The Violent Homecoming of Russian Convicts Freed to Fight in Ukraine | Mint

The Violent Homecoming of Russian Convicts Freed to Fight in Ukraine

A photo of Igor Sofonov posted to his account on VKontakte, a Russian social-media platform, shortly before he was dispatched to Ukraine.
A photo of Igor Sofonov posted to his account on VKontakte, a Russian social-media platform, shortly before he was dispatched to Ukraine.

Summary

Wave of new, brutal crimes comes as former prisoners finish military contracts and go home; ‘thousands of criminals are walking our streets’

In early August, police in Russia’s rural northwest were called to the scene of a mass murder. In the charred remains of two homes set ablaze hours earlier, they found the burned, mutilated bodies of six local residents.

News of the massacre shook Derevyannoye, a village of 1,200 people, where sailing boats bob in Onega Lake and the border with Finland is a three-hour drive away. What was most shocking was the identity of one of the two suspects: a repeat offender freed from a maximum-security prison to fight in Ukraine.

Igor Sofonov had been in and out of jail for 20 years by the time he joined Storm Z, a unit of convicts created to bolster Russia’s war effort. If he and others survived long enough to complete their six-month contracts, they were promised their freedom through a secretive program of presidential pardons.

Sofonov survived, and returned to Russia with the remainder of his sentence for drug trafficking erased. He is among around 30,000 enlisted ex-prisoners, many of whom had been serving long prison terms for violent crimes, who have returned home to liberty.

Many are traumatized by their experiences of war, in which their underequipped, all-convict units, such as Storm Z, were commonly used in near-suicidal assaults. Others are emboldened by a Kremlin narrative that portrays them as heroes deserving respect.

Communities across Russia have been brutalized by scores of crimes perpetrated by these returning convicts, according to a Wall Street Journal review of court documents, interviews with friends and relatives of suspects and victims, and reports in Russian media. Rights activists said dozens more go unreported.

One man staged a shootout in a cafe, killing one person and seriously wounding another, according to court documents. Another is accused of raping two girls. A third, who had been convicted of murder three times, poured gasoline on his sleeping sister and burned her alive, according to the court’s press office.

The offenses committed by the convict soldiers risk shattering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative that the war protects Russia from its enemies.

“I don’t feel safe. Thousands of criminals are walking our streets," said Anna Pekaryova, whose grandmother Yulia Buyskikh was killed in March by a convicted murderer, Ivan Rossomakhin. He had wandered the streets of her village 600 miles east of Moscow—swinging an ax and carrying a pitchfork—after fighting for the Wagner paramilitary force in Ukraine and returning a free man. “I have lost count how many times such crimes have happened."

Prison population shrinks

Prisoners were routinely dragooned into armies for centuries up through World War II, when a renewed emphasis on the laws of war, and the professionalization of military service, sidelined the practice and made it taboo in the Western world.

In the modern era, Napoleon deployed penal brigades as he scaled up the scope of warfare across Europe in the 19th century. Hitler had his Strafbataillon, and Stalin’s Red Army drafted criminals and political prisoners from the Gulag labor camps.

Few survived. Putin’s convict army has suffered heavy casualties, too—first under the direction of Wagner, led by Putin’s former lieutenant Yevgeny Prigozhin, then as the Russian army’s own penal units, formed after Prigozhin rebelled against the military leadership shortly before his death in a plane crash in August.

Wagner corralled convicts into disposable penal units that were thrown into the fray by commanders whose disregard for losses shocked even the most hardened Ukrainian soldiers. Ex-Wagner fighters said Prigozhin embraced a policy in place under Stalin of executing on the spot those who retreated.

When the prisoner recruitment started, Putin’s campaign in Ukraine had largely stalled, and his army needed more troops. Offering convicts their freedom was a way to expand the ranks without ordering an unpopular mobilization of more reservists.

In June, Putin confirmed that he pardons ex-convicts, and acknowledged that some reoffend. “This is inevitable," he said. “But the negative consequences are minimal."

In 2021, the Russian president pardoned just six people, according to the Kremlin, which hasn’t revealed the number of people given amnesty since the invasion of Ukraine.

Russia hasn’t confirmed the total number of convicts recruited by Wagner and the Defense Ministry, but figures from the prison service show a reduction of more than 35,000 in the country’s total prison population between May 2022 and January 2023, the peak of Wagner recruitment. It hasn’t published such figures since.

