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Story by Nina Abrosimova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
In the summer of 2022, recruiters from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group began traveling to prisons in search of convicts to fill out its ranks. Occasionally, even the group’s now-infamous founder, Evgeny Prigozhin, would show up to address prisoners in person, promising freedom and money in exchange for six months of fighting in Ukraine. It’s unclear exactly how many people accepted the offer and how many people have received amnesty in return. Journalist Nina Abrosimova managed to contact Stanislav Bogdanov, a 35-year-old Veliky Novgorod native and convicted murderer who, 10 years into his 23-year prison sentence, accepted Wagner’s offer to fight in Ukraine. He’s now a free man, missing one of his legs, and living a life he calls a “fairytale.” Meduza is publishing an abridged English-language version of Abrosimova’s report.
This story is a joint project between the independent media outlets Novaya Vkladka and Holod Media.
Content warning: The following story contains a detailed description of murder and torture.
In October 2022, Olga Pavlova’s friends sent her a hyperlink to a two-minute video. The clip shows five men sitting and chatting on a hotel roof in the Black Sea resort town of Gelendzhik; two of them are missing legs, one is missing a foot, and another is missing an arm. The only person present without a visible injury is Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin:
“There are only two ways to leave the Wagner PMC [private military company]: on an old-age pension or in a zinc coffin,” says Prigozhin, chuckling. “But it’s not so bad here, is it?”
“Yeah, it’s good,” responds a one-legged man in a gray hoodie. “In my situation, I could only have dreamed of something like this.”
“How much time did you have left in your sentence?” asks Prigozhin.
“I had 10 years behind me and 13 years ahead of me. Quite a few.”
“You were an offender, as they say, but now you’re a war hero,” Prigozhin assures him.
A senior citizen in Russia’s Veliky Novgorod region, Olga Pavlova says she felt sick as she watched the footage. The one-legged “offender” talking to Prigozhin is a man named Stanislav Bogdanov who, 10 years ago, bludgeoned her brother to death. She was the one who found the body and cleaned up the bloodstains. At the time, Bogdanov was sentenced to 23 years in a high-security prison. Now, 10 years later, here he was hanging out on a rooftop with one of Russia’s best-known oligarchs, military medals pinned to his hoodie.
The following day, the Prigozhin-owned news outlet RIA FAN published another video, this one showing the same four injured men receiving various awards, badges, and amnesty certificates at a hospital in Ukraine’s occupied Luhansk region.
“I didn’t think [Russia] allowed prisoners to go to war,” Pavlova tells me. “I thought only Zelensky did that! [...] If it weren’t for this altercation with Ukraine, I think [Bogdanov] would have served out his sentence; he never would have gotten amnesty.”
Wagner Group started recruiting prisoners to join the war in Ukraine in the summer of 2022. One video from a prison in Russia’s Mari El Republic shows Prigozhin promising pardons to inmates in exchange for six months on the battlefield. “Do you have anyone who can pull you out of the slammer when you’ve still got 10 years on your sentence?” he asks them. “There are two who can get you out: Allah and God, and it will be in a wooden box. I’ll take you alive, though I won’t always return you that way.” He also made them hard-to-refuse financial offers: they’d receive the same generous salaries as Wagner Group’s other fighters, and their families would get five million rubles (about $73,000) if they died on the battlefield. According to Olga Romanova, who runs the organization Russia Behind Bars, approximately a fifth of the prisoner populations at many penitentiaries accepted Prigozhin’s offer.
Before he joined Wagner Group, Stanislav Bogdanov was serving out his sentence in his hometown of Veliky Novgorod. In July, a Wagner recruiter visited his prison, and by early August, Bogdanov was in the trenches near Luhansk. After eight days on the battlefield, he was hit by an artillery shell. Just a few weeks after this injury, Bogdanov was filmed chatting with Prigozhin in Gelendzhik.
In mid-November, I received a message from Bogdanov on the Russian social media site VKontakte. I had contacted one of his friends from prison two weeks earlier, and evidently, he had told Bogdanov about our conversation. Bogdanov’s message, which came at two in the morning, was a rambling mix of pleas for me not to dig into his past and vows that he had turned over a new leaf.
Thirty minutes later, Bogdanov sent another, similar message. I proposed that we speak over the phone. He sent me his number.
It had been more than a month since his meeting with Prigozhin, but he was clearly still starstruck: “Prigozhin… I looked at him and thought, ‘No damn way. Now that’s one cool guy, and he’s done some really good work!’ I’d only seen [him] on TV, and I could never have imagined that I’d be standing next to him, let alone that I’d get a picture with him. I couldn’t have guessed that I’d be recruited, get put on a plane with the other guys, fight in a war, get injured, recover, receive an award, and become a hero.”
Bogdanov and the man he killed, Sergey Zhiganov, lived on neighboring streets in Veliky Novgorod. They didn’t know each other until the day of the murder, and it’s no wonder: 32-year-old Zhiganov was a justice of the peace who carried a pocket watch, advocated for the restoration of Russia’s monarchy, and read fantasy novels. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Bogdanov ran in circles where, in his telling, “almost everybody was involved in crime.”
