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The Prigozhin Method: Inside Wagner Group's Russian Prison Recruitment

An inmate of the penal colony in the town of Kopeysk reveals the different ways convicts are recruited in the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, whose founder and Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin personally sought the most violent criminals with vows to pay big sums and expunge their sentences.

Photo of a group of ​prisoners walking inside a penal colony in Mozzhukha, Russia

Prisoners at a penal colony in Mozzhukha, Russia

Yulya Krasnikova

The Wagner Group, also known as Wagner PMC, is a private military force with close links to Vladimir Putin. Officially, they do not exist. Their presence in Ukraine made headlines and caused concern as UN investigators and rights groups have accused the group of targeting civilians and conducting mass executions.

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The group first emerged in 2014, reportedly financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and associate of Putin. Videos emerged online of Prigozhin recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine in exchange for shortened sentences. Just last week a new video emerged of the execution of the Russian prisoner Evgeny Nuzhin who had joined Wagner and later surrendered to the Ukrainian army and testified against the Russians. The video in question shows Wagner recruits executing Nuzhin by smashing in his head with a sledgehammer.

Independent exiled Russian news outlet Vazhnyye Istorii was the first to report on the recruitment of convicts to the Wagner PMC in July from the St. Petersburg area, which has since expanded to penal colonies in the Ural, Siberia, the Far East, and even the Arctic Circle.

While officials and Prigozhin denied information about prisoner recruitment at first, later propaganda media outlets began airing video clips of convicts "heroically killed" in the war in Ukraine. And a video of Prigozhin giving a speech to inmates of one of the colonies in Yoshkar-Ola appeared on the Internet.

For the first time now, an inmate in a penal colony spoke toVazhnyye Istorii about the recruitment of convicts in his colony — Kopeisk penal colony-1 in the Chelyabinsk region in central Russia, close to the Kazakhstan border

How does Wagner recruit prisoners?

The prisoner who spoke with Vazhnyye Istorii recalled that the week before the arrival of Wagner PMC, long visits were banned to the colony. The chief doctor of the Chelyabinsk region had also announced a quarantine. He said four days after that, the phone service in the colony stopped working. And on Oct. 11 at 5 p.m., everyone was taken off work and driven into the units.

"The 'squad officers' came in about 30 minutes later and told us to gather in the main square. They brought everyone, including the worst offenders and those held in isolation and in strict detention conditions," the prisoner said. "There were no officers of the penitentiary system visible at all. After an hour of waiting in the square, a green helicopter with a red star on its side flew over our heads at an extremely low altitude and landed behind the colony. An officer in civilian clothes came in initially and began to form us in a semicircle. When he finished his preparations, Prigozhin himself came in..."

The Wagner founder said that he was flying around Russia and recruiting volunteers. "He told us the official Russian army is no good, drinking and taking drugs and not wanting to fight. When they retreat or are defeated, they call 'troop regrouping'. And they [Wagner] are instead making good progress. He said he was only recruiting assault squads now. He needs people who are in prison for murder, robbery, and looting. The weak-willed do not survive."

Photo of Yevgeny Prigozhin in a dark suit and tie

Wagner is run by Russian businessman and Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin

Metzel Mikhail/TASS/ZUMA

Cutting off ears, slitting throats

"He didn't want to take rapists because he didn't want to cause discord in his units. He said they would be taken separately, tentatively in November."

"He promised 100,000 rubles a month [$1,600], plus 100,000 as combat pay. In the event of death, the compensation would be 5 million rubles and the title 'Hero of Russia'. He said they would only be paid in cash, so it would be necessary to identify the relatives who would take the money."

"He warned that there was no way back: desertion, looting, and sexual relations with civilians were punished by death."

The guarantee was his word of honor.

"Prigozhin also told the convicts that they would not receive any documents." The guarantee was his "word of honor". The Wagner founded stated that if Ukrainian fighters are captured, then they can "do anything" with them. "He said that they, say, cut off the ears of prisoners in Africa. And that they don't care what we do with the prisoners: take them prisoners if you want, torture them, bully them, slit their throats if you wish to — they [Wagner] don't care."

Prigozhin promised three weeks of training to the convicts who agreed to fight — 20 hours a day plus four hours of sleep. Judging by the statements of the convicts recruited by Wagner captured in Ukraine, the actual training lasts about one week.

Unpaid life insurance

According to the estimates of the prisoner, about 270 out of 1,500 prisoners of the Kopeisk penal colony-1 were interested in Prigozhin's proposal: "Many agreed because of the money. Some did it because they still had a lot of time left: let's say he had served ten years and there were still ten years left. But there were a lot of people who were eager to leave. They were constantly monitoring social networks (unofficially, many have cell phones). Basically, they all hoped that they would survive and get free in six months."

Those who passed the interview with the recruiters were sent to another unit. They were shown films about the Wagner PMC and were given instructions. While the PMCs were in the colony, the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service officers did not turn on the digital video recorders, and communications did not work. Our source notes that prison officials avoided discussing recruitment: "There was a rumor that they feared the consequences for convicting or encouraging such activities."

According to our source, some 190 people left the colony on Oct. 25. According Gulagu.net, which monitors corruption and torture in Russia, 243 people signed a contract with Wagner.

He knows at least 10 prisoners who died in Ukraine among those recruited in Ivanovo penal colony no. 2: "Their relatives went to Moscow for the bodies and medals. They were given a medal for courage. But instead of getting the promised 5 million rubles ($180,000), they were paid 300,000 ($4,930) instead: promises of golden mountains, but they just gave them a month's salary."

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