Иллюстрация: Mari Msukanidze / Медиазона
For several months now, prisoners of Russian penal colonies have been recruited by Wagner Group, a private military company linked to the infamous businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Hundreds—if not thousands—of convicts have already gone to Ukraine instead of serving years-long sentences. It is likely that many of them have already been killed in action, but so far only singular cases have been confirmed.
Yevgeny Yeremenko from Petrozavodsk had eight more years to serve in prison. In mid-June, he suddenly informed his mother that he was being transferred to another region. In mid-August, two strangers brought her a death certificate: turns out, Yevgeny had died near Bakhmut, a fiercely defended Ukrainian city in Donbas, on 24th July.
Around noon on 14th August, Tatyana Kotenyeva, a pensioner from Petrozavodsk, Republic of Karelia, opened the door to two strangers who rang the intercom saying they were “from Zhenya.” Zhenya was her forty-four-year-old son Yevgeny Yeremenko, sentenced to ten years in a strict regime penal colony. He was serving his sentence in Petrozavodsk Penal Colony #9. He would call his mother every week, but she has not heard from her son since early May, except for a strange call in mid-June when Yevgeny briefly said that he was being transported to another region.
The old lady eagerly opened the door, invited the strangers into the kitchen and made some tea. They handed her a medal and a death certificate for her son: “We came with bad news, Zhenya died.”
According to Kotenyeva, the certificate issued by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic indicated the place and date of her son’s death. It said he was killed on 24th July in Bakhmut, a Ukrainian-controlled town in Donetsk region that withstood heavy Russian assault over the summer.
How her son ended up in Ukraine, the woman does not know. He had not called her from prison between early May and mid-June, although he used to do so regularly. One day, an employee of the penal colony called the pensioner instead of Yevgeny and informed her that he was “alive and well, but being punished.” Kotenyeva refers to solitary confinement as ‘the basement’; she is sure that her son spent time there.
“[The officer] introduced himself, but I don’t remember [his name],” she says. “I made an inquiry and he replied that my son had violated some rule there and was being punished. I said, ‘You tortured him there, you must have beaten him.’ The person who called said: “There's not a scratch, not a bruise.”
It was not until 14th June that Yevgeny suddenly did call and told his mother that he was being temporarily transferred to another penal colony.
“He called me and said: ‘Mum, they are taking us away at two in the morning to another prison. I’m going to be transported,’” recalls Kotenyeva. “He had a swelling on his cheek near his nose. He said: ‘There are no doctors here [in Petrozavodsk], maybe I’ll be treated there.’ And that was it, I said: ‘I’m waiting for a letter from you and the details of where to send you a parcel or money’.”
She suspects that her son did not tell her that he was going to Ukraine because he knew she would be against it.
“I would probably have done anything—hysteria, all of it, to prevent it,” the lady says. “I would have run and laid down my life by his prison. But I couldn’t get into his head... He’s a grown man. He would only say: “Mum, don’t worry. I’m doing the right thing.”
A week later, according to Kotenyeva, her son sent a text message to his friend, asking him to let his mother know that he was all right. He added that the prisoners were still on the train, where they had “all their watches taken from them.”
Yevgeny Yeremenko was likely recruited by Wagner Group and ended up in one of the mercenary units fighting in Ukraine. Since early July there have been reports of convicts being rounded up and recruited to fight—but apparently this had begun as early as May. Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Wagner Group, is known for his brash demeanour, so it was little surprise when the first reports put him personally in charge of recruiting in prisons: he was described as touring the colonies and promising convicts large salaries and freedom after six months of fighting.
It is not clear how many people they were able to recruit this way, but, according to estimates from prisoners, the recruiters seem to have visited up to two dozen penal colonies, taking with them a hundred or so people from each (but not immediately, so some were later dissuaded by their relatives). Olga Romanova of Rus Sidyaschaya NGO noted that their organisation has already received about 200 appeals from relatives of convicts who have lost contact with them and suspect that they have been sent to Ukraine.
In June, some people did visit Penal Colony #9 in Petrozavodsk, where Yevgeny Yeremenko was imprisoned, one of the inmates told Mediazona. While they tried to persuade convicts to go and fight in Ukraine, this inmate had refused. “Serve your time in the army, and get amnestied,” he recounts, adding that he did not know exactly where the recruiters came from.
These men were probably from Wagner Group, believes Petrozavodsk lawyer Ivan Varfolomeyev, who represents the interests of ten convicts from Penal Colony #9. “Ten people were persuaded to go to Ukraine, but after consulting with me none of them went,” says Varfolomeyev. “I didn’t see [the recruiters], the convicts asked me what they should do. I said, ‘You have parents, wives, children—I wouldn't recommend it.’ At least [my clients] don’t have very long sentences.”