By the time he murdered Zhiganov, Bogdanov had already spent a cumulative four and half years in prison for intentional infliction of grievous bodily harm, disorderly conduct, robbery, and car theft. When not committing crimes or serving prison sentences, he drank cheap beer and worked on construction sites. His friends called him Myamya, a reference to his lisp.
On Sunday, September 23, 2012, Bogdanov went to Kresttsy, a village about an hour outside Veliky Novgorod, to help some of friends repair a cottage. “They needed to install the windows and doors, and they didn’t know how to do any of it,” he tells me. “Long story short, when I arrived, they were driving around with some useless chicks [sic]. They dragged me into their mess.”
Sergey Zhiganov also drove to Kresttsy that night; he was unmarried and preferred to spend weekends in the city, though he lived and worked in the village. He reached his home in Kresttsy at about 11:00 p.m., and Bogdanov, who was drunk by that time, was sitting in a car with his friends nearby. When Zhiganov had trouble getting his gate open, he asked the strangers for help, and Bogdanov hopped over the gate and lifted the deadbolt for him. Zhiganov then invited his new acquaintances inside for drinks.
After they went into the apartment, according to Bogdanov, Zhiganov asked him if he’d ever been to prison. Then, after learning what his crimes had been, Zhiganov asked Bogdanov not to steal anything from his home. In Bogdanov’s own account, that sent him into a rage:
He had this smirk. He was probably thinking, “When I go to the bathroom, they’re going to start stealing all my things.” The first thing I got ahold of was a fire iron, and I fucking bashed him in the head with it. He got up, of course; he was 195 centimeters [about six feet, four inches], which is 10 centimeters [four inches] taller than me, and 40 kilograms [88 pounds] heavier. What was I supposed to do? I got to work with my bare hands.
Zhiganov woke up such a beast inside of me! Even I was shocked. It was like a devil had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Do it, Stas, do it! Kill him! The world doesn’t need him!” Do you know how he behaved? You know how other judges behave on the road? They drive drunk, they hit people with their cars, and nothing happens to them. You know that, right? Have you seen the videos? Where they sit in the expensive bars? And then they come out with their guns and shoot passersby.
When I tell Bogdanov I’m not aware of Zhiganov ever having done anything like this, he says he had “only started to become that way,” adding, “Who the hell knows — maybe he fucked girls. Raped them. Little ones.”
Bogdanov continued beating and torturing Zhiganov until about 5:00 a.m., hitting him with the fire iron each time he tried to crawl away or stand up. Though he wasn’t able to find any valuables or money in Zhiganov’s home, he did get him to reveal the PIN numbers for his bank cards by torturing him.
He used a dumbbell to strike the fatal blows, dropping it on Zhiganov three times in a row. “First I picked up an iron, but it had sharp edges, and the dumbbell’s edges were round,” Bogdanov explains calmly. “I thought it would probably be better not to get blood everywhere, and so I hit him with the dumbbell. You know, to keep from smearing his brains everywhere. And I hit him once with the fire iron.”
“In your sentence, they wrote that it was 40 times.”
“Hell, man, 40 times,” he says, laughing. “Obviously, their expert inflated the numbers.”
‘It’s hard to last even a single day out there’
Because he was a repeat offender, and because he stole from Zhiganov in addition to killing him, Bogdanov was sentenced to 23 years — a long sentence in Russia even for a murderer. “I had a great time in prison; everything was wonderful,” Bogdanov tells me, sneering.
Bogdanov and his fellow prisoners first learned about the war from television broadcasts. Bogdanov was skeptical of the official reports: “[They said that] the Defense Ministry was pushing forward, gaining two to three kilometers every day. I did the calculations [and concluded that] we should already have made it to Poland, to Warsaw.”
But when Evgeny Prigozhin showed up at the prison and offered the inmates a chance to go fight, Bogdanov signed up immediately.
Prison administrators didn’t allow the recruits to take anything with them. “The [Federal Penitentiary Service] guys said, ‘You’re not allowed to bring anything but a couple of packs of cigarettes,’” Bogdanov says. “And then, when we arrived [at the Wagner base], they go, ‘Where are all your things? Are they insane?’ So, they had to buy everything for us, of course. Towels, soap, toothpaste. And socks and underwear. And they gave us sneakers. There were no problems at all with [supplies]. The guys would argue among themselves: ‘Damn, we’re like cannon fodder. Should we do it?’ And another one goes, ‘What the hell do you mean, cannon fodder? They’ve spent millions on us! Look at the ammunition we have!’”
According to Bogdanov, on July 31, after a week of training, he and some other inmates (by his account, about 200 people) were sent to Ukraine’s Luhansk region. His “job” there, he tells me, consisted of “napping, sleeping, and moving forward.” “We were prepared, but we weren’t prepared to get pounded like that,” he tells me. “When [a shell] comes flying out of nowhere, goddamn! It’s hard to last even one day out there. There were people who didn’t even make it 24 hours. You have to think hard about every step you take.”
