He was released from a Russian prison and thrown into battle in the Ukraine with a promise of freedom, ransom and money.
Now Andrei Yastrebov, one of tens of thousands of convicted soldiers, is part of a return from the battlefield with potentially serious implications for Russian society.
22-year-old Yastrebov, who was serving a sentence for robbery, returned home changed.
“We all felt like he was in some kind of hypnosis, like he was a different person,” said a relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
“He has no emotions.”
Thousands of detainees were killed, many within days or even hours of arriving at the front lines, Russian rights advocates and Ukrainian officials say.
Those who survive and return home remain largely silent, wary of retaliation if they speak up.
President’s decision Vladimir Putin allowing a group of mercenaries to recruit Russian detainees to support their flimsy war effort marks a turning point in their 23-year rule, say human rights activists and legal experts.
Politics escapes Russian judicial precedents and, by bringing some brutalized criminals home with pardons, he risks unleashing further violence throughout society, underscoring the cost Putin is willing to pay to avoid defeat.
Since July, some 40,000 prisoners joined Russian forces, according to Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government and an association for the defense of the rights of prisoners, Russian behind barswhich combines the reports of informants from all Russian prisons.
Ukraine claims nearly 30,000 have deserted or been killed or wounded, although this number cannot be independently verified.
Most of the recruits were serving sentences for petty crimes such as robbery and theft, but penal colony records seen by The New York Times show that the recruits also included men convicted of aggravated rape and multiple murders.
“There are no more crimes and no punishments,” said Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars.
“Now everything is permitted, and this has far-reaching consequences for any country.”
More than six months ago, Russia’s largest private military company, Wagner, and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, began systematically recruiting inmates on a scale not seen since World War II to support a bloody assault on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. .
However, the operation remains largely covered up in secrecy and propaganda.
Wagner was able to evade oversight by exploiting Russia’s most marginalized citizens, i 350,000 prisoners men from their harsh penal colonies, human rights activists and lawyers said.
Dozens of survivors of the first prisoner assault units began returning to Russia this month with medals, hefty salaries and documents that Wagner says guarantee their freedom.
The releases are likely to accelerate as Wagner’s six-month service contracts expire, potentially facing Russian society with the challenge of reintegrating thousands of traumatized men with military training, criminal records and poor job prospects.
“It’s about people psychologically destroyed who come back with a sense of righteousness, with the conviction that they killed to defend the homeland,” says Yana Gelmel, a Russian prisoner’s rights lawyer who works with conscripted prisoners.
“They can be very dangerous people.”
Neither Prigozhin, through his press office, nor the Russian Criminal Service has commented.
To document the recruitment campaign, The Times interviewed rights activists, lawyers, paralegals, family members of inmate recruits, defectors and inmates who chose to remain behind bars but let’s keep in touch with teammates in front.
They described a sophisticated incentive and brutality system built by Wagner, with Kremlin backing, to fill Russia’s decimated military ranks using questionable and possibly illegal methods.
Andrei Medvedev said he joined Wagner just days after he finished his sentence for robbery in southern Russia.
A former convict with military experience, he says he was put in command of a detachment of prisoners to which they had been sent close to suicide missions around Bakhmut.
“They told us, ‘Keep going until they kill you,'” Medvedev said in a telephone interview from Russia after he defected in November.
Since then it has escaped to norway and asked for political asylum.
The campaign to recruit inmates began in early July when Prigozhin began appearing in his prisons St.Pietroburgo house with a radical proposal for prisoners:
pay off his debt to the company by joining his private army in Ukraine.
In videos posted on social media, Prigozhin promised the inmates they would receive 100,000 rubles a month, the equivalent of $1,700 of the time, and almost double the average monthly salary in Russia.
He also offered bravery bonuses, $80,000 per kill and, if they survived the six-month contract, freedom in the form of a presidential pardon.
Those who fled, used drugs or alcohol or had sex, he warned, they would be killed.
“There is no possibility of returning to the colony,” Prigozhin said in a speech to detainees released in September.
“Those who arrive and say ‘I think I’ve gone to the wrong place’ will be labeled deserters and shot.”
Prigozhin, a former inmate, understood prison culture and deftly combined the threat of punishment with the promise of a new and dignified life, according to human rights activists and family members.
“It wasn’t for the money, he was too proud for that,” Anastasia says, referring to a relative who enlisted with Wagner as an inmate.
“It was because he was embarrassed in front of his mother, he wanted to do it clear his name“.
Prigozhin’s prison visits immediately raised legal questions.
Recruiting mercenaries is illegal in Russia, and until last year Prigozhin had denied Wagner’s existence.
On paper, the prisoners never went to war, they just went transferred to Russian prisons near the Ukrainian border, according to inquiries submitted by their relatives.
When Anastasia, who asked not to use her last name, tried to find out the whereabouts of her enlisted relative at her prison, she said the guards just told her that I was not available.
Igor Matyukhin was a convicted thief who decided to enlist.
A 26-year-old Siberian orphan, Matyukhin said he was serving his third sentence in the remote Krasnoyarsk region when Prigozhin arrived by helicopter in November, offering his eventual freedom in exchange for conscription.
Fueled by the opportunity for a new life, Matyukhin immediately enlisted.
Days later, he was at a training camp near the occupied Ukrainian city of Luhansk.
What he found there, he says, was very different from the patriotic group of brothers he had been led to expect.
Matyukhin described to fear of the weather instilled by Wagner to make the inmates fight.
He said they were threatened with summary executions and that at least one man from his unit was transferred afterwards disobey orders and never came back.
When his training camp came under a surprise Ukrainian attack, Matyukhin took the opportunity to escape in the confusion.
Since then, he has been trying to return to his prison from a hideout in Russia.
A relative of Matyukhin’s confirmed that he had enlisted under Wagner, but other aspects of his account of the war could not be independently verified.
To increase the number of recruits, Wagner recently increased the rewards for survivors, posting videos of repatriated prisoners who were granted their freedom.
“I needed your criminal talent to kill the enemy in war,” Prigozhin says in a video.
“For those who want to return, we are waiting. Those who want to get married, baptized, study… proceed with the blessing”.
In some videos, inmates receive documents described as pardons or provisions.
However, none of these documents have been made public, raising questions about their legitimacy.
Human rights defenders say pardons are strange legal process long and complex, which have never been premiered in Russia on such a large scale as Wagner announced.
Only Putin can grant pardons under the Russian constitution, and the Kremlin has not issued such decrees since 2020.
Putin pardoned just six people in 2021, according to the Kremlin.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that the detainees enlisted by Wagner were being pardoned “in strict accordance with Russian law.”
He declined to comment further, implying the procedure was a state secret.
“There are open decrees and decrees with varying degrees of secrecy,” he said.
Under Russian law, all pardon requests are evaluated by specialized regional commissions before reaching the Kremlin.
However, two members of those commissions said they had not received any requests for convicts to be conscripted.
One of these officials represents the city of St. Petersburg, Yastrebov’s residence.
Human rights activists say the ambiguous legal status of returning detainees undermines Russia’s justice system and links their fate to Wagner.
After spending just three weeks at home, Yastrebov said he was already preparing to return to the front, despite the extraordinary number of casualties suffered by his prison unit, according to Russia Behind Bars.
“I want to defend the homeland,” he said in a brief interview on Friday.
“I liked everything there. Civilian life is boring.”
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.