January 23, 2023 - 7:00am

Typically, men who beat their elderly mothers to death in a drunken rage do not become state heroes. Yet this is exactly what occurred when convicted murderer Sergei Molodtsov was buried with full military honours this month after giving his life for Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

Last September, video footage showed Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s confidante and head of the Wagner mercenary group, touring Russian prisons to recruit inmates for the war effort and offer them a pardon in return for six months of frontline duty in Ukraine. 

According to Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, 38,244 Russian convicts have now accepted Prigozhin’s offer, tempted by the lure of freedom, 200,000 roubles payment (£2,383) and compensation of 700,000 roubles (£8,342) to their relatives should they be killed in action. 

The historical parallels are striking, the Soviet Union having released nearly a million prisoners from Gulag camps to fill the battle lines of the Second World War. Now, with Russia’s military losses in Ukraine reaching into the many tens of thousands, its government has been forced to look to the country’s 400,000 prison inmates to either labour in factories, and so rapidly replenish Russia’s decimated military stocks, or become frontline soldiers, and so rapidly replenish Russia’s equally decimated army. 

As their deaths are less likely to fuel domestic unrest than losses from the rest of the population, convict soldiers have found themselves used as ‘cannon fodder‘. Deployed at the very front of the front line, ahead of conscripts and career soldiers, prisoners have reported being sent on the most perilous reconnaissance missions to locate Ukrainian positions and into repeated, head-on assaults entailing heavy losses, but leading to the territorial gains which enabled Wagner forces to attack the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.  

Unsurprisingly, there is a high attrition rate. Podolyak claims that 29,543 convict soldiers — around 77% of the total — have been killed, captured or injured. According to prisoner rights activist Olga Romanova, just two of the first 500 convicts who headed to the front line in June made it back. 

Yet not all those who sign up actually reach the front line. Russian independent media outlet Volya reports that Prigozhin has himself designed a scheme whereby the wealthiest inmates can pay bribes to be registered to fight and then simply be released. The convict goes into hiding for six months, while prison officials and Wagner split the ill-gotten gains. 

While up to 100 inmates have reportedly paid $70,000 to $100,000 to sit out the war, for those who favour a premium service, $300,000 will buy the convict an official death followed by citizenship documents in the name of a real dead soldier, close to their own age, who did not possess a criminal record. Volya holds that organised crime boss Igor Kusk, sentenced to 23 years imprisonment for offences including murder, used this service to start a new life. Recruited by Wagner to fight in the Donbas and declared dead after less than two months of combat, he was reportedly buried in a closed coffin without any medical examination. 

Meanwhile the prisoners that do make it to the front line are treated with brutal discipline. Inmates on the front line have reported having their fingers cut off for clandestinely using their phones or arguing with officers, while potential deserters have been threatened with being skinned alive or shot. One NGO estimates that 100 prisoners have been executed for violating orders, fleeing and “failing to comply with requirements”, their bodies rapidly cremated. Any successful deserters would do well to remember that a precondition of joining the war is to provide family contact details.  

For those who somehow survive six months, it is not always clear what happens next. Frontline reports claim prisoners who complete their service are pressured to remain in the Donbas or join Wagner’s Africa operations. Last week, ex-prisoner and Wagner commander Andrei Medvedev fled to Norway after learning the group intended to make his contract permanent. 

Others are more fortunate. This month, footage emerged of Prigozhin congratulating pardoned veterans. However, he betrayed qualms about how they may behave upon returning to cities, urging them not to “do drugs” or “rape women”. An influx of ex-cons turned state heroes is already proving a flashpoint of dissent among Russian citizens. 

“Bless you prison,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote. As today’s Wagner recruits face freezing temperatures, perilous missions and the ever-present threat of summary execution, there may be some already feeling nostalgic for their former captivity.