The Russian public is worried that waves of battle-hardened convicted murderers and rapists will soon be roaming the streets.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the private Wagner paramilitary group and close ally of President Vladimir Putin, made news last September by confirming that he was recruiting from Russian prisons to join his troops in Ukraine.
Part of the offer to prisoners: in exchange for fighting in the war, you will earn permanent freedom. On Thursday, Prigozhin told Russian state media agency RIA Novosti that the first group of prisoners had “received a full pardon.”
“They fulfilled their contract with honor, with dignity, one of the first… The first,” he said. “They worked the way few people work.”
Prigozhin said the first group of pardoned men included two dozen former prisoners. Many of them, he claimed, had ended up behind bars by accident or by virtue of their character. "It's genetics. It's what you have in your body. A combination of hormones, brain twists and everything else,” he said. “These men are warriors. They were born warriors and everyone has seen that they are warriors. Today it is war, and in wartime they have to defend their home.”
His videotape rally of the freed prisoners has again allowed the Wagner boss to publicly display the power he wields in Russia, including his proximity to Vladimir Putin, with Prigozhin's private mercenary army seen as an alternative to the traditional military.
When it came to the ex-convicts' reintegration into society, Prigozhin said “they should be treated with the deepest respect… they are absolutely fully-fledged members of society."
Yet others were less celebratory, with many Russians expressing concerns in the comment section on the RIA Novosti article.
"Should we rejoice? Strange, on the contrary, I have anxiety, but what crimes did they commit, for which they were imprisoned? I hope there are no bandits, rapists and murderers among them," one commenter wrote.
"Criminals with combat experience will return to society, hmm, encouraging," quipped another.
One reader expressed frustration at the progress of the military operation as a whole, asking: "And what have they achieved? Nothing, no advances, Bakhmut was not taken, there are no results. It turns out that the whole idea is a failure, and now there are a lot of bandits at large."
Warnings from a mob boss
Back in November, Grish Moskovsky, a Russian mob boss, warned that convicts recruited by the Wagner Group for the war in Ukraine would eventually wreak havoc in society.
"Believe me, imagine who the Wagners are. All former convicts who were 20, 15, 18, 19 years old, who are behind bars for rape, for the spread of murder, and for all kinds of violence," the mob boss said in a video appeal. "And now they are free, and they want to eat. They want to earn money and want to feel good. And who will they go to? They will go to you, the common Russians." Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners in Russian colonies has been known since the summer of 2022. Important Stories also reported in October that the Ministry of Defense itself had begun recruiting prisoners to participate in hostilities in Ukraine. The conditions were reportedly the same as for the Wagner recruitment process: six-month contract, salary and pardon.
Many convicts have been reported dead since their arrival on the front line. One of them, the former leader of the Moscow organized crime group, Ivan Nepratov, was awarded the medal "For Courage" by Vladimir Putin posthumously, the Insider reporter.