Thousands of convicts have been killed, many within days or even hours of arriving at the front, Russian rights advocates and Ukrainian officials say. Those who live and return home largely remain silent, wary of retribution if they speak out.

The policy circumvents Russian legal precedent and, by returning some brutalized criminals to their homes with pardons, risks triggering greater violence throughout society, underlining the cost Mr. Putin is prepared to pay to avoid defeat.

records from one penal colony 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 more punishments,” said Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars. “Anything is permissible now, and this brings very 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 convicts on a scale not seen since World War II to bolster a bloody assault on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Yet the operation remains largely cloaked in secrecy and propaganda.

Wagner has been able to avoid oversight by exploiting the most marginalized Russian citizens, the 350,000 male inmates of its harsh penal colonies, said human rights activists and lawyers.

potentially confronting Russian society with the challenge of reintegrating thousands of traumatized men with military training, a history of crime and few job prospects.

These are psychologically broken people who are returning with a sense of righteousness, a belief that they have killed to defend the Motherland,” said Yana Gelmel, a Russian prisoner rights lawyer who works with enlisted inmates. “These can be very dangerous people.”

A former inmate himself, Mr. Prigozhin understood prison culture, skillfully combining a threat of punishment with a promise of a new, dignified life, according to rights activists and families.

Mercenary recruitment is illegal in Russia, and until last year Mr. Prigozhin had denied that Wagner even existed.

Mr. Matyukhin described a climate of fear instilled by Wagner to keep convicts fighting. He said they were threatened with summary executions, and at least one man in his unit was taken away after disobeying orders and never returned.

In some videos, the inmates are given papers described as pardons or annulments of convictions. However, none of these documents have been made public, raising questions about their legitimacy. Rights advocates say pardons are rare, time-consuming and complex legal procedures that have never been issued in Russia on anywhere near the scale advertised by Wagner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: