Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona
25-year-old Semyon Karmanov from Kemerovo, Siberia, diagnosed with a developmental delay in childhood, resulting in a partial disability, has faced several minor criminal charges as an adult and eventually found himself in a maximum-security (“strict regime” in Russian) colony. With only a few months left to serve, he signed a contract with the Ministry of Defence after their visit and was sent to the front lines in Ukraine. Semyon, unable to read or write, was believed by his family to be unaware of the full implications of the papers he signed. The Karmanovs are convinced that the colony exploited the young man’s naivety or simply intimidated him.
On October 12, 2023, 30-year-old Anastasia Karmanova received a call from the number usually used by her younger brother. Semyon Karmanov, 25, was serving time in a maximum-security penal colony in Mariinsk, Kemerovo. Known for torture and abuse of inmates, this colony was established after the disbandment of Siblag, housing murderers, rapists, and other serious offenders. Karmanov was sent there for using someone else’s bank card to pay for pancakes, flowers, and coffee.
Anastasia answered the call, only to be connected with her brother’s cellmate. “He said, ‘I’d like to ask about Semyon’s welfare,’ ” Karmanova recalls. “I said, ‘How so,’ and he said, ‘Semyon had been taken to the special military operation.’ I asked how they would take someone with his condition. He said, ‘Well, he passed the medical examination here, so they took him.’ My family and I, we were shocked.”
Later she learned that Semyon and other contracted inmates were transported to Kemerovo airport, then to Moscow, and finally flown to Rostov region by a military plane to collect more prisoners, before being sent to Luhansk in occupied Ukraine.
After several weeks of training, on November 22, Karmanov, despite his partial disability and significant behavioural disorders requiring care and treatment diagnosed in childhood, was sent to the front lines.
Semyon was the second child in the Karmanov family from Kemerovo. His mother, a cook, and his father, a driver, were told by doctors at his birth that he might become disabled.
“He had cysts in his brain. I was warned they might dissolve or might not, potentially impairing his ability to walk. Despite the grim prognosis, I chose to bring him home. He did become disabled, but at least he walks fine,” his mother Svetlana says.
While Semyon could walk and talk, his parents decided not to send him to kindergarten. After failing first grade due to learning difficulties, he was sent to a special-needs boarding school in Berezovo village. However, his stay there was short-lived as he was soon transferred to a psychiatric hospital for assessment, being deemed “uneducable.” Semyon was then classified as a third-category disabled person and switched to receiving benefits, with Svetlana trying to educate him at home.
“Learning was very hard for him. He could count money and knew some letters, but reading words or sentences was beyond him. Now 25, he can only recognize his name because he knows how it looks. His signature in his passport is just the letter K. He understands some sentences but can’t string them together. He’s not stupid, but he has such crises. Sometimes, when we’re walking, I read signs to him, and he can repeat them but struggles to remember the letters later. He suffers from neuroses and psychoses in spring and autumn. It’s hard for him,” explains his mother.
Due to his disability, Svetlana notes, Semyon never visited the military draft office, and it never occurred to her that someone with his diagnosis could be deemed fit for military service. While Semyon was being homeschooled, Svetlana had another child, a girl who died at six from a brain tumor.
After reaching adulthood, Semyon Karmanov began to socialize more, and, as his family believes, stuck with a “bad company.” “He made some new friends, started coming home late, or even by dawn. He thought he was grown-up,” his sister Anastasia recounts.
In May 2018, Semyon was fined for an attempted group theft, and a few months later, he was convicted of being an accomplice in a car theft, resulting in a sentence of one and a half years in a general regime colony.
A few months after his release, in February 2020, Karmanov traveled from Kemerovo to Novosibirsk, the largest Siberian city, without a specific purpose, just to walk around, says his sister. He had a little money with him. Opting not to rent accommodation for the night, he decided to return to Kemerovo on the first morning bus.
During a later interrogation, he mentioned noticing four young men begging and befriended them. After parting ways, he passed by Harat’s pub, where patrons were smoking outside. Trying to bypass them, he kicked something, picked it up, and pocketed it. Upon further inspection, he realized it was a Samsung phone with two bank cards in its case.
