‘He’s really dangerous’: fear as Wagner convict soldiers return from Ukraine
Murderers and other hardened criminals among those recruited by Russian mercenary group in exchange for freedom
Anatoly Salmin, a convicted thief and murderer, is home from prison years ahead of schedule, his reward for volunteering for a suicide mission in Russia’s war in Ukraine – and then managing to survive.
Hundreds of convicts recruited into the ranks of Wagner, a private military company tied to the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been killed or severely wounded in Ukraine, where the mercenaries have been tasked with some of Russia’s most desperate campaigns.
But a video released last month showed several dozen former convicts – among them murderers, drug dealers and domestic abusers – now heading to their home towns in northern Russia, supposedly having earned pardons by surviving six months in Wagner’s ranks in Ukraine.
In interviews, those who knew Salmin said they feared running into the same man who once terrorised their home town and may now have been made untouchable by his association with Prigozhin, one of Russia’s most notorious figures.
“We started seeing him in town a few weeks ago,” one local resident who has known Salmin for many years told the Guardian. “He is a dangerous man, we all know what he did to his friend. I told my kids not to run around alone in the coming days. It wasn’t just what he did to his friend, he stole from people, got in many fights and was harassing girls. He drank a lot, used drugs and was violent.”
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“We don’t want such people back in Pikalevo,” said the person, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “What kind of hero is he?”
Salmin was recruited into Wagner while serving a sentence for theft. But in 2011 he was convicted of murder. In the court’s description of the killing, Salmin and a friend got drunk while fishing at a local quarry and began to argue. Then Salmin grabbed a rock and hit his friend on the head twice. As the man continued to flail, Salmin held his friend’s head underwater until he stopped moving.
“This is a small fraction of the crimes he committed,” another acquaintance said in an interview with BBC Russian earlier this year, shortly after Salmin’s release was discovered. “There are people who are still very afraid that he will return to our city. And I am very afraid that he will do something to these people. Salmin is a terrible person.”
The release of the convicts who volunteer for Wagner is contentious among Russians, many of whom fear the men will go on to commit further crimes.
Last month, the Kremlin defended the practice, saying convicts were being pardoned “in strict adherence with Russian law”.
Under the Russian constitution, only the president can issue pardons and critics point to the fact the Kremlin has not published such decrees since 2020.
Many are hardened criminals. Dmitry Kuryagin was convicted of murdering his 87-year-old grandmother and taking the money she received for selling her flat. Others were sentenced to decades in prison for extortion, selling amphetamines, or robbing jewellery stores.
“It’s often people who have the most years left on their sentences who are willing to go into Wagner,” said a prisoners’ rights activists based in Russia. “And that means, usually, it’s people who have committed the most serious crimes.”
Prigozhin this week claimed Wagner had already halted its recruitment drive in prisons, although he did not provide any proof or explain why the decision had been made.
Recent media reports said Wagner was having more difficulty recruiting prisoners because they had heard about the high casualty rates among Russian convicts sent into battle.
“What percentage of our guys who went [to Ukraine] are still alive?” one prisoner asked a Wagner recruiter in December, according to a report by the independent Mediazona outlet. “At that point, [the recruiter] started to stammer; he couldn’t give an answer, and he ended his speech there.”
In Thursday’s statement, Prigozhin maintained Wagner would “fulfil its obligations to those working for us”, which was likely in reference to his promise of a full pardon to those who joined the ranks of military company from prison.
Even pundits traditionally close to the government have raised doubts that scouring prisons for some of their most desperate inmates, sending them on violent missions to Ukraine and then releasing them back among the public is sound policy.
“Now another group of prisoners are returning from the [war] zone. It is necessary to understand whether psychologists have worked with them?” Ivan Melnikov, a Russian human rights activist, said in a recent radio interview. “We may end up with a colossal relapse of criminal behaviour in the near future if nothing is done.”
Source The Guardian