The inmates of Penal Colony No. 8, in the Tambov region, 300 miles south of Moscow, rushed to their cell windows when they heard the sound of a helicopter approaching one late July afternoon.
“No one ever uses a helicopter to get here. We were curious about the big occasion,” recalls Ivan, one of the inmates.
Half an hour later, he and the others were ordered to report to the main prison square, where two heavily guarded men were waiting.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes, he would actually come all the way to visit us,” said Ivan, who is halfway through a 23-year sentence for murder and, like other inmates interviewed, asked for a pseudonym for his concern out of concern. safety. “But there he stood before us: Prigozhin, in the flesh, urged us to join Wagner’s private military group and fight in Ukraine.”
Since the beginning of the summer, reports have emerged that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin and the reported head of the Wagner group — a claim he has repeatedly denied — recruited soldiers from Russia’s extensive prison system in an attempt to compensate for the country’s acute shortage of personnel on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Last week, a leaked video featuring a man who closely resembles Prigozhin went viral on Russian social media. The man told inmates at another prison 500 miles north of Tambov that they would be released if they served six months with his group, the first time the shooting process was captured on camera.
“When I saw that video, I thought Prigozhin must be on a very busy schedule because it was exactly what he told us,” Ivan said. “He promised we would be free if we fought for six months. But he warned that few would come back.”
The Guardian spoke to four inmates and three close relatives of prisoners in various penal colonies in Russia, all of whom shared similar stories of how Prigozhin personally conducted recruitment in prisons.
Ivan turned down the job offer, but he said about 120 inmates had applied and were now fighting in Ukraine after a week of training.
He said he would join now if Prigozhin called again. “I have 11 more years to spend in prison,” he said. “Whether I die in this shithole or I die there, it doesn’t matter. At least then I’ll get a chance to fight for my freedom. We compare it all to Russian roulette.
“In addition, registration is voluntary at this time. Soon we may have no choice and be forced to go,” he said, expressing a belief echoed by other inmates contacted by the Guardian.
An inmate at prison colony No. 2, in Russia’s isolated northern Komi region, described a similar visit by Prigozhin in mid-July.
Vladimir, who had only three weeks left of a sentence for theft when Prigozhin arrived, also decided not to enroll, but said his cousin, who spent 15 years behind bars, was one of 104 inmates who agreed. to fight in Ukraine.
The Guardian was unable to verify all the details of the detainees’ accounts, but their stories corroborated previous reports from Russian investigative agencies Important Stories and Meduza.
According to Vladimir, during Prighozin’s visit, prisoners were shown images of Russian soldiers “fighting bravely” in Ukraine and were promised that their actions in the country would not be punished.
“Prisoners will know they can act with impunity there,” said Vladimir, who has since been released from prison. “Jail turns you into an animal, and a lot of hatred grows in you. Their hands will be loosened there,” he added.
All the prisoners interviewed said they were promised a presidential pardon after six months and a salary of 100,000 rubles (1,400 pounds) a month.
Vladimir said Prigozhin told the group during his visit that they “recruited prisoners from all backgrounds, as long as they were healthy”, but warned that drinking, drug use, looting and desertion in Ukraine would be punishable by execution.
The exact number of Russian prisoners recruited is difficult to determine. A US official said Monday that Wagner, who has been charged with war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine and other conflicts, tried to recruit more than 1,500 convicted criminals.
But Olga Romanova, the head of Jailed Russia, a prisoner’s rights NGO, thinks the number is much higher. According to Romanova’s estimate, about 11,000 Russian prisoners have already signed up to go to Ukraine, a number she says is growing rapidly.
“The process is accelerating. This morning alone, we received reports of 600 prisoners being transported from Nizhny Novgorod.”
Military experts have raised questions about the likely impact of ill-disciplined and ill-trained Russian prisoners on the war. Rob Lee, a military analyst, said the latest recruiting effort in Moscow could “close some gaps” in the near term, but would do little to address Russia’s “critical” labor shortage.
The Kremlin’s reliance on unorthodox methods to keep the fighting in Ukraine going is worrying for Russia, Lee said. “Russia no longer has a professional army in the traditional sense. It now consists of a few professional units, mixed with paid short-term contract soldiers, mercenaries and now, apparently, prisoners.
“Army are effective when there is a clear hierarchy and cohesion,” Lee added. “I can’t even imagine the disciplinary problems inmates will bring.”
On Tuesday, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is behind bars herself, tweeted that Russian prisons are full of people with “big problems with discipline and even bigger problems with alcohol and substances”. He said, “What could such an army even accomplish in battle?”
In addition to questions about effectiveness, Romanova said the process of recruiting prisoners to fight for a private military organization while promising presidential pardons was “completely illegitimate on so many levels.”
Her group has now turned its attention to helping families deter inmates from applying. “Any prisoner who doesn’t go there potentially has a saved Ukrainian life,” she said.
But for some families, Romanova’s offer of help comes too late. One woman, Irina, said her husband, who was in prison in Nizhny Novgorod, told her two weeks ago that he would be leaving for Ukraine the next day.
“He told me he was doing it for me and our baby. So that we can be reunited again,” said Irina. ‘But what good is he to us, dead? I wish Prigozhin had never come.”
Prigozhin’s personal recruitment of prisoners has made the formerly shadowy businessman one of Russia’s most visible pro-war figures. Although Wagner forces have been deployed to Syria and several African conflicts before, the operations were secretly packaged until the invasion of Ukraine took it out of the shadows.
Despite Prigozhin’s previous denials of any ties to Wagner, a spokesperson for his company Concord said when asked about the recruitment video that the man in the footage “looked and spoke like Mr Prigozhin”.
Prigozhin, whose photo is now on posters of Wagner, commented on the images by criticizing those who opposed the recruitment of prisoners. “They are either private military contractors and prisoners [fighting in Ukraine] or your kids – decide for yourself,” he said on social media.
Inmates said Prigozhin looked comfortable within the walls of Russia’s infamous prisons. “You could see that he commanded the respect of the prisoners,” said Mikhail, a third inmate, from the Ivanovo region, whose penal colony Prigozhin visited in August.
“He didn’t try to talk to us sweetly. He said we would go to hell, but it could be our lucky ticket.” He said Prigozhin’s speech left a “great impression” on the inmates, with 170 fellow inmates signing up to fight.
Telegram groups linked to Prigozhin are now sharing videos of prisoners turned Wagner soldiers encouraging other inmates to join their ranks.
But not all prisoners going to Ukraine seem ready to fight for Russia. Yury Butusov, a Ukrainian journalist, last week published an interview with a Russian prisoner recruited to fight in Ukraine and captured by Kiev, who said he had seized the opportunity offered by Prigozhin to extradite himself to Ukraine.
“I told myself I would do anything to surrender when I came,” the prisoner said, referring to his anti-war stance and adding that he hoped to fight for Ukraine against Russia.
Romanova, the prisoner’s rights activist, expects recruitment efforts in Russian prisons to ramp up in the coming weeks. In a country with the world’s fifth largest prison population per capita, Prigozhin’s helicopter will likely continue to fly, she said. “They cover more ground every day.”
Whatever the eventual impact on the war, the extraordinary images of Prigozhin recruiting prisoners have already been described by observers as one of the defining, grim images of Putin’s presidency.
“The truth is,” said Ivan, the prisoner from Tambov, “we, thieves and murderers, are now fighting in Russia’s war.”