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How the Wagner Group continues to recruit prisoners to the war in Ukraine
Former convicts who joined the group to fight in Ukraine are asking not to be exchanged after capture by the Ukrainian side. BBC spoke to them to find out why.
By Anastasia Lotareva and Ilya Barabanov.
Members of the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner may be summarily executing deserters and other ‘offenders’, including with sledgehammers, reports say. Former convicts who joined the group to fight in Ukraine are asking not to be exchanged after capture by the Ukrainian side. Recruitment of Russian prisoners to fight in the war in Ukraine continues. BBC Russian spoke to some of them.
"Don’t swap him"
– Don’t you want to be exchanged?
– No, I don't, because they’ll kill me immediately.
– Why do you say that?
– I know they will ... I beg you ... There are guys walking around here ... Guys, please, there’s no need for any kind of exchange.
A young man in camouflage sits opposite an unseen interviewer — a Ukrainian journalist from the Butusov+ YouTube channel. He continually blinks in confusion.
The man is 26-year-old Alexander Bolchev. He says that, until recently, he was serving a three and a half year sentence in a strict-regime penal colony IK-4 in Russia’s Mari El Republic "for stealing a lamb" in his native village of Gagarino, Lipetsk region.
Bolchev tells how recruiters from Wagner private military company visited the colony in September, offering prisoners the opportunity to join the group in exchange for a pardon after six months, a training allowance of 150,000 RUB and an additional 250,000 for taking part in combat. Bolchev spent two months training with the group, but just one day on the frontline. He was given a machine gun, nine rounds of ammunition, body armour, a helmet, a bayonet "and nothing else".
– You won't see your mother … your child. If you’re exchanged, you’ll at least have a chance.
– My only chance is in the next life, that’s all. — Bolchev uses his hat to wipe the tears from his eyes. — There are no other chances. Please ... If I go back, it’s the end ...
Alexander Bolchev says he had "heard nothing about Nuzhin", and asks for the name to be repeated. But Bolchev’s relative, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, mentions Nuzhin at the very start of her conversation with the BBC.
"We’ve been in tears for two days. I’ve written to the penal colony, tried calling them, but they don’t answer ... It’s good that he’s alive, but he’ll be handed over and killed – they will kill him for sure. Maybe it’s possible to write to them about it? So that they don’t swap him." She has forgotten the surname of Ukraine’s President Zelensky, but it’s he who she has in mind.
"Shrapnel wounds and a blow to the head"
Alexander Bolchev's fears about being exchanged are easily understandable. The BBC has reported in detail on the story of former prisoner Yevgeny Nuzhin, who voluntarily gave himself up and even expressed a desire to fight on the Ukrainian side, but was eventually handed over for exchange and brutally executed without trial. Members of the Wagner Group were most likely responsible for the killing.
In early December Vladimir Osechkin, head of the project Gulagu.net, recounted the story of another former prisoner, Viktor Sevalnev, who joined up to fight as an inmate of Kaluga IK-3 penal colony after his son, also a former prisoner, died on the frontline.
Sevalnev rose to the rank of company commander in the PMC and was even decorated for successfully breaking out of encirclement, but when he was wounded and hospitalised, his former subordinates deserted their positions. On November 20, Sevalnev called his wife Lilia to tell her that he would be taken directly from the hospital to be shot.
Shortly afterwards, on December 1, a representative of the Ministry of Defence informed Sevalnev's wife that her husband had died in the self-proclaimed DPR as a result of shrapnel wounds and a severe blow to the head. Osechkin suggests that Sevalnev may have been executed [by the Russian side], just like Nuzhin.
Olga Romanova, director of the non-profit group ‘Russia Behind Bars’ , says that penal colony inmates have reported dozens of extrajudicial executions of recruited convicts.
However, the fact that victims are often not Russian citizens but of foreign nationality (Belarusians, Kyrgyzstanis, Azerbaijanis or Uzbeks) has led the human rights activist to suggest that, rather than being ‘dealt with’ by Wagner mercenaries, these prisoners may simply have died in the course of hostilities. Wagner Group members, however, preferred to tell relatives they’d been executed as deserters, to avoid transporting the body or paying funeral expenses.
Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin hastened to distance himself from stories of Sevalnev’s death, stating that "this person has never been in the ranks of Wagner PMC, has never spent time in any training camps and never worked for Wagner PMC."
