The prisoners recruited to the Wagner Group, who died in the fighting in Ukraine, return in coffins to their towns and villages. Local communities have a divided attitude towards the dead criminals, whom Kremlin propaganda tries to present as defenders of the homeland. The memory of many crimes committed by them is still alive among some residents. On the other hand, there are many people who repeat the narrative of the Russian authorities. Yevgeny Prigozhin himself sometimes reacts to the complaints of the families of the fallen against the administration’s refusal of military honors.
Russia loses in battle Ukraine not only equipment, but above all military personnel. Last September Vladimir Putin announced partial mobilization, but many experts pointed out that the authorities also introduced the so-called silent mobilization without making it public.
Repeatedly, the free media also reported that convicts were recruited for the fights. The first reports of the recruitment of prisoners by the mercenary Wagner Group appeared in the summer of last year. At that time, independent Russian media reported that the owner of this private army, Yevgeny Prigozhin, personally came to penal colonies, offering convicts a pardon and money in exchange for participation in fighting in Ukraine. The number of prisoners who joined the Prigozhin formation is not officially known. Olga Romanowa, head of the Sitting Ruthenia Foundation, which provides legal support to prisoners and their families, estimated in February this year that it probably reached 50,000.
He burned his sister and mother alive. After the fighting in Bachmut, he rested in the “Alley of Heroes”
When mercenaries die, their corpses are brought back to the villages and towns they came from. Then there is a division among the inhabitants. Some want to treat the criminal killed in the brutal invasion of Ukraine as a hero. Others are indignant because they do not forget the acts for which he was convicted.
The New York Times reported several stories from a few small Russian communities that show this rift.
32-year-old Roman Lazaruk was buried in February this year in the “Aleja Bohaterów” in his town. It is located in the south-western part of the country, in the Rostov region.
He died in Battle of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Due to his criminal past, the choice of his burial place caused indignation among some residents. Lazaruk was convicted of burning his mother and sister alive in 2014.
His sister’s former classmate criticized the burial of the man and other fallen convicts in a cemetery once reserved for World War II soldiers. “What did this Lazaruk or other guys do?” she asked in an interview with a local newspaper. “They killed, they stole, they stabbed, they raped, they went to jail and they went out to kill. Who are these heroes?” she added.
Kremlin propaganda and teaching children about “heroes of modern Russia”
The decision to recruit prisoners in penal colonies allowed Moscow to fill the gaps in the ranks of the army, but also caused some Russians to get offended. Last autumn, the Russian State Duma (parliament) passed a law officially allowing conscription of people convicted of serious crimes into the army.
Both the Kremlin’s propaganda machine and Prigozhin tried to portray all those killed as heroes fighting for their homeland, no matter how brutal and cruel their stories were.
In Russian schools, new lessons of patriotic education taught about “heroes of modern Russia”, and plaques hung on the walls of some schools commemorate the prisoners who died in Ukraine.
The clash of this narrative with the memory of the real past of the punished is particularly visible in small towns and villages. Residents remember the chilling details of the crimes committed by those who were later recruited from prison to fight.
“They know who the criminal is, who is a threat to the community, and they want to protect their daily lives,” said Greg Yudin, a Russian professor of political philosophy and research at Princeton University. “It’s a kind of moral protection for their community,” he added.
The other side of the dispute axis are regional Russian officials – they intervene in disputes over burials, pushing the Kremlin’s narrative. On the same side are the relatives and friends of the deceased who want to erase the stigma of his crime.
Judin pointed out that convicts who were outcasts in local communities can now become heroes. He said that “their reputation is bleached” and “you can get some money out of them”, referring to the benefits paid by the state to the families of fallen soldiers.
“It’s a good deal, so you can understand these people,” he said.
In Akhunov – in the autonomous Republic of Bashkortostan, which is part of the Russian Federation, on the border with Kazakhstan – on the VKontakte portal (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) a heated discussion broke out around the funeral of Ilshat Askarov, who took part in the aggression against Ukraine. His body was brought to this Tatar village of 2,500 at the end of February. Some residents wanted to give him a heroic burial, others were against it, unable to forget that he had killed his father.
One of the villagers, Gulnaz Gilmanowa, wrote that she was ashamed of the authorities for their decision to bury him without military honors. She added that she was grateful to him for fighting “for the homeland”. Another woman called members of the administration “traitors.” Another man wrote that Red Army officers released from the gulag helped defend the country during World War II.
The New York Times contacted Gilmanowa online. The woman said that no one should criticize Askarov and described him as a nice, simple man who enjoyed fishing and picking berries or mushrooms. She declined to discuss the events that led to his imprisonment, saying she did not want to add pain to his family.
However, there were also voices of criticism. “They are not the same as soldiers, they are criminals,” one of the men wrote on VKontakte. It was also called a travesty to treat convicts who went to war for money as ordinary soldiers.
Amir Kharisov, head of the village administration, defended the decision on the funeral. “Anyone who wanted to honor the warrior’s memory,” he wrote in a post he deleted after the newspaper asked him about the situation.
Askarov, 35, worked part-time, repairing motorcycles and collecting hay. He killed his father, Ilyas, in July 2020 by stabbing him in the leg during a drunken brawl and severing an artery. He also tried to murder a witness. According to court documents, the father and son quarreled frequently. The man was sentenced in March 2021 to 12 years in prison.
Appeals to Prigozhin
Sometimes the families of the deceased Wagnerian prisoners ask Prigozhin himself to intervene in the matter of the funeral.
According to local media, in January the mother of 25-year-old Ivan Savkin turned to the owner of the Wagner Group after the administration of her son’s village rejected her request for a recreation center for her son’s funeral. They refused the application because the boy was convicted of theft. Eventually, she buried him in the village where she herself lived.
Prigozhin later responded online. He announced that he would “take care of the scum” who did not honor the deceased Wagnerian and would pull the children of such officials “by the nose” to force them to fight in Ukraine.
In the remote Siberian village of Krasnoselkup, another couple complained to the leader of the Wagner Group because local officials refused to help transport their son’s coffin and provide a military honor guard. Instead, the family brought the coffin in the trailer.
Prigozhin has repeatedly personally entered into disputes over the funerals of deceased criminals. He recently threatened to bury the corpse in the salon of the mayor of the Black Sea town of Goryachiy Klyuch. The head of the mercenary group explained that there is a Wagnerian cemetery in the village, which is quickly filling up with dead people. The mayor asked for the burials to be stopped due to negative publicity for the resort.
Main photo source: Reuters