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‘Guys, you’re destined for war’ Combatant from the Russian mercenary group tied to 'Putin's chef' grants Meduza the first interview of its kind

Source: Meduza
Marat Gabidullin’s personal archive

The Wagner private military company (PMC) entered the war in Syria in 2015. Since then, it has been involved in a dozen localized conflicts around the world. Despite its hundreds of mercenaries killed in action, direct confrontation with the U.S. military, and reported links to the Kremlin, it remains a very secretive formation. Meduza has managed to find a person willing to give the first-ever interview about the Wager PMC in his own name — that person is Marat Gabidullin, who started out as an rank-and-file Wagner combatant and rose to become the commander of a reconnaissance company. During his four years with the Wagner group, Gabidullin received a state award in secret, survived a serious injury, and even managed to write a memoir — a book which he claims is entirely nonfictional (only the protagonists’ call signs have been changed). In conversation with Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova, Gabidullin talks about the experiences behind his memoir, how he came to the decision to go public about authoring the book, and why he hopes the publication will bring the Wagner PMC’s alleged owner — Russian catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s Chef” — “to his senses.”

Please note. Meduza first published special correspondent Liliya Yapparova’s interview with Marat Gabidullin in Russian on December 1, 2020. You can read the full Q&A here.

‘This could turn out badly for you’ 

The foreign passports were handed out right before boarding the flight. Having looked through his, “Martin” noticed that this time not a single page of the document was decorated with a Syrian visa: apparently, they had agreed to dispense with the formalities. At customs, they demanded that the legionnaires surrender their combat knives: no one cared that this was a tool that was in great demand in the field. “Martin” turned his back to the customs officer, who was collecting the seized [weapons] from the combatants, and simply sent his backpack of weapons down the conveyor. He proceeded to passport control without looking back: “Fuck you, my knife stays with me.”

Marat Gabidullin, In the Same River Twice

After spending five years in Russia’s Airborne Forces, Marat Gabidullin joined the Wagner private military company (PMC) in 2015. He signed a contract with Evro Polis — a Russian firm linked to billionaire oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, which is under contract with the Syrian government to liberate and protect oil fields in Syria. “Their openness and directness was immediately to my liking,” he recalls in conversation with Meduza. “Nobody hid the possible consequences — they spoke honestly: ‘Guys, you’re destined for war [in places] where our state has interests. Prepare yourselves for the fact that this could turn out badly for you. Fatally.” 

Was Marat Gabidullin really a mercenary?

According to the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets, which specializes in tracking Russian mercenaries, Gabidullin did indeed work for the Wagner PMC under the badge number M-0346.

The fact that Gabidullin commanded a reconnaissance company for the Wagner group has also been mentioned on social media. 

To support his stories about “business trips” to Syria, Gabidullin provided Meduza with photographs taken there — military specialists working in the region believe that the photographs are authentic.

Two Meduza sources close to the Wagner PMC also confirmed Gabidullin’s identity and occupation. 

Gabidullin started out in the rank-and-file, he was made a private and advanced “little by little” until he became head of a reconnaissance company. “My guys acted on the enemy’s frontline, and one squad carried out reconnaissance using drones and other technical equipment,” he explains. 

After he was severely injured in Palmyra (Syria) on March 15, 2016, Gabidullin decided to write a book about his experiences. “At first I simply wanted to write everything down so as not to forget anything: it was a serious milestone for me. At the time I realized immediately that a very fat piece of my life had been lived in vain,” he tells Meduza. “I wanted to live the rest of my life to the maximum. And in the course of the development of the storyline, another need arose: to convey to people that there is a complete deception on the part of the military and politicians surrounding the topic of PMCs. The whole world knows but you are hiding the truth from your own people? Is this normal?”

‘Prigozhin read a piece of it and asked for the entire book’

An oil valley stretched out in front of the legionnaires for dozens of kilometers. It was obvious that the black substance mustn’t feed ISIL any longer. The Shaer gas field region, which fills the bank accounts of the leaders of the Islamic State, had to change owners — and the mercenaries descending from the mountain range started the procedure for the change of ownership.

Marat Gabidullin, In the Same River Twice

Asked why he chose to publish his book under the pseudonym “Ded Martin” (Grandpa Martin), Gabidullin says that this was the brainchild of Evgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner PMC’s alleged owner. “Prigozhin came up with this pseudonym for me. ‘Martin’ is the name of my alter ego in the book, and ‘Ded’ was my own call sign. They called me that because I was the oldest [in my unit]: I was [born] in 1966 after all. My beard is already gray.”

Kremlin-linked catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s Chef,” has long been associated with the Wagner PMC. The media has repeatedly published evidence that Prigozhin, who receives a large number of government contracts, could be involved in financing the mercenary group. According to RBC, Prigozhin decided to invest money in the PMC in 2016, mainly to gain access to the oil facilities in Syria that the Wagner group’s militants were liberating and bringing under their protection. Since then, the PMC or its mercenaries have been spotted in Sudan, Libya, and the Central African Republic (CAR).

In 2015, the St. Petersburg-based newspaper Fontanka revealed that the PMC got its name from its commander — GRU special forces veteran Dmitry Utkin, whose call sign is “Wagner.” Utkin’s connection to Prigozhin was confirmed indirectly in November 2017, when he became the general director of Concord Management and Consulting — a company that belongs to Prigozhin’s holding. At the time, Concord confirmed Utkin’s appointment as general director, but denied any connection to the Wagner PMC.

In the summer of 2018, journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and camera operator Kirill Radchenko were murdered in the Central African Republic while filming a documentary about the Wagner PMC. According to a report from Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investigative project Dossier Center, the three journalists were under surveillance by Wagner group mercenaries up until the moment they were killed. 

According to Gabidullin, Prigozhin has known about the book for quite some time: “Back in 2017, when I was working as his assistant, he familiarized himself with the draft. At first I gave him a piece about Palmyra — he read it and asked for the entire book: ‘Everything you wrote, give it here’.” 

I just wanted him to read it. [This] proceeded from the fact that there was a lot of happening in Syria that he didn’t really know about. At the time a lot of people had latched on [to the PMC] and were actually stealing money from Prigozhin — only he never wanted to admit it. Somehow he had this wild conviction that he was doing well. Although our logistics services bought knee pads for working in the garden instead of tactical ones. These were honestly pillows for roaming vegetable patches — you [can’t] fall on rocks in these, but according to the documents they were the real deal. Explicit theft! 

The opening pages of the first edition of Marat Gabidullin’s book, titled “Wagner: Overture to Faust”
Marat Gabidullin’s personal archive

Gabidullin asked Prigozhin to write an introduction to his book, which would trace the roots of Russian mercenaries back to Cossack warriors. Apparently, the businessman “printed out” his favorite passages and “kept them for himself,” maintaining that the PMC’s personnel should learn these key quotes “to say to themselves.”

He even published two or three copies himself back in 2017, Gabidulllin says: “The cover is blue and he came up with the title himself: Wagner: Overture to Faust. For the editing he brought in his press service. One copy was left for me [...] He was going to hand over one copy to [Kremlin spokesman Dmitry] Peskov — I even flew to Syria for this purpose and collected autographs from all of the protagonists — well, the ones I managed to catch.”

What did Prigozhin and Peskov have to say?

Evgeny Prigozhin didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about Marat Gabidullin’s memoir and his role in edition and publishing an edition of it. He also didn’t explain his reasoning for allegedly giving Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov a book about the Wagner PMC as a gift.

“[Prigozhin] doesn’t have any relations [with the Wagner PMC], he doesn’t finance mercenaries and doesn’t stay up to date on information about their locations,” the press service for Prigozhin’s company Concord Management and Consulting told Meduza

Asked about the alleged gift, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave Meduza the following response: “To be honest I have no idea what you’re talking about. I received a book from Prigozhin as a gift, but it wasn’t in 2017, it was much earlier — and it was about eastern cuisine.” 

Allegedly, Prigozhin offered to publish the memoir in a “normal print run” later on, claiming “the time would come.” But Gabidullin says the publication couldn’t wait. “When will the time come? When no one’s interested any more? When you’ve already turned everything here upside down and you’ve mixed it up so it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction? He [Prigozhin] helped me alot in my life, he provided treatment after my injury — I understand this, but nevertheless I can’t bring myself to accept what is happening. I think Prigozhin is making a big mistake,” he maintains. 

Let him curse me, let him trample on me — for me the main thing is that he comes to his senses, for the book to push him to reform the firm [the Wagner PMC]. Because you can’t get so carried away with secrecy: why torture yourself when the whole world knows? Because now, because of the four morons who beat a militia deserter with a sledgehammer and decapitated [him], everyone thinks that all of the other [Wagner group mercenaries] are the same type of bloodthirsty ghouls.

But it was “Wagner” himself [commander Dmitry Utkin] who told them to do it! In order to intimidate [other potential deserters from the Syrian army]. And, so I was told, he also ordered them to shoot the video [...] Prigozhin mustn’t forget that it was his beloved commander who called for all of this to be done. And that it was we ourselves who created this situation with our own hands. These four sadists need to be brought to justice — but on what grounds can you do this? You just said ‘they’re not there’!

Gabidullin admits that he has made some changes to the text since Prigozhin read his memoir in 2017, but at the time he felt that the Wagner group’s alleged owner was “on his side.” “In general, he’s not a stupid man and he can give an even more specific and harsher assessment of many of the participants in these events than me,” he says, claiming that Prigozhin conceded that there were “excesses on the ground.” 

Way back when, Prigozhin told him that it was “necessary to tell about the mercenaries, but later on, in 2022.” Asked why 2022 specifically, Gabidulin replies “I don’t know exactly.” “At the time no one expected that there would be changes to the constitution,” he adds. “And now the deadline becomes not 2022, but 2032.”

‘Take the oil fields and you’ll receive a prize’

The warm, silver Order of Courage lay in “Martin’s” palm, the weighty award cross had to be caught between his teeth directly from a metal mug filled with vodka. Five mercenaries underwent this ritual during the award ceremony — flushed, they stood at a table laden with cold cuts and pickled cucumbers. The drunken “Martin” got into a joking altercation with his comrades, the thin walls of the barracks shook with laughter. It won’t belong before they start selling these awards — with the consent of the commanders and the security services. 

— Marat Gabidullin, In the Same River Twice

Asked how the other Wagner group mercenaries feel about his memoir, Gabidullin says that some of them are glad that he’s telling his story so directly: “Today I spoke with one friend — he’s completely delighted. He says that he now has ‘green’ youth serving under him, who came from the armed forces not long ago. People who got to smell gunpowder in Chechnya or during the Georgia War are no longer striving [to join the Wagner PMC]. And it turns out that more than half of the personnel are [at war] for the first time.”

Apparently, the Wagner group’s recent recruits are hardly professional fighters — and according to Gabidullin the PMC has stopped adequately preparing them for their “business trips” abroad. “In 2015–2017, ‘Wagner’ [Dmitry Utkin] led a squad of gladiators — now he is leading an army of slaves. […] Most of the commanders absolutely are not up to the level of their positions. And the veterans who still remain in this formation have made up their minds: ‘The main task is to survive.’ Survive, you understand? They aren’t thinking about victory anymore,” he explains. 

Marat Gabidullin in Syria
Marat Gabidullin’s personal archive

The Wagner PMC has suffered heavy losses fighting in Libya, Gabidullin tells Meduza. And in his opinion, this is due in part to the fact that “Wagner” himself stopped being a commander and “turned into a businessman.” 

As a tactician and a strategist he covers all of our generals. But there were times when he could have demanded more resources for fulfilling tasks from the senior leadership. But he didn’t use this commander’s right: he simply didn’t want to argue with his superiors. And the guys just ended up turning into cannon fodder. In 2017, for example, you couldn’t go take oil fields with such weapons and amounts of ammunition — it’s simply impossible. But the military said to go. When the mortar operators just don’t have enough mines and you drive people “forward and forward,” you aren’t a commander any longer. You’re a businessman: take the [oil] fields and you’ll receive a prize. In the end, the soldiers stopped trusting their commanders — and this isn’t even the only reason. Since 2018, some of the commanders have taken up half the bonus funds allocated to the unit, and the rest — crumbs — is distributed to the combatants.

According to Gabidullin, the Wagner PMC has an increasing number of incompetent and inexperienced people at the top. “By 2018–2019 I had already stopped looking for explanations as to why people were put at the head of this or that unit. The commanders were appointed as if by some kind cronyism [blat],” he says. 

In 2019, I got an order to send Syrians from our “ISIL Hunters” unit to Libya immediately. When they got there, I got a call from “Pioneer” [a commander]: “Listen, those ones you sent, can they be used as suicide bombers?” What kind of normal person asks that! Moreover, about my guys.

