He was released from a Russian prison and thrown into battle in Ukraine with a promise of freedom, redemption and money. Now, Andrei Yastrebov, who was among tens of thousands of convict soldiers, is part of a return from the battlefield with potentially serious implications for Russian society.
Mr. Yastrebov, 22, who had been serving time for theft, returned home a changed man. “We all feel like he is in some sort of hypnosis, like he is a different person,” said a relative of his, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “He is without any emotions.”
Thousands of convicts have been killed, many within days or even hours of arriving at the front, Russian rights advocates and Ukrainian officials say. Those who live and return home largely remain silent, wary of retribution if they speak out.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to allow a mercenary group to recruit Russian convicts in support of his flagging war effort marks a watershed in his 23-year rule, say human rights activists and legal experts. The policy circumvents Russian legal precedent and, by returning some brutalized criminals to their homes with pardons, risks triggering greater violence throughout society, underlining the cost Mr. Putin is prepared to pay to avoid defeat.
Since July, around 40,000 inmates have joined the Russian forces, according to Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government and a prisoners’ rights association, Russia Behind Bars, which combines reports from informers across Russian jails. Ukraine claims that nearly 30,000 have deserted or been killed or wounded, although that number could not be independently verified.
Most of the enlisted men were serving time for petty crimes like robbery and theft, but records from one penal colony seen by The New York Times show that the recruits also included men convicted of aggravated rape and multiple murders.
“There are no more crimes, and no more punishments,” said Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars. “Anything is permissible now, and this brings very far-reaching consequences for any country.”
More than six months ago, Russia’s largest private military company, Wagner, and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, began systematically recruiting convicts on a scale not seen since World War II to bolster a bloody assault on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Yet the operation remains largely cloaked in secrecy and propaganda.
Wagner has been able to avoid oversight by exploiting the most marginalized Russian citizens, the 350,000 male inmates of its harsh penal colonies, said human rights activists and lawyers.
Dozens of survivors from the first inmate assault units began filtering back to Russia this month with medals, sizable payouts and documents that Wagner claims grant them freedom. The releases are likely to accelerate as Wagner’s six-month service contracts expire, potentially confronting Russian society with the challenge of reintegrating thousands of traumatized men with military training, a history of crime and few job prospects.
“These are psychologically broken people who are returning with a sense of righteousness, a belief that they have killed to defend the Motherland,” said Yana Gelmel, a Russian prisoner rights lawyer who works with enlisted inmates. “These can be very dangerous people.”
Neither Mr. Prigozhin, through his press office, nor Russia’s penal service provided comment.
To document the recruitment drive, The Times interviewed rights activists, lawyers, legal workers, relatives of recruited inmates, deserters and prisoners who decided to remain behind bars but maintain contact with companions on the front lines.
They described a sophisticated system of incentives and brutality built by Wagner, with the Kremlin’s support, to refill Russia’s decimated military ranks using questionable, and possibly illegal, methods.
Andrei Medvedev said he joined Wagner within days of finishing his prison term for theft in southern Russia. A former convict with military experience, he says he was put in charge of a detachment of prisoners who were dispatched on nearly suicidal missions around Bakhmut.
“We were told: ‘Keep going until you’re killed,’” Mr. Medvedev said in a phone interview from Russia after deserting in November. He has since escaped to Norway and applied for political asylum.
The campaign to recruit convicts began in early July, when Mr. Prigozhin started appearing in prisons around his native St. Petersburg with a radical proposal for the inmates: paying their debt to society by joining his private army in Ukraine.
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In videos published on social media, Mr. Prigozhin promised the prisoners they would receive 100,000 rubles a month — the equivalent of $1,700 at the time, and nearly double Russia’s average monthly wage. He also offered bravery bonuses, $80,000 death payouts and, should they survive the six-month contract, freedom in the form of a presidential pardon.
Those who ran away, used drugs or alcohol or had sexual relations, he warned, would be killed.
“There are no chances of returning to the colony,” Mr. Prigozhin said in a speech to inmates published in September. “Those who get there and say ‘I think I’m in the wrong place’ will be marked as deserters and shot.”
A former inmate himself, Mr. Prigozhin, understood prison culture, skillfully combining a threat of punishment with a promise of a new, dignified life, according to rights activists and families.
“He didn’t go for the money, he was too proud for that,” said Anastasia, about a relative who enlisted with Wagner as a prisoner. “He went because he was ashamed in front of his mother, he wanted to clear his name.”
Mr. Prigozhin’s prison visits immediately raised legal questions. Mercenary recruitment is illegal in Russia, and until last year Mr. Prigozhin had denied that Wagner even existed.
On paper, the prisoners never went to war, but were merely transferred to Russian jails near the Ukrainian border, according to information requests filed by their relatives.
When Anastasia, who asked that her last name not be used, tried to find the whereabouts of her enlisted relative at his prison, she said the guards merely told her that he was unavailable.
Igor Matyukhin was a convicted thief who decided to join.
A 26-year-old Siberian orphan, Mr. Matyukhin said he was serving his third sentence in the remote Krasnoyarsk region when Mr. Prigozhin arrived by helicopter in November, offering eventual freedom in return for enlistment.
Driven by the chance of a new life, Mr. Matyukhin immediately signed up. Days later, he was at a training camp near the occupied Ukrainian city of Luhansk. What he found there, he said, was very different from the patriotic band of brothers he had been led to expect.
Mr. Matyukhin described a climate of fear instilled by Wagner to keep convicts fighting. He said they were threatened with summary executions, and at least one man in his unit was taken away after disobeying orders and never returned.
When his training camp came under a surprise Ukrainian attack, Mr. Matyukhin seized the opportunity to escape in the confusion. He said he has since been trying to return to his prison from a hiding place in Russia.
A relative of Mr. Matyukhin confirmed that he had enlisted in Wagner, but other aspects of his war account could not be independently verified.
To lift declining recruitment numbers, Wagner has lately been playing up the rewards for survivors, releasing videos of returned prisoners being granted freedom.
“I needed your criminal talents to kill the enemy in the war,” Mr. Prigozhin said in one video. “Those who want to return, we are waiting for you to come back. Those who want to get married, get baptized, study — go ahead with a blessing.”
In some videos, the inmates are given papers described as pardons or annulments of convictions. However, none of these documents have been made public, raising questions about their legitimacy. Rights advocates say pardons are rare, time-consuming and complex legal procedures that have never been issued in Russia on anywhere near the scale advertised by Wagner.
Only Mr. Putin can issue a pardon under the Russian Constitution, and the Kremlin has not published such decrees since 2020. In 2021, Mr. Putin pardoned just six people, according to the Kremlin.
Mr. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri S. Peskov, on Friday told reporters that Wagner’s enlisted convicts are being pardoned “in strict adherence to Russian law.” He declined further comment, implying the procedure was a state secret.
“There are open decrees and decrees with various degrees of secrecy,” he said.
Under Russian law, all pardon petitions are evaluated by specialized regional committees before arriving at the Kremlin. However, two members of such commissions said they had not received any petitions from enlisted convicts. One of those officials represents the city of St. Petersburg, the residence of Mr. Yastrebov.
Rights activists say the returning inmates’ ambiguous legal status undermines Russia’s justice system and ties their fate to Wagner.
After spending just three weeks at home, Mr. Yastrebov said he was already getting ready to return to the front, despite the extraordinary casualty rates suffered by his prison’s unit, according to Russia Behind Bars.
“I want to defend the Motherland,” he said in a brief interview on Friday. “I liked everything over there. The civilian life is boring.”