The phone was password-protected and ringing incessantly, but Karmanov didn’t answer; in court, he admitted he was scared and unsure what to do. Returning to his new acquaintances, he proposed a trip to a grocery store. There, he bought candies, paying with one of the cards. When one of the young men asked for food, he handed him the second card, which also had money on it.
The group went for a walk. In the Podorozhnik cafe, Karmanov ordered six sandwiches and juice for everyone, and at a pancake kiosk, he bought pancakes and coffee. By dawn, he purchased a bouquet from a flower shop for his mother. At the bus station, he discovered he lacked enough cash for the fare. Confused about what to do next, he went to the subway, where police detained him.
Following his arrest, he was sent to pre-trial detention. During the investigation, he couldn’t recall either the locations or the people involved, though he confessed to spending money from the card and not attempting to return the phone to its owner. The court assessed the damage to the card owner at 5,090 rubles.
The verdict was only passed late last year. He was found guilty of theft and sentenced to two years and one month in a maximum-security colony due to having been convicted before. Considering the time spent in detention, he was due for release in April 2024, but in October 2023, he signed a contract and went to war.
After the call from Karmanov’s cellmate, the family struggled to locate Semyon. In response to their numerous inquiries to various agencies, from the Ministry of Defence to the prosecutor’s office, they received standard replies promising to consider the requests within 30 days.
On October 19, the colony confirmed that Karmanov had been conditionally released on October 7 based on a contract signed with the Ministry of Defence. It was only on November 9, through acquaintances, that his family learned about the unit in which Semyon was serving, and a few days later, he called them himself. He told them that in the colony, he was sent for a medical examination, which deemed him category A fit, “suitable for military service.”
“He told us where he was and that they were soon sending him to the front from the training grounds. He said, ‘I was issued a military ID, and here is what is written in it’. I asked, ‘How did you know what was written there?.’ ‘Well, I asked them to read it to me.’ So, they just stamped this military ID for him in five minutes, right there, in the combat zone, and handed it to him. He’s category A fit, listed as a driver. What kind of driver is he, seriously? Like, come on! Even though he’s been disabled since childhood, and he doesn’t have a military ID because he’s a childhood disabled and has never dealt with the military draft office. When he said he couldn’t drive, they said it would be sorted out,” says Semyon’s mother, Svetlana.
She says she discussed the possibility of army recruitment with her son while he was still in the colony. She believes that Semyon understood the situation and said he would serve his time to the end. She suspects that the young man might have been pressured.
“He had very little time left to serve. The first time they asked him, he refused, but two days later, they sent him for a commission, told him to sign—and that’s it. He signed without even seeing or knowing what the paper was. He couldn’t read it, and those prison cops took advantage of it! A disabled person—and they didn’t care. But he has family, he’s not alone!” she laments.
Semyon’s sister says her primary questions are for the Kemerovo prison administration, although she knows that “no one cares who lies in the trenches.”
“I asked, ‘Were you forced, pressured?’. He said, ‘Well, yes.’ I understood that he thought if he didn’t agree, he might have to serve a longer sentence in the same prison. He said, ‘What if they give me an even longer term?’ ” Anastasia explains.
Karmanovs do not have a medical document with the young man’s exact diagnosis—he hasn’t undergone any examinations since being classified as disabled. But, based on the conclusion of a forensic psychiatric examination, Semyon falls under category B, “limited fitness for military service.” In peaceful times, signing a contract with Karmanov would be impossible, but the mobilization order from last year is still in effect, so he can serve, explains Maxim Grebenyuk, a lawyer from the “Military Ombudsman” project.
According to Semyon’s mother, in their brief phone conversations, the young man becomes confused. “He says, ‘I will become the Hero of Russia! They’ll give me a medal. We will win!’. And then he says, ‘I’m scared.’ Well, probably someone is instilling all this in him during training, and he’s trusting. Everyone there already knows he’s disabled, so how can they send him to a real war?” she wonders.
“I want to save his life. I don’t have a living daughter, she died after the surgery, I buried her and went through such a trance state, it’s just unbearable. And if my son is killed, imagine how I would feel?” explains Svetlana Karmanova. “We try to support each other, laugh during phone calls. I tell him, ‘What if we would have to bury you? My heart won’t take losing a second child.’ He says, ‘Don’t think about it, mom, think about something good.’ But still, the bad thoughts cross my mind.”
Editor: Maria Klimova
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