- Share to or
‘Now I can feel like a real man’ After six months with Wagner Group, a Russian man who murdered his girlfriend’s mother is free and back home
Original story by Holod. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
Several months after Moscow launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, Russian authorities, short on manpower, allowed the Wagner mercenary group to start recruiting inmates from Russian prisons. Many of the prisoners who agreed to enlist had been incarcerated for most of their adult lives. Pavel Zakharov, a 39-year-old from the Republic of Karelia, was granted freedom in January after purportedly spending six months on the battlefield with Wagner. Before his mercenary career, Zakharov was serving an 11-year sentence for brutally murdering his girlfriend’s mother as “revenge” for the way she had treated her daughter. Journalists from the independent media outlet Holod used court records to reconstruct Zakharov’s story. Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of their report.
On the evening of January 24, 2015, Nina Belova was celebrating her 61st birthday in her St. Petersburg apartment. Surrounded by friends and family, she didn’t notice the gray Lada sedan that was parked outside of the building. As the sun set, a man and woman inside the vehicle watched the guests leave one by one.
Once they were sure Nina was the only person still home, the couple got out of the vehicle. The woman was heavyset, with blonde hair reaching almost to her shoulders; the man was skinny and wore his dark hair in a crew cut. They walked up to the building, and the woman called Nina on the intercom.
“Mom, we decided to stop by for some tea,” she said. The woman, Nadezhda Nikolayeva, was Nina Belova’s 40-year-old daughter, and she was accompanied by her 31-year-old boyfriend, Pavel Zakharov. The two lived together in Svyatozero, a village in Russia’s Republic of Karelia.
Nina buzzed them up. But after greeting her mother, Nadezhda stopped: she had forgotten her puppies in the car, she said, and she was worried they would freeze if she didn’t cover them with a blanket. When she returned to the vehicle, Nadezhda got back inside and looked up at the glowing apartment window.
Two hours later, the light in the window went out. After another hour, Pavel came out of the building, got in the car, and asked Nadezhda if she had any napkins.
His hands were covered in blood. He pulled a washcloth-wrapped knife out of his left sleeve and tucked it under the floor mat, then threw some cash on the dashboard.
The next day, one of Nina Belova’s friends tried to call her. When she didn’t pick up after several attempts, the friend got worried and went to check on her. Finding Nina’s apartment door open, she let herself inside. She walked through the apartment to the kitchen, where she saw Nina’s body lying on the floor.
According to forensic examiners, Nina Belova was stabbed approximately 50 times. Nadezhda Nikolayeva and Pavel Zakharov were arrested four months later. He was charged with murder, and she was charged with incitement to murder.
A rocky relationship
Pavel Zakharov grew up in an orphanage. His first run-in with the law came when he was a teenager: he was sentenced to three years of probation for car theft when he was 18. After that came his first real prison sentence: four and a half years for burglary.
In March 2007, Pavel was released on parole. Four months later, he committed another crime: he and three other young men allegedly robbed four people in a park. Pavel pleaded not guilty in court, claiming he had been drunk and had no memory of the incident. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, though he was released after only six.
After that, he returned to his hometown of Svyatozero, where his sister, Olga, bred German and Central Asian Shepherds with another woman named Nadezhda Nikolayeva. Nadezhda and Pavel soon started dating. Nadezhda adored dogs: she had six of her own, and had an entire album dedicated to them on social media, where she referred to them as her “children.”
But Nadezhda also had a real child: she was raising her daughter, Lera, from a past marriage. In 2015, Lera turned 13. Some years earlier, Lera had unwittingly become the center of a conflict between Nadezhda and her own mother, Nina Belova: according to Nadezhda, Nina was convinced that she, Nadezhda, wouldn’t be able to handle raising a daughter of her own. Nadezhda claims that Nina and her own husband came to Nadezhda’s house one day and took Lera away. It wasn’t until a month later that Nikolayeva found Lera in Nina’s husband’s apartment. In response to that and several other incidents, Nadezhda cut off contact with her mother for years.
After they started dating, Nadezhda Nikolayeva often told Pavel stories about her childhood. These stories made Pavel furious.
One involved Nadezhda’s adopted younger brother. Once, Nina had left both children at home and told Nadezhda to look after her brother. The brother ended up falling out of a window and dying. Ever since then, Nina had blamed Nadezhda for the boy’s death.
