‘If you didn’t follow instructions, they shot you’ A Russian convict recruited by the Wagner Group tells his story
In recent months, representatives from the Wagner Group, a notorious private military company that’s said to be funded by Kremlin-linked oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, have visited at least 20 prisons throughout Russia in a campaign to recruit inmates to fight in Ukraine. On September 15, Ukrainian journalist Yury Butusov posted a video of his interview with a man named Yevgeny Nuzhin. In the interview, Nuzhin recounts his journey from a prison in Russia’s Ryazan region to a Wagner boot camp in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, and finally to the battlefield, where he was captured by Ukrainian forces. Meduza summarizes Nuzhin’s story.
Yury Butusov, the director of the Ukrainian media outlet Censor.net, has published a video of an interview he conducted with a man named Yevgeny Nuzhin. Previously an inmate at a Russian prison in the city of Ryazan, Nuzhin went to Ukraine as part of the Wagner private military company (PMC) and was captured by Ukrainian forces soon after. A source who served time in prison alongside Nuzhin confirmed to the investigative outlet iStories that the man in the video is indeed “Yevgeny from the penal colony.”
Nuzhin told Butusov that he first went to prison in 1999. “There was a skirmish, and I had to shoot,” he said. “I killed one guy and injured another.” He was originally sentenced to 24 years in prison, but four years were added after he tried to escape. In recent years, he’s been held in a prison in the city of Skopin in Russia’s Ryazan region.
According to Nuzhin, in July, Kremlin-linked oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, who is widely believed to own the Wagner PMC, arrived at the prison in a helicopter. After all of the prisoners were rounded up, Prigozhin offered them a chance to join the war in exchange for clemency. “He promised everybody pardons,” said Nuzhin. “Our salaries would be around 100,000 rubles ($1,653). If you got killed, your family would get something like five million rubles ($82,644). [He said that] the motherland was in danger, and so on and so forth.”
92 inmates decided to take the offer, including Nuzhin himself. In August, Prigozhin returned to the prison; that’s when Nuzhin learned they would be joining the Wagner PMC rather than the Russian Armed Forces. The men were picked up in late August and taken by helicopter to Ukraine’s Luhansk region, where they went through a week-long boot camp that concluded on September 2. Nuzhin said they were given uniforms and guns, though whenever Prigozhin came to visit their training sessions, their weapons were confiscated.
The convicts were organized into an assault detachment. When asked what the unit’s task was, Nuzhin told Butusov, “I don’t even know how to explain it. As far as I understood, [we were there to serve as] cannon fodder. If you didn’t follow instructions or if you did something wrong, they would neutralize you. Shoot you. They called it ‘neutralization.’”
“Not far from [our training area], there was another boot camp. We came from Penal Colony No. 3, and the other group came from Penal Colony No. 5, also from Ryazan, about 60 people. Before them, one person was neutralized: he talked back to the instructor, just verbal diarrhea, and he was neutralized. And then one person from Penal Colony No. 5 was neutralized — they told us about it when we met on the field. For nothing at all, it’s safe to say, for running his mouth, they shot him and buried him there somewhere,” said Nuzhin.
On September 2, Nuzhin and 17 other convicts were taken to “some residential area” and instructed to search for dead and injured Russian soldiers. They performed their duties at night; during the day, while there was shelling, they waited in shelters.
On September 4, Nuzhin was captured by Ukrainian forces. “I had decided to surrender long before that. When I was in the camp, and everything was starting, I was watching TV. I had a phone, so I could watch it on YouTube. Here [in Ukraine], there’s the Russian legion, and they called for people to come. And then, when this whole [recruitment] thing started, I told myself that when I came, I would do whatever it took to surrender so I could try to make it [to the Freedom for Russia legion],” he said.
Nuzhin claims he wants to fight on the Ukrainian side. “Because it’s not Ukraine who attacked Russia,” he said. “It’s Putin who attacked Ukraine. And I have relatives who live here. My uncle lives in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, and my sister lives in Lviv.”
As iStories noted, this is the second high-profile case of a convict ending up in Ukrainian custody after being recruited by the Wagner PMC. On September 2, Yury Butusov posted a video of another prisoner who claimed to have undergone a week-long boot camp upon his arrival in Ukraine.
The first media reports of Russian inmates being recruited to fight with the Wagner PMC appeared in late July. On September 14, associates of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny published a video that appears to show Evgeny Pigozhin himself speaking to a group of inmates at a prison in the Mari El Republic. On September 15, Prigozhin said, “Everyone who doesn’t want PMCs or inmates to fight, everyone who’s debating the topic, and those who don’t want to do anything and who simply don’t like this issue, send your kids to the front. It’s either PMCs and convicts or it’s your children. Decide for yourselves.”