The Wagner Group’s Suicide Squad

For several months, inmates in Russian penal colonies have been recruited by the Wagner Group — hundreds, if not thousands of convicts who had several years left in their sentences have already gone to Ukraine. It is likely that many of them have already been killed, but so far only individual deaths have been confirmed. One of them is Yevgeny Yeremenko from Petrozavodsk, who had eight more years left to serve on his sentence. In mid-June, he unexpectedly informed his mother that he was being transferred to another region. In mid-August, two strangers brought her a death notice: Yevgeny had been killed near Bakhmut on July 24.

Around noon on August 14, Tatiana Koteneva, a pensioner from Petrozavodsk, opened the door to two strangers who had buzzed her on the intercom and said they had been “sent by Zhenya.” Zhenya is her 44-year-old son Yevgeny Yeremenko, who had been sentenced to ten years in a maximum security penal colony. He was serving his sentence in Correctional Colony No. 9 in Petrozavodsk. He usually telephoned his mother every week, but she hadn’t heard from her son since early May — except for a strange call in mid-June, when Yevgeny said briefly that he was being transferred to another region.

So the pensioner willingly opened the door to the strangers, invited them into the kitchen, and poured tea. They handed her a reward and her son’s death certificate. “We have come with bad news,” they said, “Zhenya has died.”

According to Koteneva, the certificate, issued by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, indicated the date and place of her son’s death. He was killed on July 24 in Bakhmut, a Ukrainian-controlled city in the Donetsk Region, which has been heavily fought over all summer.

A call from the train: “Don’t worry, Mom — I’m doing what I have to do”
The pensioner does not know how her son ended up in Ukraine. Between early May and mid-June, he did not call her from the penal colony, although he used to do it regularly. Instead of Yevgeny, the pensioner was once called by a penal colony official and informed that her son was “alive and well, but undergoing punishment.” Koteneva refers to punitive confinement as “the cellar,” and she is sure that her son had been put there.

“[The official] introduced himself, but I don’t remember his name,” she says. “I tried to make an inquiry. He replied that my son had violated some article of the law there, and he had been punished. I said, ‘You tortured him and probably beat him.’ And this one who called me said, ‘There isn’t a scratch or a bruise on him.'”

Only on June 14 did Yevgeny unexpectedly telephone his mother and say that he was being temporarily transferred to another penal colony.

“He called me and said, ‘Mom, we are being convoyed at two o’clock in the morning to another colony,'” recalls Koteneva. “A tumor had formed on his cheek near his nose. He says, ‘There are no doctors here [in Petrozavodsk Colony No. 9], so maybe I’ll get treatment there.’ And that was it. I said, ‘I’ll be expecting a letter from you and the details of where I should send you a package or money.'”

According to her, her son did not say that he was going to Ukraine, probably because he knew that she would be opposed to it.

“I would probably have gone into hysterics and all that to prevent it,” the pensioner argues. “I would have run to the colony and bent over backwards. But I couldn’t get into his head… He’s a grown man. He just said, ‘Mom, don’t worry. I’m doing what I have to do.'”

A week later, according to Koteneva, her son sent an SMS to a friend, asking him to inform his mother that he was alright. He added that the prisoners were still traveling on the train, where “even their watches had been confiscated.”

Recruitment in the penal colonies: “You finish your service and you get amnestied”
Yevgeny Yeremenko was probably recruited by the Wagner Group and sent to Ukraine as a mercenary. The fact that mercenaries are being recruited in correctional colonies became public in early July, but, apparently, it began in May. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s founder, a man known for his proximity to the Russian authorities, personally went to some colonies to persuade inmates to join up. Recruiters promised convicts a large salary and release after six months of combat — to this end, those who agreed to join the mercenaries would have to write petitions asking for clemency.

It is unclear how many people have been marshaled this way, but recruiters, judging by the prisoners’ reports, have already visited between fifteen and twenty colonies, and in each of them a hundred or more inmates have agreed to go into combat. (Although relatives have managed to dissuade some of them.) The head of the Russian Behind Bars Foundation, Olga Romanova, noted that her organization has already received about two hundred appeals from relatives of convicts who have lost contact with them and assume that they have been sent to Ukraine.

Yevgeny Yeremenko. Photo courtesy of his VKontakte page and Mediazona

In June, people really did come to Petrozavodsk’s Correctional Colony No. 9, where Yevgeny Yeremenko was imprisoned, and tried to persuade the inmates to go to fight in Ukraine, convict Marat Najibov told Mediazona. He himself turned down their offer. “You finish your service and you get amnestied,” he says, adding that he does not know exactly where the recruiters were from.

Petrozavodsk lawyer Ivan Varfolomeyev, who represents ten convicts in Correctional Colony No. 9, believes that they were probably from the Wagner Group. “Ten people were persuaded to go to Ukraine, but after consulting with me, no one went,” says Varfolomeyev. I didn’t see [the recruiters]. The convicts asked me what they should do. I said, ‘You have parents, wives, and children — I would not recommend it.’ My clients, at least, are not serving such long sentences.”

The convicts did not tell Varfolomeyev that they had been coerced by recruiters or the colony’s wardens. They talked to the prisoners, as he puts it, “about pies”: they vividly described the benefits to which the inmates would be entitled after being in combat.

“[They were not threatened with] solitary confinement, AdSeg, or beatings,” says Varfolomeyev. “On the contrary, all the offers were tempting.”