Nadezhda also told Pavel about her stepdad, who she said had raped her and beaten her when she was little. When she told her mother about the abuse, she didn’t believe her.
According to Pavel’s later accounts, in January 2015, Nadezhda confessed to him that she sometimes had thoughts of “punishing” her mother. In response, he immediately told her that they “weren’t going to talk anymore, [they] were going to act,” and told her to choose a day.
On Nina Belova’s birthday, the couple went from Svyatozera to St. Petersburg. On the way to Nina’s, they stopped at a hunting shop, where Pavel bought a knife.
At 10:00 p.m., after Nadezhda lied about the puppies and left the apartment, Nina was left alone with Pavel. When she went into the kitchen to clean the remaining dishes, Pavel followed her. They spoke for about 10 minutes. As soon as Nina began criticizing Nadezhda’s parenting skills, Pavel got angry. He pulled a knife out of his sleeve and stabbed Nina three times in the back. He then turned the kitchen light off so that they couldn’t be seen from outside. After that, he stabbed her about 40 more times.
Before leaving, he tried to make it look like a random robbery had taken place: he ransacked the apartment in search of anything valuable, but was only able to find 6,000 rubles (about $85). On the way back to Svyatozero, he changed into clean clothes and threw the bloody paper towels, clothing, and knife onto the side of the highway.
Pavel Zakharov pleaded guilty in court, though he claimed Nikolayeva hadn’t incited the murder. Nadezhda told the court that she hadn’t wanted Pavel to kill her mother, and that she and Nina had patched up their relationship in recent years; she asked them to convict her of concealment rather than incitement. In an appeal, Nadezhda said that her initial confessions had been given under duress, as she had been interrogated without a lawyer and it had lasted for almost 24 hours with no break. According to Nadezhda, after she was arrested, an investigator and several officers went to her daughter, Lera, and tried to make her pressure her mother to confess to the charges.
The trial went on for two years, and Nadezhda was ultimately found guilty of incitement to murder and sentenced to six and a half years in prison, while Pavel was sentenced to 11 years in a high-security prison for murder.
Had murder been Pavel’s only crime since his last release from prison, he wouldn’t have been given such a long sentence. In the eight months he had been free, however, he had broken the law two other times: in January 2015, he stole money from a friend, and in April of that year, at another friend’s request, he threatened to stab a man. He later disposed of the knife he used in the same way he had disposed of the one he used to kill Nina Belova: he left it on the side of the highway.
‘A chance to work’
When Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine began, Pavel Zakharov had three and a half years left in his sentence; he was slated to be released in June 2026. By early January 2023, however, he was on a plane, headed for his hometown.
On January 1, the media agency RIA FAN, which belongs to Wagner mercenary group founder Evgeny Prigozhin, published a video showing a meeting Prigozhin’s held with recruited prisoners on New Year’s Eve. These convicts, Prigozhin claimed, were the first to have “served out their contracts,” and were thus now being sent home. Four days later, the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported that these men’s criminal records had been completely expunged. Soon after, Russian Presidential Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva, citing the prisoners’ relatives, said that the men had been pardoned by secret presidential decree before they had even shipped out to Ukraine.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
Pavel Zakharov was one of the men in the video; his identity was confirmed by the Telegram channel Rotonda. At the gathering, the mercenaries joked about Wagner Group capturing Alaska and establishing a “Hawaiian People’s Republic.” They also told Prigozhin how his private military company had changed their lives for the better. “Now I have the chance to work, to be useful to my country, to feel like a real man,” one of the men said on camera. “That wasn’t in the cards before.” Unlike most of the men present, Pavel Zakharov was silent throughout the video.
According to Evgeny Prigozhin, all of these pardoned prisoners were released and their Wagner contracts are over. According to Rotonda, however, one of the convicts who was released is still officially part of Wagner Group and is only on leave. Another one, 66-year-old Alexander Tyutin, who was previously sentenced to 23 years in prison for organizing the murder of a four-member family, flew to Turkey in mid-January for a vacation, according to Fontanka.
Holod was unable to reach Pavel Zakharov for comment. His relatives declined to speak to journalists, as did Nadezhda Nikolayeva’s relatives. Nadezhda Nikolayeva herself, who was released from prison about one year ago, also declined to speak.
English-language version by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or