The Kremlin was asked in November by reporters whether it would reconsider its policy of pardoning people convicted of the most gruesome crimes, such as a member of a cannibal gang who returned to Russia that month after cutting short a prison term for multiple murders.

The policy remains unchanged, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied. He said that men freed from prisons to fight in Ukraine were “atoning for their crimes on the battlefield with their blood."

In September, a court in Rostov near the border with Ukraine sentenced 34-year-old convicted murderer Sergei Rudenko to 11½ years behind bars for strangling a woman to death after an argument over an apartment rental, according to prosecutors. He had been serving an 11-year sentence for murder and theft when the war began and was freed after fighting for Wagner, local media reports said.

Some well-known criminals have been freed. Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, who was sentenced to 20 years in 2014 after being convicted as an accomplice in the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was pardoned after a six-month tour in Ukraine last winter with the Russian army. Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006 after writing stories that criticized the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya.

The pardons can also mean expunging the criminal records of repeat offenders. Olga Romanova, head of prisoners’ rights NGO Russia Behind Bars, said Russian courts are removing from databases the criminal records of many men amnestied to fight in Ukraine.

“No one wants these statistics," Romanova said.

If they commit more crimes, they aren’t tried as reoffenders, meaning they can’t be punished to the full extent of the law. And some are given more lenient treatment by judges because they served in Ukraine, according to court records and interviews with lawyers representing the defendants.

The spate of crimes leaves the Russian state in a bind. Putin has lionized the Russian men who fight in Ukraine. War gives convicted criminals a chance to be depicted as the ultimate patriots, their portraits displayed in local museums devoted to war heroes. Some are invited to give talks at Russian schools, more than 60 of which have been renamed in honor of soldiers.

Once convict recruits return to Russia, they are free to live their lives as pardoned men. Most struggle to find work and many look for ways to fight again in Ukraine by signing up with Defense Ministry units, according to Yana Gelmel, a Russia Behind Bars activist who regularly speaks with discharged convicts and convicts serving on the front lines.

There is no government program in place to resocialize them or smooth their transition to civilian life, she said, which leaves scores of villages like Derevyannoye worrying over what will come next.

‘They called us dogs’

The prison recruitments began in the summer of 2022, when Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur who had served nine years in prison during the Soviet era, promised a state pardon to inmates who fought alongside regular Russian forces for his Wagner group in Ukraine.

When the first batches of pardoned convicts returned from Ukraine in January, Prigozhin lauded their exploits and said society should treat them with the utmost respect. “I told you I need your criminal talents to kill the enemy at war," he said in a speech broadcast by Russian media as he stood on the tarmac beside a military aircraft that flew the men home. “Now those criminal talents aren’t needed."

By June, shortly before his death, Prigozhin said 32,000 of the convicts Wagner hired had returned to Russia, their records wiped clean, while the Defense Ministry had begun to scale up its own recruitment of prison inmates.

Sofonov, 37, who is accused of the killings in Derevyannoye, signed up to fight in October last year when Defense Ministry representatives visited the St. Petersburg prison where he was nine months into a four-year sentence on a drug trafficking charge, according to court records and Sofonov’s fellow inmates and relatives.

He created a new account on the Russian social-media platform VK, using his surname and his new military call-sign, the Karelian, after his home region. One of the first photos he posted shows him with three other men, all in military uniforms with rifles in their hands.

“Everyone here is from the camp," Sofonov wrote, using a Russian slang term for prison.

He left for Ukraine in December. “That’s it. I’m off," he wrote on his VK page, beside a photo of himself in an olive-green coat with army patches. “Awaiting your return home, alive!" his mother, Lyudmila Sofonova, wrote in the comments section.

Sofonova, a single mother of five who lives several hours’ drive north of Derevyannoye, in a small village that has already lost three residents on the Ukrainian front lines, said she opposed her son’s decision to fight. “I told him, ‘You know this is a one-way ticket?’" she said in a phone interview. “He said ‘yes, but it’s still better than sitting in jail.’"

Anatoly Maslov, a soldier who met Sofonov in December during Russia’s costly offensive to take Soledar, a town in east Ukraine, confirmed that Sofonov joined the Defense Ministry’s penal battalion, Storm Z. Sofonov’s own posts on VK corroborate this. On Feb. 26, he wrote: “Storm detachment." Later he replaced his profile picture with the emblem of Storm Z: a skull with a lightning bolt on its forehead.

Convicts are the lowest rung in Russia’s military hierarchy, routinely subjected to hazing. There is strict discipline—those who drink, take drugs or are caught trying to desert are executed, former fighters say. Captured Storm Z recruits interviewed in Ukraine by the Journal have said they were issued Soviet-era rifles and thrown into futile assault waves against well-defended Ukrainian positions.