The Syrian army in Palmyra after it was recaptured. March 2016.
Stringer / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

‘So who’s fighting, the army or the PMC?’

For a second week, “Martin” was at the Khmeimim military base among Russian soldiers — clean, well-groomed, and well-fed ones. The residential units had air conditioning, sports facilities, showers, cafes — legionnaires could only dream of such conditions. The tank museum, which was organized on taxpayers’ money, had pedestals and obelisks — all of these strange decorations caused the mercenary to ask only one question: “What, they have nothing else to do? The eastern bank of the Euphrates has been lost, for the second year you can’t come within 200 kilometers outside of Idlib!” Later, a colonel admits to “Martin” that he joined the prestigious Syrian trip thanks to a bribe amounting to a first month’s salary in a hot spot.

— Marat Gabidullin, In the Same River Twice

“The paratroopers and marines are lazy bones who are swimming in fat on that base,” Gabidullin tells Meduza, when asked about Russian air base operating in Khmeimim, Syria. “I heard how our soldiers in Khmeimim boasted of their exploits: ‘We completed such a task: we sat in secret all night!’ That means they were sitting in a security outpost.”

Meanwhile, the Wagner mercenaries are often the ones doing the actual fighting, Gabidullin says: 

After the first capture of Palmyra, a swath of people [from the PMC] turned up, who, [upon] returning to Russia, said: “We took Palmyra.” The hospitals in both Khmeimim and Russia were full of our combatants specifically. The doctors asked: so who’s fighting, the army or the PMC? And this struck a nerve with our generals. The resentment culminated so that since early 2017 they began giving us low-quality weapons. It was completely spiteful: now matter how hurt you were by the situation, you know that your compatriots are going into battle — so give them what they need so that more guys stay alive!

It’s clear that we acted in our own direction, and the Defense Ministry, which helped the Syrian army, acted in its own direction. But if the PMC hadn’t taken control of the pass near Palmyra and hadn’t gone into the local airfield, then it would have been impossible to take the city with this Syrian flock.

Marat Gabidullin in Palmyra
Marat Gabidullin’s personal archive

Gabidullin describes the Syrian army as an “incapacitated formation,” explaining that “the Russian command was often simply unable to push them to attack.” He also claims that the pressure to send back “victorious reports” means that Russia’s commanders have been known to make false claims. “In my presence, one Russian general was so worried about his career — he needed to present himself as a swaggering commander, — that, without embarrassment [due to the presence] of a witness, he dictated a false report to the officer of the group headquarters,” Gabidullin recalls. 

Notably, the mercenary’s memoir includes a passage (one that he insists is, like the entire book, “non-fictional”) about a Russian air strike hitting a Wagner group position:

In 2016, our own, a Russian plane, attacked the position of the [Wagner PMC’s] fourth detachment, where my group was. It started bombing us — everyone there scattered. The spotter ran uphill and tried to divert the plane, but, in all likelihood, he hadn’t been informed about a change in coding: he used the old [codes] and the plane didn’t hear him. The pilot went for a second pass — and with the second pass he took out this spotter. Many of ours died as a result of this raid and even the company commander was wounded.

What did the Russian Defense Ministry have to say?

The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about military personnel responsible for cooperation with the Syrian army sending false reports back to the headquarters of the Russian Armed Forces group in Syria.

The Defense Ministry did not comment on Gabidullin’s allegations about the Russian Aerospace Forces carrying out an air strike on the Wagner group’s positions either.

‘Hiding the truth from ourselves’ 

Dim from the effects of the anesthesia, “Tamok’s” gaze expressed pain and bewilderment. How is it that some ten minutes ago he was in battle, either firing short bursts towards the [enemy], or offering a shoulder to lean on to the wounded descending from above. And now he’s lying [here] and instead of his left leg there’s a stump of bone. The remains of Tamok’s legs, mutilated by the explosion, were dumped on the hill: there were no free hands. In a month he will die in a hospital in Russia. And once again, like last time, the legionnaires will not be mentioned in official reports: according to the politicians, the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Aerospace Forces are better suited for this.

— Marat Gabidullin, In the Same River Twice

Previously, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu claimed victory over Islamic State militants in Syria. But Gabidullin says the Wagner group’s mercenaries “have to fight periodically up until now,” specifically in the so-called “white desert” — an area he describes as “exclusively controlled by militant gangs.”

Marat Gabidullin and a fellow mercenary in Syria
Marat Gabidullin’s personal archive

In 2019, Gabidullin was working at the Khmeimim airbase and was responsible for dealing with the bodies of Wagner group mercenaries killed in this area:

I was immediately faced with the fact that as it turns out, we can’t bury our soldiers in a dignified manner. We [at the base in Khmeimim] didn’t have any options — only a refrigerator. They had to be taken to the hospital in Latakia, so that the Syrians could wash them with a hose, put them first in antediluvian zinc coffins, and then into plywood boxes. Of course, there was no one to apply makeup or bring the body back to a normal state.

I never thought it would be so difficult to do this work. […] How many people died like that? Providing exact data is like giving the government agencies a reason to make claims against me. But many people died. 

Asked what he thinks about the Kremlin concealing these losses, Gabidullin replies that it’s “our only legacy passed on from one regime to another: hiding the truth from ourselves.”

“They were ashamed to say that there were deaths in Czechoslovakia [in 1968], they were ashamed to say that there were deaths in Afghanistan. The whole world knows that a Russian PMC is fighting — only our people wouldn’t recognize us,” he says. “And after that no one will give the dead a star posthumously, no one will provide for their relatives.”

Syria is Russia

A powerful SUV with securely tinted glass confidently approached the column of mercenaries. By all indications it was a car carrying mukhabarat [military intelligence officers] — the local NKVD officers in black uniforms. The Jeep wasn’t planning to make way [for us]: obviously, the omnipotent special services in Syria counted on the usual obedience to its stupid whims. “There are lots of these Jeeps rushing along the roads of Mother Russia, likewise without noticing anyone, disregarding both the rules and understandings,” “Martin” thought suddenly. Inside there are all sorts of managers thrilled with their own importance, self-indulgent businessmen and their offspring. But there, in Russia, it would be more difficult to bring them all down to earth than in Syria, where we have access to military weapons.

— Marat Gabidullin, In the Same River Twice

Throughout the book, Gabidullin’s alter ego, “Martin,” often returns to thoughts of Russia while fighting in Syria. The mercenary tells Meduza that this is because found the two countries to have much in common. “Syria is simply an extreme degree of the development of undesirable tendencies, which are also present in Russia. Hypocrisy, double standards, opportunism, lack of integrity, ruthless corruption. And the Syrians who grew up in this system, are greatly corrupted by it. […] We are approaching this degree of irresponsibility and indifference,” he maintains. 

Talking about the book’s publication, Gabidullin says he would be happy to see his memoir earn some money and thinks it would also make a good film. “Too often in my life I have been modest, fallen short of my task, and didn’t believe in my own strength. How long can it be like this? Well I’m no fool. I’m not a genius! But I’m not a fool either,” he replies, when asked if he’s anticipating literary fame.

As for whether or not he worries about the consequences of publishing his memoir, Gabidullin says it would be “stupid” to send someone to “physically pressure” him. Though he doesn’t think it will “come to that,” he says he’s “still afraid.”

“But from the point of view of a normal person, there’s nothing like that in this book — only cause for reflection. This is what they’re afraid of: I talk, then someone else talks, then a third [person] — then a whole wave will wash over and everyone will find out,” he says. 

Epilogue

On December 2, reports emerged that the publishing house “Nayemnik” (Mercenary) is no longer planning to publish Marat Gabidullin’s book.

After Meduza’s interview with Gabidullin came out in Russian on December 1, Snob journalist Alexandra Wigreiser attempted to pre-order the book and the publishing house told her that the book wouldn’t be going on sale because the author asked to “stop” publication. MBX Media correspondents who also contacted the publishing company were told that “the author phoned today and refused to publish the book, this his right.”

The publishing house also confirmed to Meduza that the book isn’t going to be published because the author “pulled the print run.” Asked why Gabidullin made this decision, Nayemnik’s spokesperson told Meduza “no comment.” 

After Meduza published the Gabidullin interview, more than 20 websites, including Express Gazeta, Pravda.ru, and Dni.ru, published articles claiming that Vladimir Lorchenkov — a Canadian writer of Russian origin — “uncovered a lot of inconsistencies and falsehoods” in the mercenary’s story. 

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Interview by Liliya Yapparova

Edited by Valery Igumenov

Summary by Eilish Hart

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