused on 28 July – by which time he was already dead.
In January, this entry disappeared from the records, replaced by new information that Tulinov had withdrawn his request.
The BBC has asked the prison where Tulinov was serving his last sentence, who gave permission for him to leave jail and go to Ukraine. No reply has been forthcoming.
Tulinov's mother, Elena Tolstobrova told BBC Russian that she was aware her son had volunteered to go to war from prison.
"Yes, he told me he was going to defend our Motherland, that he made this choice to join this war, this special operation," she said.
She said his recruitment had been shrouded in secrecy and after he left prison it was more than a month before she was able to find out where he was.
She confirmed that he had been killed in the Donbas in July.
'The most experienced army in the world'
In September 2022 Yevgeny Prigozhin, finally went public and admitted that he had founded the Wagner Group in 2014. He said he had done it to "defend Russians" and he called the company "a pillar of Russia".
Ironically, just a month earlier a court in Moscow had ruled against the veteran Russian journalist Aleksey Venediktov, accused of libel for calling Prigozhin the “boss” of Wagner. Venediktov says he’s now intending to appeal.
In early October the Kremlin tacitly acknowledged Prigozhin’s announcement, describing him as a man “whose heart ached for everything that’s happening”, and who “is making a great contribution in Ukraine”.
The same month, the Wagner Group opened a shiny new headquarters in St Petersburg. The Wagner Centre offered, holding IT, media and basic military training for school children and young people, in order to "increase Russia's fighting capacity”.
Russian state news agencies now make regular references to the Wagner group and openly report on the recruitment of prisoners. The Russian TV channel, NTV, ran a story about the Wagner Group, describing it as "the most experienced army in the world".
On 13 January the Russian Defence Ministry for the first time officially confirmed that Wagner fighters had been involved in the operation to capture the Ukrainian salt-mining town of Soledar.
Yevgeny Prigozhin has been quick to take advantage of his new public profile.
In late January he wrote to the speaker of the Russian parliament Vyacheslav Volodin complaining about journalists who are "seeking out unhelpful information about the recruited prisoners and show them up as criminals."
Mr Prigozhin suggested further tightening the law and banning the media from writing about the criminal past of the new Wagner recruits.
Mr Volodin accepted the suggestion and has asked appropriate parliamentary committees to look into possible amendments to the Russian criminal code.
"Everyone who is defending our country - the military, volunteers, new conscripts, members of Wagner - are all heroes," the head of the Russian parliament said.
“The whole world is against us”
It is difficult to establish exactly how many prisoners have been recruited into Wagner’s ranks.
According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, the numbers of prisoners in Russian penal colonies dropped by 23,000 between September and October 2022. In November the service stopped publishing data.
“Russia Behind Bars”, a charity set up to defend prisoners’ rights, estimates that by November 2022 more than 30,000 prisoners had gone to fight with Wagner in Ukraine.
At the end of December, John Kirby, representative of the US National Security Council, put the number even higher, saying the US believed that 40,000 out of 50,000 Wagner mercenaries fighting in Ukraine were prisoners. As many as 900 former prison inmates had been killed in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut, Kirby said.
A serving prisoner (we are calling him Sergei K.) gave the BBC an eyewitness account of how the recruitment process works.
In early October, Prigozhin himself came to Sergei’s penal colony by helicopter to recruit convicts. The colony held over 1,600 prisoners, 300 of whom accepted Prigozhin’s offer to go to the front. He promised them 100,000 roubles a month – and after six months, an official pardon and a clean criminal record.
Sergei explains the prisoners’ reasoning: “They thought they were really going to be free. They were told the casualty rate was around 15 percent. They’d just have to hang on for six months, then a new life and no criminal record.”
“Prigozhin told us: ‘When you’re pardoned in six months, you’ll go home, reoffend, and end up back in jail. Then I’ll come back for you. It’ll be a long war, at least 10 years. The army is losing. We’re the last hope. This is World War Three. The whole world’s against us!’”
Sergei told the BBC he does not support the invasion of Ukraine, which he called “unjustified and aggressive”, and he says he is not going to war. Sergei said he has not heard of any cases of prisoners from his colony receiving pardons after joining Wagner.
But others have. On January 5th, Russian state outlet RIA Novosti published a clip of Prigozhin, addressing at least two dozen mercenaries, all former prisoners. The Wagner chief announced the end of their six-month contracts and the issuing of the promised pardons.