One former Wagner fighter interviewed by the Journal said a member of his penal unit was savagely beaten in December, tied to a tree and left to freeze to death after a dispute with an officer. The fighter said he saw others shot for refusing orders.

The convict soldiers were also complicit in war crimes. The former Wagner fighter gave a detailed account of a massacre of civilians that he said his unit conducted in Soledar following the Russian takeover of the city. “They called us dogs," he said of his commanders. He fled in January and has been hiding in Russian-occupied territory.

‘Discovered himself’ at war

For many, the offer of cash and a pardon outweighed the fear of death. One Storm Z fighter said he received a salary of 70,000 rubles a month, double the average wage in his part of Russia. “I had a choice: rot in prison another eight years, or try to survive six months in Ukraine," he said. “I chose the latter."

The Russian Defense Ministry has never acknowledged creating Storm Z units. It didn’t respond to a request for comment on the scale of convict recruitment, on the origins of its prison recruitment drive or on the treatment of convict recruits.

The last time Maslov saw Sofonov was in March, around the time Sofonov returned from Ukraine to Russia. “Demobilization," Sofonov wrote on VK that month. Alexey, a friend of Sofonov’s, told the Journal that “he discovered himself" at war, finding at last a sense of purpose.

In a video message to Alexey on July 22, Sofonov said he was staying with his mother, helping with odd jobs. He said he wanted to marry a medic he met while recuperating from light shrapnel wounds in Russian-occupied Luhansk.

Sofonova, his mother, said her son was quiet after his return, refusing to speak about his time at war. He was wounded when a Ukrainian drone dropped a bomb into his dugout. The attack killed several of his fellow soldiers.

She said he had lost his passport and because of that couldn’t find work back in Russia, and was despondent. And far from being treated like a hero upon his return, he had his jaw broken when he was mugged on a visit to his brother in Petrozavodsk, the regional capital. The assailants took his watch, his wallet and his military documents, Sofonova said.

In late July, Sofonov traveled to stay with his sister in a village a 30-minute drive from Derevyannoye. One evening he got a call from a friend he had served time with in jail, Sofonova said. The friend asked him to come to Derevyannoye, according to Sofonova, and to bring some booze.

Gelmel, the Russia Behind Bars activist, said men such as Sofonov often have delusions of grandeur. After years feeling no one needs them, they suddenly believe they were chosen by the state for the country’s defense and can commit new crimes without repercussions.

“They were in a system set up to control them," she said of the prison system where many such men spend most of their lives. “And now no one has control over them any more."

That night with his prison friend, on Aug. 1, Sofonov began drinking heavily. At around 2 a.m., residents said, the two men broke into a house in Derevyannoye, stabbing and killing the owner and his father when they tried to fend off the intruders.

They then entered a second house where a female acquaintance lived, and got into a fight with her husband. According to a person familiar with the case files, Sofonov shouted that everyone living in the house were “ukropy," a derogatory term for Ukrainians. “We need to clean the place out," he said, using military jargon. Investigators said the men killed four people in that house, before setting both houses alight to cover up evidence of their crimes.

Sofonov is now in pretrial detention as investigators gather evidence for trial. Since he has had his record wiped clean, according to relatives and the person familiar with the case, he won’t be tried as a repeat offender.

Romanova from Russia Behind Bars said that as the crimes committed by reoffenders mount, the government is trying to keep convict recruits from returning home. In September, the head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Andrey Kartapolov, said recruitment of fighters by the Defense Ministry is “an ongoing process" and service members will only return home once the war is over. Convicts recruited by the Defense Ministry since April said they have been forced to renew contracts that were set to expire after six months.

Sofonov’s mother said men like her son should never have been released from prison. “If they end up in Ukraine," she said. “They should stay there until the end."

In Derevyannoye, where locals previously raised funds for the war effort and posted about their hopes that the “heroes" who left for Ukraine would return in one piece, many are now on edge. One resident said people are installing extra security measures and rarely leaving home in the evening.

“We scrutinize everyone," the resident said. “We used to sleep soundly. Now we listen out for every rustle after dark, and react to every bark of a dog."

There is also another, more specific fear seeping through the village—the fear that Sofonov, if he is convicted and returned to prison, could again seek his freedom by fighting in Ukraine.

Kate Vtorygina contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Luxmoore at matthew.luxmoore@wsj.com

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