In October last year, a Russian news site published a short video of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary army, sitting with four men on a rooftop terrace in the resort town of Gelendzhik, on Russia's Black Sea coast. Two are missing parts of a leg. A third has lost an arm. They are identified as pardoned former convicts, returned from the front in Ukraine after joining Wagner from prison.
"You were an offender, now you're a war hero," Prigozhin tells one man in the clip. It was the first video to depict the return of some of the thousands of convicts who joined Wagner in return for the promise of a pardon if they survived six months of war.
Reuters used facial recognition software to examine this video and more than a dozen other videos and photographs of homecoming convict fighters, published between October 2022 and February 2023. Reporters were able to identify more than 30 of the men by cross-checking the images with social media and Russian court documents.
In their ranks are murderers, thieves and a self-declared "Satanist." Several are in hospital recovering from wounds sustained in the fighting. Reuters managed to make contact with 11 of these men. Five agreed to be interviewed by phone and messaging app. What follows is the most detailed insider account yet of Wagner's convict army: the fighters' recruitment and training, the combat they saw in Ukraine, and their uncertain future in a Russia turned upside down by war with its neighbour.
Four of the men said they were personally recruited by Yevgeny Prigozhin as he toured Russia's prison system to bolster his private army. Some of the men were deployed to Ukraine's eastern Bakhmut region, site of some of the most intense fighting of the one-year-old conflict, where one man described the "utter hell" of the battlefield. Thousands have been killed on both sides. The battle for the city of Bakhmut now hangs in the balance. A former Wagner commander who fled to Norway in January has said he witnessed members of Wagner's internal security administering brutal treatment to prisoner recruits, including executions for desertion.
Combat training, some conducted by veterans of Russia's special forces, was short but intensive, according to the men. Ukrainian and Western officials say Wagner is sending poorly prepared fighters to certain death in eastern Ukraine. Mike Kofman, an expert in the Russian military at the Arlington County, Virginia-based CNA think tank, told Reuters the two to three weeks of training received by the convict recruits would be unlikely to bring them up to speed, even if some of the men had prior military experience.
"It takes time to learn combat basics, receive individual training, and you also need some collective training as a unit on top of it - a couple of weeks alone isn't going to do that much for you," Kofman told Reuters. A more rigorous training scheme would last several months.
All five ex-prisoners expressed a fierce loyalty to Prigozhin for giving them a second chance at life. Though Reuters could not independently confirm the men's accounts of their service, many of the details were consistent with one another. Russia's Defence Ministry and penal service did not respond to detailed questions for this article, nor did Prigozhin and Wagner. In a brief emailed statement Prigozhin dismissed Reuters' questions as "crazy." Prigozhin has previously described Wagner as "probably the most experienced army that exists in the world today" and said its casualty rate is comparable with other Russian units.
FROM JAIL TO THE UKRAINE FRONT
When Prigozhin began touring Russia's sprawling penal system in summer 2022 offering pardons to those who agreed to fight in Ukraine, word quickly spread among prisoners.
Rustam Borovkov, from the small town of Porkhov, near Russia's border with Estonia, was one of the four men filmed on the rooftop terrace. Court records show that the 31-year-old was six years into a 13-year term for manslaughter and theft in late July when Prigozhin reached his prison, Penal Colony No. 6 in Russia's western Pskov region. Borovkov and two friends had broken into a house to steal homebrewed alcohol, according to the court papers. One of them struck the homeowner, who died as a result.
Borovkov had heard from inmates in St Petersburg that Prigozhin was travelling from prison to prison in search of recruits. "I knew right away that I would go," he told Reuters, "even before he came to us."
Borovkov said he stood with several hundred other prisoners to hear Prigozhin speak. They were given three days to decide whether to join Wagner in return for freedom. About 40 signed up and after three days and a polygraph test, aimed at rooting out drug addicts, they were on their way to war.
Two months later, in September, as a Ukrainian counter-offensive gathered pace, a film emerged on social media of Prigozhin telling convicts in the Volga River region of Mari El that they had only five minutes to make a decision – and those who changed their minds after joining would be shot as deserters.
In another video, published in February this year, Prigozhin tells convicts that fighters are paid 100,000 roubles ($1,300) monthly, with the possibility of additional bonuses. That's far above Russia's average monthly wage of around 65,000 roubles. But Borovkov told Reuters his only motivation for joining Wagner was the promise of a pardon. "I have a small child. I wanted to get back to my family." He said prison officers tried to persuade him not to go because he played an important role as head of his cellblock's medical unit.