In total, Bogdanov spent eight days on the battlefield. On the evening of August 7, Ukrainian troops began firing at his position from tanks. He saw a bright flash in the darkness, and immediately afterwards, a piece of shrapnel severed his leg at the shin, leaving it hanging by a tendon. Bogdanov cried out, “300!” (military jargon for an injured soldier), sprang up, dropped his helmet and bulletproof vest, and fell back to the ground. His fellow soldiers then bandaged him up and called for an evacuation. As he waited to be rescued, Bogdanov contemplated shooting himself to end the pain, but ultimately decided against it, and a stretcher eventually arrived for him. Soon after, he was taken to a Luhansk hospital, where his leg was amputated below the knee.
Since then, Bogdanov tells me, his life has felt like a “fairytale.” In November, he went with some other injured Wagner fighters to a rehabilitation center, where the men lived two-to-a-room in a fenced-in territory, though they were allowed to go to the store and to the beach. In addition to recreational activities, Bogdanov worked with physical therapists to prepare to receive a prosthetic leg. The entire time, he continued to receive 200,000 rubles (about $2,900) per month from Wagner Group.
When I ask Bogdanov what he plans to do with his newfound wealth, he doesn’t hesitate:
What do you think? I’m going to build a life, my dear! It’s over; no more stealing. It’s time for me to earn money, build a house, and start my life anew. I’ll visit that judge’s grave, and I’m not even going to drink. I’ll just sit and apologize to him. We sat down, we drank, we didn’t get along, and I killed him. “Sorry, brother.” That’s what I’ll tell him!
“Don’t you want to apologize to his mother or sister?” I ask.
But Bogdanov says apologizing to them won’t change anything. “I’ll just make things worse,” he tells me. “What if [his mother] dies? If her heart [can’t take it]. They’ll send me to prison and convict me again. They’ll say I poisoned her or hit her.”
‘The nightmare is repeating itself’
Olga Pavlova tells me that her 83-year-old mother moved into her son’s apartment after his murder. To this day, she’s left all of his things in place; she keeps her own coats on the balcony. “She doesn’t touch anything, and she doesn’t let me touch anything,” Pavlova says.
“When the news broke that [Bogdanov] had returned, the image of his body with the blood on the floor flashed before my eyes again,” she continues. “It’s like the nightmare is repeating itself a little bit.” She didn’t tell her mother about Bogdanov’s release, and she asked family friends not to say anything; nonetheless, “some well-wishers” eventually broke the news. “She seemed to be fine at first, but the next day, she just fell apart,” Pavlova says. “She doesn’t want to talk; her mood is bad. What would you expect? Her son is gone, and [Bogdanov] is there with his medals and his accolades. And his record was expunged.”
Convicts in Russia can only be pardoned by presidential decree. So far, Vladimir Putin hasn’t published a single pardon, though in early January, two state news outlets reported the pardons of twenty prisoners who had purportedly all spent six months in Ukraine. When journalists asked Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov whether Putin had signed the corresponding pardon documents, he dodged the question, saying only that such amnesty “can be granted only in strict accordance with the law.”
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“Let this be on everyone’s collective conscience,” says Pavlova. “You think they’re going to put him back in jail and strip this hero of his titles just because I file a complaint? I don’t even know where to send the complaint; I’m just an ordinary pensioner. To the Investigative Committee? To the Prosecutor General’s Office? They’re not going to put him in jail. I don’t have the energy — I’m 60 years old. I’m not a little girl. Who am I supposed to fight? Him? Yeah, right, so he can [kill] me too?”
I recount the reactions of Pavlova and her mother to Bogdanov himself.
“It doesn’t depend on me anymore. You know what they say: time heals,” he responds.
“For some reason, it hasn’t healed his mother, though,” I tell him.
“That means it’s not my fault,” he says.
“You took her son’s life away. It seems to her that you’re guilty, and meanwhile, you’re free and have been given an award.”
“I might have saved other people’s lives by risking my own, by risking my health.”
“Whose lives [did you save]?” I ask.
“Well, we still might not know whose lives I saved. And we won’t find out. Because if I hadn’t ended up on this path, and if nobody was on this path, these Nazis would have broken through and made it past the people there. And would have made it to Russia, my God. And blasted it up! What would have happened then?”
The video of Bogdanov receiving awards from Prigozhin has received mixed reactions on social media. Some users have called him a “vampire and a monster” and expressed fear at his release, while others see him as a “hero” who’s been “redeemed by blood” and have called for him to visit schools to speak to students about patriotism.
“Now they’re going to make him a prosthetic. Maybe they’ll give him an apartment and financial compensation,” Olga Pavlova says sadly. “The only [positive] thing people have told me is that people like him don’t cope well: they get financial benefits, and they drink themselves to death. I don’t know if he’ll drink himself to death. Maybe he’ll start a business. I’ve only seen him in pictures. It’s probably a sin to say this, but his face really does look awful.”
Bogdanov is certain that his future lies with Wagner Group. “I believe they opened the door for me,” he explains. “Why are they treating us right now? They’re not just going to treat us and release us. The company is growing, and they don’t abandon their own. We’re going to have constant money coming in. We’ll always have work, even if the war comes to an end. It will continue in other places.”
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