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What Happens When Russia’s Criminal Soldiers Come Home

The widespread use of criminals as cannon fodder could transform Russian society for the worse.
March 21, 2023
What Happens When Russia’s Criminal Soldiers Come Home
Russian military and pro-Russian separatists keep watch as civilians are being evacuated along humanitarian corridors from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on March 24, 2022. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Recently, a Russian friend who left the country years ago got in touch to ask me if I could talk to her former colleague, a woman was finally ready to leave too and needed some advice and reassurance. This colleague, let’s call her Maria, did not want to abandon her home and her various volunteering jobs, but now felt she had no choice.

At first, I was not especially interested in talking to Maria—as a native of Ukraine, I prefer to leave pep talks for Russians to someone else—until I found out what had prompted Maria’s decision. Maria had a relative who had gone to prison for murder. After PMC Wagner began recruiting cannon fodder for the war against Ukraine in Russian prisons, he had signed up. He was wounded in Ukraine, and was coming home a free man. Maria was terrified of him.

I have a bit of a history with Wagner. They killed my friend Sasha Rastorguev, a filmmaker, in 2018. After I published an article in 2021 about Sasha’s death and what it meant in terms of Wagner’s overall activities, a Wagnerite sent me rape and death threats. Today, the scourge of Wagner has been unleashed in my native country for more than a year.

Reliable statistics on how many Russian prisoners signed up to go kill Ukrainians are hard to come by. A Vice report says it was around 40,000. Nobody is certain as to how many of these men have managed to make it home alive since the recruitment drive began, and how many are still fighting.

Maria told me that her cousin was a “vicious” man. He had, she said, “always resented” Maria’s side of the family, who were successful, well-connected, solidly middle-class people. Their successes and connections proved illusory as the Russian government took a hard turn toward fascism years ago. Today, most of Maria’s family lives abroad—the ones who don’t drink and commit violent crime, anyway. She told me that she feels that Russia is “losing its best people” and that “the government wants it this way.”

And why not? I wondered after I got off the phone with Maria. A criminal regime has an easy time ruling over fellow criminals.

According to Reuters, the convicts recruited by Wagner are passionately loyal to the company’s founder, CEO, and thug-in-chief, the wealthy war criminal Yevgeny Prigozhin. While Prigozhin squabbles with the Russian Ministry of Defense over ammunition and who controls what, the war drags on. The convicts who make it out head back to Russia, to sow more violence.

There was a time when I could have told different stories about Russia. I could have told you about Russian theater and film, about ghost stories from the Urals, or fashion labels started by my friends. I could have told you about rooftop parties, old graveyards, long train rides, a Siberian shaman in a Metallica t-shirt, and a brave hospice worker who loved to quote Joseph Brodsky. But now my stories of Russia are reduced to revulsion.

Still, I felt bad for Maria. She didn’t want me to think of her as a “good Russian.” She had nothing to prove. She was just heartbroken and scared. She was convinced her cousin would do her harm: They’d never liked each other and she was told he had designs on their grandmother’s dacha, a summer house, now that he was free. Murder for real estate has a long and sordid tradition in Russia, and I found Maria’s story believable. “If something happened to me, nobody would question the war hero,” Maria mused darkly. I had to tell her that she was probably correct.

Thugs going mainstream has greater implications down the line—both for Russia, and for the world. The security climate will remain unstable, and likely worsen. Crime in Russia will probably go up, and spill outward. Processes that have been set in motion with the disgusting invasion of Ukraine will not be stopped any time soon.

Many of those Russians who cheered on the invasion—the academics, the eager propagandists, the patriotic singers and actors feeding at the trough of the Russian state budget—will not fare well in the darkness that’s now coming for them too. These people have no idea as to what they’ve helped unleash. And however much they suffer, the innocents and the vulnerable will suffer more. They always do.

Another friend of mine has a Russian ex-husband who passionately supported the 2014 annexation of Crimea and blamed Ukrainians for Russia’s decision to destabilize the Donbas before drowning it in blood. The ex-husband is an artist, a sensitive soul when he’s not busy waving his little fist in the direction of Ukraine and the West. When mobilization was announced in Russia last year, he bravely hid from it.

Cheering for war crimes from a distance is one thing. Crawling into a filthy trench is another. Mobilization may be picking up pace again, and my friend sarcastically confronted her ex-husband, asking him if he will finally do his patriotic duty. Without catching her sarcasm, he told her that he doesn’t want to “serve with criminals.”

Who does? But the face of the Russian military is now altered. Despite all of its defeats and crimes, the Russian military used to be able to rest on the laurels of WWII and its ensuing death cult. All of the pretense to greatness is gone now.

As the historian Timothy Snyder told the United Nations Security Council the other day, the Russian government is guilty of the “perversion of the memory of the Great Fatherland war by fighting a war of aggression in 2014 and 2022, thereby depriving all future generations of Russians of that heritage. . . . It has done great harm to Russian culture.”

Without democracy, without a free opposition, without independent civil society, you might think Russian culture is dead—yet it keeps staggering onward, not so much dead as undead. It reminds me of a zombie horde, howling as it searches for a meal. It doesn’t know that it is rotting from the inside.

What do you do when confronted with a disaster of that magnitude? I guess, in the end, everyone makes their own choices. What I told Maria is what I’ll tell anyone else in her position: Get out while you still can.

Natalia Antonova

Natalia Antonova is a writer and investigator based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @NataliaAntonova.