It appears that even those imprisoned for serious crimes can be freed after a six-month Wagner contract. At the end of January, several Russian news outlets ran a story about a 66-year old St. Petersburg businessman, Aleksandr Tyutin, sentenced to 23 years in 2021 for ordering the murder of a whole family – including two children – in the early 2000s.
After six months with Wagner, Tyutin was discharged and headed off on holiday to Antalya in Turkey.
“By the letter of the law”
Russian authorities have yet to provide an official explanation of how prisoners are transported from jails to the frontline in a foreign country, and then returned home, dead or alive.
Relatives of prisoners have not received responses from the Federal Penitentiary Service. The BBC sent a series of detailed questions to the Service, which went unanswered.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly avoided questions about the specifics of prisoner pardons, saying only that “pardons can only be issued by presidential decree".
On 27 January, the BBC repeated its request for Peskov to comment on why Russians serving jail time were at the front, what the procedure was for them receiving pardons, and how some – like Aik Gasparyan – had even been rewarded by the President.
“I can’t say anything about the decrees” Peskov replied. “You know there are open decrees, and decrees with various secrecy stamps. That’s why I can’t talk about it. But I can say with assurance that the whole pardoning procedure is being carried out by the letter of Russian law.”
In a video from October, the ‘certificates of pardon’ issued to prisoners who had lost limbs on the battlefield show the date ‘6 July.’ This was exactly six months before Prigozhin’s farewell message in January, meaning that some prisoners served their full ‘contract.’ Previously, prisoners had to wait until their release date from the colony to receive these documents – but it looks like this time the documents were already in the possession of the mercenary recruiters.
The Russian constitution allows the President to pardon anyone at will. In previous years, the President issued these decrees publicly, without any procedure by a clemency commission. Several decrees mentioned the clearing of criminal records – so Prigozhin’s promise is possible in theory. Its scale depends entirely on Putin.
The Wagner burial ground
Trying to establish how many prisoners have died fighting for Wagner, and putting names to the dead, is a huge challenge.
One crucial source of information was the discovery of the location of a Wagner cemetery in the village of Stanitsa Bakinskaya, near to the group’s training base at Molkino in Krasnodar region.
It was found by a retired military serviceman called Vitaly Votanovsky,
On 20 December Votanovksy counted 47 graves – and by 15 January that number had spiralled to 180.
Among the new graves the BBC has identified 162 people who should still have been serving jail sentences. Many were sentenced for the worst kind of crimes.
Alexander Paramzin was convicted of murdering his baby son. The court heard that he was motivated by a “hostile personal relationship with his partner.” Ivan Tomilin, killed his brother with an axe. Vasily Svinshchev beat his own mother to death.
Not everyone is buried in the Wagner cemetery. Many dead fighters are returned to their families for burial. Graves like these can be found in cemeteries all over the country.
Each one has a story to tell.
Sergey Molodtsov, 46, was buried with honours in his home town of Serov, in the Urals. His coffin was covered with a Russian flag and a guard of honour stood at his graveside.
An obituary published by the local authorities said Molodtsov was a creative man who had worked in a jewelery workshop and loved life.
What it did not say was that in 2017 Molodtsov received 11.5 years in prison for kicking his retired mother to death.
Former security guard Yevgeny Losev, 23, from Yaroslavl region, was buried without fanfare. In 2019 he set fire to a house with homeless people in it, for money. Two people died and he was given a 14-year jail sentence.
His family told local journalists they were upset that there were no military honours at his funeral despite the fact that he had been killed in Ukraine.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, BBC Russian has been working with the Russian news site MediaZona to keep a count of Russian military casualties. The process involves cross checking open sources -- death notices in the regional media, posts from friends and families, and reports of new graves in cemeteries across the country.
Working this way BBC Russian and MediaZona have been able to compile a list of 471 serving prisoners confirmed as being killed in Ukraine. The number is climbing rapidly, with between 60 and 80 new names being added to the list every week.
For every death that is officially acknowledged, there are many more that remain unreported, unmourned or unnoticed.
And as the fighting in eastern Ukraine continues, the number of prisoners being killed is likely to keep on rising.
Read this story in Russian here.
Russian text edited by Anastasia Lotareva.
English text edited by Jenny Norton.
Translation by Pippa Crawford.
The BBC thanks human rights group “Go by the Forest” for their help with this material.