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A prison at war: the convicts sustaining Putin’s invasion

A man walks past billboards promoting contract army service reading 'Join yours' in Saint Petersburg Monday. Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned to convicts and former inmates, offering them pardons in exchange for six months of military service fighting in Ukraine.OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Alexander Mokin had lost the will to live.

Convicted of selling drugs and ostracized by his family, he endured abuse from guards and frequent spells in solitary confinement at a high-security Russian prison. He told a friend he felt alone and wracked with guilt.

Then, in the summer of 2022, Mokin and other inmates in Penal Colony No. 6 in the Chelyabinsk region started hearing rumors. One of Russia’s most powerful men was reportedly touring jails and offering pardons for prisoners who survived six months of fighting in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, himself an ex-con who now ran a private military company, Wagner, visited the prison a few months later and offered freedom and money. His warning: The price for freedom for many would be death.

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Mokin and 196 other inmates enlisted the same day.

“I really wish to be there, knowing that this is likely to be a journey without return,” Mokin, then 35 and serving an 11-year sentence, told a friend in a text message that was viewed by The New York Times.

Two months later, Mokin was dead.

As the war in Ukraine grinds to a stalemate, Mokin’s ultimate legacy may be his small role in a much bigger, globally significant enterprise: He was one of tens of thousands of convicts powering the Kremlin’s war machine. Even now, with Prigozhin dead and Wagner disbanded, Russian inmates are still enlisting in what has become the largest military prison recruitment program since World War II.

In Ukraine, these former inmates have been used mostly as cannon fodder. But they have bolstered the ranks of Russia’s forces, helping President Vladimir Putin postpone a new round of mobilization, which would be unpopular domestically. And since many of the inmates come from poor families and rural areas, it has helped Putin to maintain the veneer of normalcy among well-off Russians in major cities.

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Some of the inmates’ reasons for choosing the war were obvious. Many said they were driven by patriotism, a desire to escape prison, or a craving for action after years of confinement.

Yet, interviews with the fighters and their relatives also revealed a deeper longing for redemption, a powerful emotional force in a country that has long wrestled with the meaning of guilt and sacrifice. For men stuck in the savage, dehumanizing conditions of Russian prisons, the war offered a chance to regain their sense of self-worth.

The Times obtained the names and details of the 197 initial recruits from Mokin’s prison and was able to confirm the fates of 172 of them through 2023. Times reporters interviewed 16 of them, spoke with the families and friends of others, and reviewed social media, court records, and a database of war casualties compiled by an independent news outlet, Mediazona.

Together, they form the most comprehensive portrait yet of the convicts who played an outsize role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The harshest finding was the one Prigozhin warned of: death. At least 1 in 4 recruits who left jail with Mokin in October 2022 was killed.

The data show that the recruits averaged 33 years of age and came mostly from small towns and villages. Their most common crime was selling drugs. They had, on average, five more years left on their sentences.

Some men, however, signed up with as little as three months left behind bars, suggesting other motivations than freedom.

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Nikolai, a construction worker who was convicted along with his wife for selling drugs, said he joined Wagner out of patriotism. Money also helped. Even if he died, he said, the compensation Wagner promised his family — about $50,000 — would solve their housing problems. “This is wonderful, I thought.”

Even death would have meaning, if he were killed in battle. “I didn’t want to be such a bad person in the eyes of the children in our village,” he said. “I would be remembered not as a convict, but as a man who died in a war.”

In some ways, Putin’s war has turned the country’s entire criminal justice system into a military recruitment tool, experts say. Russia’s extremely high conviction rates (99.6 percent), its long prison terms, and its inhumane conditions inside jails create strong incentives to risk death to obtain freedom.

Wagner said that about 50,000 inmates served in their ranks in Ukraine, and that 1 in 5 of them died. Prigozhin died in a plane crash in August, in what Western intelligence agencies have called an assassination, after a failed mutiny against Russia’s military command.

The Russian army took over Wagner’s prison recruitment program in February, not only maintaining operations but expanding them.

This year, for example, the armed forces began recruiting from pretrial detention centers and immigration detention facilities, according to three Russian prison rights groups. The military has also stepped up efforts to entice Wagner’s inmate veterans back into the war.

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Yana Gelmel, an exiled Russian prison rights activist who provided documents, called the system a “human conveyor” for the war effort.

“It suits the state to continue taking these men, because they don’t exist in the eyes of society,” she said.

In late April, a chartered Russian transport plane carrying about 140 former inmates landed at a military airfield outside Chelyabinsk, according to interviews and social media posts. It was the last day of their six-month contract, and they had survived.

Most of the interviewed survivors claimed they have found respect after years of shame. One fighter, Sergei, said that on returning to his village, he changed into new fatigues, pinned on the six medals he had received, and knocked on his family’s door, where his crying mother and flabbergasted father greeted him.

A few of the survivors have found factory work and are trying to move on from prison and war. They said they are grateful to Wagner for honoring the contract terms and to Putin for issuing pardons.

“Uncle Vova has pardoned me, forgave me and my brothers,” said a veteran, Andrei, who now works at a textile plant, using an informal version of Putin’s first name. “He gave us a second chance.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.