It is nonetheless true that Prigozhin initially endorsed the extrajudicial killing of Nuzhin. He said at the time: "As for the ‘sledgehammered’ man, we can see from this show that he did not find happiness in Ukraine, but was rather met by people who were unkind, yet fair."
The next day he added: "Nuzhin betrayed his people, betrayed his comrades, betrayed consciously. He wasn't taken prisoner and did not surrender, but rather planned his escape. Nuzhin is a traitor."
After a large public outcry, Prigozhin started claiming that Nuzhin had not been executed on his orders, but that the former prisoner had supposedly been kidnapped and killed by US or other NATO special services.
He wrote a mocking letter to Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov asking him to investigate Nuzhin’s murder, and on November 23 sent a sledgehammer smeared with fake blood to the European Parliament. Now he prefers to blame the CIA for Nuzhin's death.
Executed on camera
"Do you know how many people signed up from our colony?" asks Yevgeny N., an inmate from a penal colony "for first-timers" in southern Russia, who has asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
"Almost one in five. 150 people from around 800. The inmates here are in prison for the first time," he goes on to explain. "Almost none of them have long sentences. Some say they’re doing it ‘just for fun’ (an individual with a 2.5 year sentence), or that they’ve ‘just had enough’ (a 3-year sentence) or that ‘maybe I’ll be lucky’ (7 years)."
According to Yevgeny, "it’s just youngsters" who go. Older inmates try to dissuade them, mostly without success.
"I was sentenced to nine years for attempted drug trafficking," recounts another prisoner from a penal colony in Russia’s far east who joined the PMC. "I didn’t even finish committing the crime… but anyway, that’s not the topic of our conversation."
"They [the recruiters] had come once before," he continues. "At that time I was still doubting my decision, but after the first group left, I regretted that I wasn’t with them. My ultimate decision was in line with my wish to leave the country. That had nothing to do with the special military operation, though — it developed a long time before this whole situation. To put it simply, I’m dissatisfied with my hopeless life in this country and then, after serving time for six years, I get this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone — to get out of prison and the country at the same time."
He says that he doesn’t trust the recruiters’ guarantee: "I’ve been in prison too long to still believe in fairy tales about pardons. That means that if and when I go with the PMC to the line of contact, I still need to think about relocation, since no-one will just let me go anywhere." He has not heard about Nuzhin’s story, but claims that recruiters showed a video with "the execution of prison ‘bitches’ (a derogatory slang term for a given category of people in custody)” in the common room.
Those who expressed an interest in joining the PMC were taken in groups to watch a short video on a computer tablet. According to the BBC’s source, it showed an execution. "The man in the clip says — I, such and such, a traitor and a ‘bitch’, abandoned my comrades on the front line. Then they shoot him in the back of the head."
The BBC has not been able to view the footage, but a source in another colony, unconnected to the first, says that they were shown a similar video in September, although their version showed a man being hung from an iron beam.
Several BBC sources close to the Wagner Group (who have asked that their names and current status remain undisclosed for security reasons) earlier commented that they knew of at least three similar executions. These were not made public, however, and the BBC has not been able to corroborate this information. One informant asserts that such ‘training videos’ were in use even before the start of the war in Ukraine.
Ilya N., an employee of a penal colony in central Russia, who has asked to remain anonymous to avoid losing his job, told the BBC that recruiters had twice visited the colony. On their first visit they were accompanied by Prigozhin himself. Although the BBC has been unable to confirm or deny Ilya’s report, Prigozhin’s press office has published his response to a question on prisoner recruitment: "I personally tell volunteer prisoners what all the assignments and conditions are, and I never deceive them. Talk to them and see for yourselves."
Ilya says that recruiters "felt completely unhindered" in the penal colonies, and that they only communicated with the prison governor. He adds that Federal Penitentiary Service [FPS] employees are "not thrilled" with the new arrangements. He himself asked the director how he should respond to relatives’ enquiries when prisoners left for the front, but was advised to mind his own business.
Ilya's responsibilities include daily communication with prisoners. He says that he discourages them from "making hasty decisions", but to no avail. When asked to describe his own feelings on the war in Ukraine, he says: "I’ve been in two wars (Ilya fought in Chechnya in 1990s - BBC). It's worse than prison."
Read the full story in Russian here.
Translated by Camilla Yermekbayeva.