Six-time convicted thief Yevgeny Kuzhelev said a sense of patriotic duty drew him to Wagner. The 29-year-old was serving time in Russia's southwestern Samara region for stealing cognac, beer and instant coffee from supermarkets in the Volga car-making city of Togliatti, according to court papers.
"I was sentenced to 3 years and 7 months and I'd already served two years. So I didn't have long left. But I went anyway. Why? I thought about it, and I am sure that if I had been free at the time, I would have one hundred percent gone to fight. I would have gone as a volunteer," he said. "I remember how from February, when it all started, I called my aunt from time to time from prison. She kept telling me that this friend of yours went [to Ukraine], then another one, then a third, a fourth ... And I knew that I would have done the same."
Kuzhelev said the recruitment process took about two weeks, and during this time inmates were free to back out without consequence. Those who enlisted were moved to separate accommodation in the prison, where they encountered a new respect from the prison officers.
"Among us there was a man who was serving a 25 year sentence," Kuzhelev said. "He had a few months left of his term and he signed up. The prison officers asked him: 'What the fuck are you doing?' And he told them: 'Everything is fine, I'm going.' How can you not respect such a decision?"
Reuters was unable to establish the identity of the prisoner or what happened to him.
"IT WAS CLEAR THEY WERE GOING TO DIE"
Prigozhin has said previously that Wagner's convict fighters spend a month undergoing rigorous combat drills, sleeping for only four hours a day. The fighters who spoke to Reuters said they received two to three weeks of intensive and well-organised training. Some credited it with saving their lives.
The war in Ukraine is straining Russia's military capacity. Late last year, Putin announced the mobilisation of reservists into the army. They would receive just 10 to 20 days' training before deployment to the front. Basic training for infantrymen in the US and British armies is around 22 weeks.
One of the convict recruits told Reuters he travelled to a Wagner training camp in the Russian-controlled part of eastern Ukraine's Luhansk region. Borovkov said training was conducted by former members of Russia's special forces. "Everything was organised at the highest level," said Borovkov, who previously served with the military force that secures Russia's railways. "It wasn't that they gave me a machine gun, showed me how to shoot and that's it. No, they explained everything, and in great detail. Mining, demining, tactics, shooting, physical training. Everything."
The men who spoke to Reuters said that most of the inmates who joined Wagner had some kind of military experience. They had previously served as conscripts under Russia's one-year military draft or as professional soldiers. The convicts with the most military experience were appointed squad commanders, two of the men said.
"When we got to training, we were asked in detail who knew what, who had served, where they served," said 38-year-old Dmitry Yermakov, who joined Wagner 10 years into a 14-year sentence for kidnapping. He declined to discuss his criminal record. "And then, when we had been divided into units, they let the lads choose their own commanders. By that time I had already earned some kind of authority, so I was chosen."
Yermakov said the recruits who realised the gravity of the situation and asked instructors to repeat drills were the best prepared for what was to come. "Those were the men who were genuinely ready to go to war," he said. Others hoped merely to run down the clock on their six-month stints, hoping that they would receive their pardon having seen as little combat as possible. Of these men, Yermakov said: "It was absolutely clear they were going to die."
PARALYSING FEAR AND ADRENALIN
Of the five men who spoke to Reuters, three said that they had fought in the area around the eastern city of Bakhmut, where intense fighting has cost thousands of lives on both sides. Wagner is spearheading Russia's months-long push to take the city, which had a pre-war population of 75,000 but is now in ruins. Prigozhin has referred to Bakhmut as a "meat grinder," and said his men's task there is to bleed the Ukrainian army dry.
Ukrainian and Western officials have compared the battles around Bakhmut to the First World War, and accused Wagner of using convicts in human wave attacks. According to the United States, by mid-February Wagner had suffered more than 30,000 casualties in Ukraine, including 9,000 dead, almost all of them convicts. Prigozhin has insisted, however, that the casualty rate among convict fighters is comparable to other Russian units.
Yermakov, the convicted kidnapper, said that some fighters lost their nerves in the first hours of battle. "What do they see there? Corpses ripped to shreds. And what do they do? Some of them vomit, some of them cry, and some of them don't want to climb out of the trench. Fear takes over."
Other fighters recalled only the thrill of combat.
"It was amazing," said Andrei Yastrebov, a 22-year-old native of St Petersburg, who was serving time for car theft when he joined Wagner. Yastrebov also goes by the name Andrei Kiriyenko on social media. "So much adrenalin. I wish all real men would join Wagner. You can write that. The Ukies ran and Wagner fucked them up."
Four of the men interviewed by Reuters were seriously injured and invalided out of Ukraine long before completing their stints. They said Wagner had told them that time spent in hospital and rehabilitation would be counted towards their six-month terms and they would receive clemency regardless. Two said they have already got their pardons.