The inmates did not tell Varfolomeyev about any pressure from the recruiters or the prison officials. The prisoners were promised, as he puts it, only ‘deserts’ with recruiters describing at length the benefits they would be entitled to after taking part in the fighting. “No solitary confinement, strict regimes or beatings,” says Varfolomeyev. “On the contrary, all the offers were tempting.”
Little is yet known about the deaths of Wagner Group prisoners recruited to Ukraine. In late July, Vazhnye Istorii reported on the deaths of three prisoners from St. Petersburg’s Penal Colony #7—their identities were hidden, nicknames were used in documentation instead. Konstantin Tulinov, nicknamed Ryzhiy, was also mentioned by film director turned pro-government pundit Nikita Mikhalkov on his TV show. According to him, Tulinov “wanted to atone for his past life,” even petitioning for the battlefield himself. In Ukraine he had his legs “messed up”, so he “blew himself up with a grenade.”
“And the state responded to him with gratitude for his bravery: posthumously he was pardoned and, in addition, is now regarded as a combat participant, with all the benefits and payments that go along with that,” assured Mikhalkov.
Olga Romanova counters that Rus Sidyaschaya is constantly approached by relatives of enlisted prisoners. “What an outrage, they promised to pay 200,000 and paid 30,000 instead,” she recounted one appeal. “My son was wounded, but they only allow to treat him in the LPR, they won’t take him back to Russia. And then, another one was killed near Luhansk and the relatives are not being told; they left his body at the battlefield so as not to pay for the funeral.”
Management of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Karelia has not responded to our enquiry about how Yevgeny Yeremenko ended up in the war in Ukraine eight years before the end of his sentence.
Governor of Karelia, Artur Parfenchikov, has been active in his VKontakte account writing about the locals who have died in the war in Ukraine. But he did not mention the death of prisoner Yeremenko.
Tatiana Koteneva calls the strangers who brought her a funeral letter “young men”. They told her that her son’s body was “in a metal coffin in Leningrad, in Pulkovo”. Further questions remain unanswered, as Koteneva insists that she was told that “everything is classified”. The men never told her the name of the agency they work for.
“What can I do?” she reasoned two days before the funeral. “I can’t get anything back now. This is the way it turned out. Well. My chief concern now is to bury him so that I can go to his grave to cry. What’s done is done.”
On 18th August, Yeremenko’s body was brought to Petrozavodsk by a private driver, a pensioner had to pay 26,000 roubles for the transportation. “The coffin was closed and there was a strong smell of decomposition,” recalls her friend Marina Gorodilova, whose son is also serving time in Penal Colony #9. “Tatiyana Ivanovna was standing over the lid of the coffin all the time and crying.”
According to Gorodilova, there were no military or official speakers at the farewell and funeral ceremony. But in the funeral hall she noticed “two strange guys… one was about forty, the other younger, both of sturdy build. They put flowers down and stepped back three or four paces. They stood to attention, not talking to anyone. I took out my phone, started tapping and out of the corner of my eye I could see they were watching me. Very attentively. Tatiyana Ivanovna asked them: ‘Who are you?’ And they didn’t say anything. Then she asked again: ‘Do you know Zhenya?’ One of them nodded his head quietly and carried on standing.”
The day after the funeral Tatiyana Kotenyeva could not meet her friend due to meeting with “young men” who were coming to see her again. And a few days later she reported that she had been reimbursed 145,000 roubles for the funeral.
Dmitriy, son of Marina Gorodilova, is serving a 13-year sentence for posession and attempted sale of drugs in the same Penal Colony #9. He has not been in touch with his mother for a month and a half, since 4th July. She fears that Dmitriy, like Yeremenko, was placed in solitary confinement before being sent to Ukraine. Such practices were reported by human rights activists from Rus Sidyaschaya. For example, in Karelian Penal Colony #7 and Penal Colony #19 in Komi, some convicts first agreed to go to war, but then changed their minds; they then have been pressured, and some were sent to solitary confinement.
“Now it’s the same story, now my Dima has disappeared,” said Gorodilova. “He doesn’t write, he doesn’t call, this has never happened before. A lawyer called the prison and asked if Dima was there. They said he was there. I went to the prison for a visit, and they told me: ‘He’s been disciplined’. There are two options: either they keep them there before sending them [to Ukraine], so they don’t get information and don’t share it with anyone. Or they keep those who do not want to sign [the contract] there—they force and coerce them [to do it].”
Marina Gorodilova is sure that her son could not be forced to go fight in Ukraine, even under torture: “That’s the kind of son I have, he won’t sign anything until he’s read it through and through. I know for sure that Dima won’t agree, even if they promise him freedom, he won’t go off to kill people.”
Editor: Yegor Skovoroda
Translation: Ivan Ignatiev
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