Illustration: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona
Since January 2023, Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service stopped releasing prison population statistics. These figures were the primary source of estimates of how many inmates are being recruited to fight in Ukraine by the Wagner PMC. However, Mediazona managed to obtain the required data from the websites of 35 regional penitentiary offices, revealing the regions with the most intense prisoner recruitment.
In late 2022, Mediazona studied the statistics of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) and discovered that over 23,000 men vanished from Russian penal colonies in just two months, September and October. This was the first official data that allowed to estimate the scale of inmate recruitment by the Wagner PMC.
Later, FSIN stopped publishing monthly statistics. In January, it reported that the decline in Russia’s prison population ended. Since then, no new data has been made available to the public at the federal level. Or course, this doesn’t imply that the recruitment has ceased and 23,000 is the final number.
For many years now, the prison population in Russia had been slowly decreasing, and—aside from the spike in the autumn—this trend persisted. Overall, Russia ended 2022 with 33,000 fewer inmates than at the beginning of the year.
Mediazona studied the statistics of regional penitentiary services (some of which still publish their data), compared it to historical data, and found out where 17,000 inmates of those 33,000 came from.
Not all Russian regions publish statistics on the number of inmates. Of the 58 regional penitentiary agencies that do, not all have the relevant historical data that would allow to estimate the changes in prison population (from the start of 2022 to the start of 2023). The Federal Penitentiary Service doesn’t keep this information in open access, but often it could be acquired via the copies of the sites saved on the Internet Archive.
Mediazona was able to collect enough data that would show prison population dynamics in the last year for 35 regions (out of 85, if you include the annexed in 2014 Crimea and Sevastopol). In total, by the beginning of 2023, there were 17,000 less in these regions (this is more than half of the total decrease all over Russia). This is how the data is distributed:
The leader in inmate decrease is the Samara region: at the beginning of 2022, there were 10,200 people in prison here—and a year later only 7,500. A decline of these proportions could not be explained by a historical trend: in 2021, the prison population grew by 300 people.
Over 1,000 people “disappeared” from prisons in Chelyabinks (1574) and Kirov (1153) regions, as well as the Republic of Tatarstan (1040).
The data we were able to scrape is incomplete, and the situation in other regions may differ. Besides, the numbers can be affected by the movement of prisoners inside the penitentiary system: some penal colonies are being vacated and repurposed for Ukrainian prisoners of war.
We weren’t able to figure out why the prison population of the Smolensk region and Crimea grew: there was no news about the establishment of new penal colonies or prisons there. In the respective regional penitentiary services did not take the Mediazona correspondent’s calls.
Mediazona reached out to prisoners in several Russian regions to find out how the statistics of the penitentiary services correlate with information on recruitment in colonies.
In Tula, an inmate told Mediazona that about a thousand people from penal colonies in the entire region were recruited to the front. This figure, according to him, was given to the prisoners by the employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service. This is also confirmed by statistics: by the beginning of 2022, there were about 6,400 inmates in the colonies of the Tula region, and by the beginning of 2023 only 5,500 were left (875 less).
But in several regions, the figures published by the Federal Penitentiary Service do not agree with the stories of prisoners. For example, the prison department in the Krasnoyarsk Krai reports that the number of prisoners has practically not changed over the year (-54). At the same time, several sources reported on the activity of recruiters in this region. For example, former political prisoner Ivan Astashin wrote that from Norilsk colony No. 15 alone 270 people went to war.
The data from the penitentiary service of the Yaroslavl region, where many penal colonies are concentrated, also does not show any anomalies (-148). Nevertheless, there are signs of active recruitment carried out here. A source told Mediazona that 110 people from colony No. 2 in Yaroslavl agreed to participate in the war during the first meeting with the Wagner PMC, and about 80 more in subsequent waves of recruitment, in which Russia’s Ministry of Defense was also involved.
In early February 2023, Wagner PMC founder Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that he would no longer recruit prisoners. According to him, from that point on the recruitment is done by the Ministry of Defense. Mediazona sources confirm that the recruitment really continues, as well as sources of Russia Behind Bars. However, it is still impossible to estimate how many convicts were taken to war since the start of 2023.
Mediazona’s inquiry to the Federal Penitentiary Service was left without a response.
Writing: Maxim Litavrin, with Anna Pavlova
Data and infographics: Mediazona Data Department
Editor: Yegor Skovoroda
Support Mediazona now!
Your donations directly help us continue our work