Little is yet known about the deaths of the prisoners recruited by the Wagner Group to go to Ukraine. In late July, iStories reported the deaths of three prisoners from Petersburg Correctional Colony No. 7. Their papers did not contain their real names, but only their nicknames. Among the dead was Konstantin Tulinov, nicknamed “Red.” it was about him that filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov spoke in [the 6 August 2022] episode of his program [Exorcist TV] on Rossiya 1. According to Mikhalkov, Tulinov “wanted to atone for his past life,” so he himself petitioned to be sent to the front. In Ukraine, his legs were “crushed,” after which Tulinov “blew himself up with a grenade.”

“And the state responded with gratitude to him for his courageous deed. He was posthumously pardoned and, in addition, was designated a full-fledged combat veteran with all the ensuing benefits and payments,” Mikhalkov assures his viewers.

Olga Romanova of Russian Behind Bars has written that relatives of the recruited prisoners constantly appeal to her organization for help.

“What an outrage! They promised to pay [him] 200 thousand [rubles], but they paid [only] thirty thousand,” she wrote, paraphrasing the kinds of appeals her foundation has received. “And my [relative] was wounded, but [the wounded] are being treated only in the LPR; [they] are not taken to Russia. Help us save him! And then another one was killed near Luhansk; the relatives were not informed, and the body was abandoned in the combat zone so that they wouldn’t have to pay for a coffin.”

The Karelian office of the Federal Penitentiary Service has not yet responded to Mediazona‘s request for information as to how Yevgeny Yeremenko ended up in combat in Ukraine eight years before he was to be released from prison.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Governor of Karelia, Arthur Parfenchikov, has been publishing posts on his VKontakte page about the residents of the republic who have perished in the war. But he did not even mention the death of prisoner Yevgeny Yeremenko.

The funeral: “young men” come to pay their last respects and reimburse expenses
Tatiana Koteneva calls the strangers who brought her the death notice “the young men.” They told her that her son’s body was “in an iron coffin in Leningrad, at Pulkovo [airport].” As for additional questions, according to the pensioner, she was told that “everything is classified.” The men did not respond when she asked them who they worked for.

“What can I do now? You can’t bring anything back,” she argued resignedly two days before the funeral. “Well, that’s how it turned out, so that’s how it’s going to be. What matters to me is burying him and having a grave to go to and cry. Things turned out the way they turned out.”

On August 18, Yevgeny Yeremenko’s body was brought to Petrozavodsk by a private driver: the pensioner paid 26 thousand rubles for transportation. Yeremenko’s funeral took place the next day, recalls Marina Gorodilova, a friend of Koteneva, whose son is also an inmate at Correctional Colony No. 9. (This was how she and Tatiana met.)

“The coffin was closed and there was a strong smell of decomposition,” she recalls. “Tatiana Ivanovna stood over the coffin lid the whole time and cried.”

According to Gorodilova, at the wake and the funeral there were none of the military officers or civilian officials who make speeches on such occasions. But in the funeral hall, she noticed “two strange guys.”

“One [was] forty years old, the other [was] younger, both of them [were] powerfully built. They laid the flowers [on the coffin] and took three or four steps back. They stood at attention and didn’t talk to anyone. I picked up my phone and poked it with my finger and out of the corner of my eye I saw that they were watching me — very attentively. Tatiana Ivanovna asked them, ‘Who are you?’ But they didn’t say anything. She then asked again, ‘Do you know Zhenya?’ One of them nodded his head quietly and kept standing there.”

The day after the funeral, Tatiana Koteneva refused to meet with her friend, citing the fact that “the young men” were coming to see her again. A few days later she reported [to Gorodilova] that she had been reimbursed 145 thousand rubles [approx. 2,400 euros] for the funeral.

“Either they hold them [in solitary] before sending them, or they hold those who don’t want to sign up”

Dmitry Gorodilov. Photo courtesy of Marina Gorodilova and Mediazona

Dmitry, Marina Gorodilova’s son, is serving his sentence at Correctional Colony No. 9, where he met the deceased Yevgeny Yeremenko. He has not been in touch with his mother for a month and a half — since July 4 — and she fears that Dmitry, like Yeremenko, was put in punitive detention before being sent to Ukraine. Human rights activists from Russia Behind Bars have spoken of this practice. For example, in Correctional Colony No. 7 in Karelia and Correctional Colony No. 19 in Komi, some convicts at first agreed to go into combat, but then changed their minds. Prison officials then began pressuring them, and some were sent to punitive detention.

“Now it’s the same story: now my Dima is missing,” says Gorodilova. “He doesn’t write and doesn’t call — this has never happened. The lawyer called the prison and asked them whether Dima was there. They said he was there. I went to the colony to visit him, and they said to me, ‘He is undergoing punishment.’ It’s one of two things. Either they are held [in solitary] before being sent [to Ukraine] so that they do not receive information and do not share it with anyone. Or those who don’t want to sign up are held [in solitary, where] they are forced [to sign up].”

Gorodilova is sure that her son would not left officials force him to go to Ukraine even under torture.

“Only if they lie to him or tell him that he would cleaning up after the war, maybe he would agree to sign up. But he’s a guy that won’t sign anything until he reads it. I know that Dima will definitely not agree to it. Even if he is promised his freedom, he will not go to kill people.”

Source: Alla Konstantinova, “Sent down for ten years, enlisted in the Wagner Group, killed in Ukraine: the example of one inmate from Karelia,” Mediazona, 26 August 2022. Thanks to Dmitry Tkachev for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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