Last year’s ‘partial mobilisation’ triggered a backlash against the Kremlin and Putin is fearful of a repeat.
In 2014, the former police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist from the liberal publication Novaya Gazeta. Now, just nine years into his sentence, Khadzhikurbanov has been pardoned, after spending six months fighting Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. As far as the Russian president is concerned, this makes Khadzhikurbanov a patriot.
Khadzhikurbanov is far from the only violent criminal to earn a pardon in Russia by joining Putin’s army in Ukraine. It is a practice inspired by none other than Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane explosion two months after his Wagner Group mercenaries staged an aborted rebellion in June.
Despite his inglorious end, Prigozhin was long a crucial ally of Putin. His cv included running a troll farm to create Russian propaganda stories and deploying his Wagner fighters in African countries, in part to gain access to resources such as gold and uranium, often in exchange for protecting the lives and interests of local leaders. Wagner soldiers were also needed in the Ukraine war, fighting some of its bloodiest battles, such as the months-long struggle for Bakhmut.
Before hitching his fortunes to Putin, Prigozhin was a convicted criminal who spent nine years in prison for robbery and assault in the 1980s. No wonder he recruited criminals for the Wagner Group—a practice that has now been adopted by the Russian defence ministry. Though the official number of convict-soldiers is unknown, we know that more than 5,000 criminals were pardoned last March, after finishing their contracts to fight for Wagner. According to Prigozhin, some 40,000 prisoners were involved in the battle for Bakhmut.
Though these pardoned fighters remain in the military, some do manage to return home from the front—at least two dozen, according to some unofficial sources. Often, they have committed truly horrific acts. One pardoned fighter killed his girlfriend and put her body through a meat grinder; another stabbed his ex-wife in the stomach ten times. One ‘patriot’ filmed himself beating his friend to death, as if it were a joke.
But after just a few months at the front, their sins are forgiven and they are free to sin again. Some have reportedly carried out new violent crimes, including rape and murder, upon their return.
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Even Putin loyalists are not fully on board with the Kremlin’s effort to make heroes out of criminals. Last year, the governor of Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, clashed with Prigozhin after a local club refused to host a Wagner fighter’s funeral. ‘If he were a real soldier, fine, but he was just a former prisoner,’ the club insisted.
Pardoning violent convicts might not be a particularly desirable way to get more soldiers on to the battlefield, but for Putin the alternative would be even worse. Last year’s ‘partial mobilisation’ triggered a significant backlash and Putin is fearful of a repeat. He also knows that there are two Russias—and that if the Kremlin keeps sending convicts, both will get something that they want.
The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all. Visit a bookstore such as Respublika in Moscow and you will find American and British bestsellers and works by Russian authors who have fled the regime, such as Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov. Head to a cinema on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg and you can watch the American blockbusters Barbie and Oppenheimer, without seeing any sign that the authorities banned the films for ‘not upholding traditional Russian values’.
People in this Russia are well aware of the tenuousness of their reality. When I asked a young couple watching Oppenheimer what traditional Russian values are, they replied that no one really knows. But they also recognised the limits of their power to change their reality, before acknowledging that the cinema might soon be closed for ‘dissidence’.
Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride and anyone who risks their lives for victory deserves to be honored.
On a recent trip to Siberia’s Omsk region, a couple beamed as they told me about their soldier son: ‘He fought for his country,’ the mother gushed. ‘He has a medal, and with the money he earned, he took us on vacation to Crimea.’ They did not mention that, prior to becoming a ‘hero’, he had been in and out of prison for most of his life.
For them, it probably does not matter. In Russia, the Kremlin has made clear, one can ‘atone with blood’. The money also helps. In the Omsk region, young men—not prisoners—receive 195,000 rubles (€2,000) just for enlisting. If they die, their families receive the equivalent of tens of thousands of euro in compensation. If they return, they can buy houses, cars and more. Either way, the economic boost is substantial.
Russia’s duality is nothing new. The state symbol is a double-headed eagle. Rarely, however, have the two Russias stood in such stark contrast to each other. While Moscow and Saint Petersburg mourn their isolation from the rest of the world, the provinces embrace Putin’s message of animosity toward anything ‘not Russian’.
The longer the war rages, the more deeply this sentiment will take hold outside Russia’s biggest cities. If the outside world is against us, insist the provinces, we will protect our great nation from those who want to diminish it. But no one in the outside world can diminish Russia more gravely than the growing number of Putin’s pardoned patriots.