Yermakov lasted only four days before receiving a serious wound to his arm and groin in mid December while dragging a wounded comrade to safety. He said his squad had been tasked with taking and holding a road junction near the village of Pokrovske, on the eastern approach to Bakhmut. He described his final day on the front as "utter hell," lying flat on the ground for 24 hours as Ukrainian tanks and mortars shelled his squad's position and drones flew overhead.
"In a war, you're almost always lying flat on the ground. It's the only way to survive," said Kuzhelev, the convicted thief. He told Reuters he spent two months at the front before receiving a shrapnel wound to his arm. "We always wish people 'Happy Birthday' after they have been wounded" because they have dodged death. "That's what they said to me," he added.
A NEW START
Now free years ahead of schedule, whether at home or facing long periods of treatment and rehabilitation, the surviving fighters are returning to a country where their actions on the frontline are lionised by many. Prigozhin has previously said that he is giving convicts who join Wagner a "second chance" at life, and an opportunity to redeem themselves.
Earlier this month the State Duma passed a law making it a crime to "discredit" Wagner fighters. The law, which previously applied more narrowly to Russia's armed forces, was extended at Prigozhin's request.
Prigozhin's growing power has not been greeted warmly by all sections of the Russian elite. In February, a long-running feud between the Wagner leader and Russia's military chiefs exploded into open hostility. Prigozhin accused Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of "treason," saying they were starving Wagner of munitions out of personal animosity towards him. Shoigu and Gerasimov could not immediately be reached for comment. Earlier the same month, Prigozhin said he had ended Wagner's recruitment of prisoners, hinting in an interview that he was forced to do so by unnamed officials.
The five fighters interviewed by Reuters felt a deep personal gratitude to Prigozhin for recruiting them and wiping their criminal records.
"We're better than ordinary citizens," said Yastrebov, the car thief, now at home in his native St Petersburg. "We are not ex-convicts now, thanks to Wagner."
In a January video, Prigozhin is shown telling injured convict fighters: "The police must treat you with respect. Everything has already been agreed at various levels, so that there is no nit-picking… If necessary, I myself will call and talk to the governors and so on, and we will find a solution."
For Kuzhelev, who as of February had been in a Krasnodar region hospital for four months, Prigozhin had given him a new lease on life. Court documents show he spent almost seven of his 29 years in prison for six separate convictions. "The last time I was sent to prison, I was thinking: 'Well, here I am again, what's next?'" he said. "I'll serve a year, another, a third, and then what? I'll go out, and what am I going to do on the outside? What am I going to do with myself, given my background?"
"Well, now I'm clean. I have some money. I can think about the future. Think about getting a mortgage to buy an apartment … I have all this thanks to our esteemed Yevgeny Viktorovich," Kuzhelev added, using Prigozhin’s patronymic as a sign of respect.
All five of the men who spoke to Reuters said either that they would remain with Wagner after their six month service, or were seriously considering doing so.
Some said they wanted to get back to the frontlines as soon as they were able to. Nikita Lyubimov, a native of the Volga city of Cheboksary who had been serving a four and a half year sentence for grievous bodily harm, said his first priority was "to support the lads, to recover as soon as possible, and get back to the front line." The 23-year-old had received a shrapnel wound two months into his initial stint in Ukraine, and was invalided out.
The men said that the able-bodied among them were offered the chance to sign on as professional full-time mercenaries, while the injured were offered supporting roles. Borovkov, who is getting a prosthetic arm after amputation, said that he had been offered a job at a Wagner hospital in Luhansk when he recovers.
Yermakov said he hoped to recover sufficiently to re-enroll as a contract mercenary, and hoped to be deployed in future to Libya, Syria or the Central African Republic, where Wagner operations predate the group's present campaign in Ukraine. He cited limited prospects available in Russia's civilian economy as pushing him towards returning to Wagner.
"People work hard without days off for 12-14 hours a day, and at best they earn 50-60,000 roubles ($672-$806) a month," said Yermakov, who told Reuters he has two small daughters. "I will return to the (Wagner) company and I will definitely be able to earn 150,000 roubles ($2,000) a month."
For others, a return to Wagner offers an alternative to sinking back into a life of crime. Kuzhelev, who has spent almost seven of his 29 years in prison, told Reuters that he hoped that service in Wagner would enable his young daughter to build a career in future, without the stigma of her father's criminal past.
"My daughter, when she grows up, can go on to study banking, or attend the police academy," said Kuzhelev. "And she will not have problems because her father was in prison. Isn't that motivation? Of course it is."