The inmates of penal colony No 8, within the Tambov area 300 miles south of Moscow, rushed to their cell home windows after they heard the sound of a helicopter approaching on a late afternoon in July.
“Nobody ever makes use of a chopper to get down right here. We had been curious what the large event was,” recalled Ivan, one of many inmates.
Half an hour later, he and the others had been ordered to report back to the jail’s major sq. the place two closely guarded males had been ready.
“We couldn’t imagine our eyes, he would actually come all the way in which to go to us,” mentioned Ivan, who’s midway by way of a 23-year sentence for homicide and, like different inmates interviewed, requested to make use of a pseudonym out of considerations for his security. “However there he was standing in entrance of us: Prigozhin, within the flesh, urging us to affix the Wagner personal army group and struggle in Ukraine.”
Because the begin of the summer season, reviews have emerged that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a detailed ally of Vladimir Putin and the reported head of the Wagner group – an allegation he has repeatedly denied – was recruiting troopers from inside Russia’s intensive penitentiary system in an try and compensate for the nation’s acute personnel shortages on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Final week a leaked video that includes a person intently resembling Prigozhin went viral on Russian social media. The person was proven telling inmates at one other jail 500 miles north of Tambov that they’d be freed in the event that they served six months together with his group, the primary time the enlistment course of had been captured on digital camera.
“Once I noticed that video, I believed Prigozhin should be on a really busy schedule as a result of it was precisely what he informed us as nicely,” Ivan mentioned. “He promised we’d be free if we fought for six months. However he warned that few would come again.”
The Guardian spoke to 4 prisoners and three shut members of the family of inmates throughout completely different penal colonies in Russia who all gave related accounts of how Prigozhin was personally conducting recruitment in prisons.
Ivan declined the job provide however he mentioned roughly 120 inmates signed up and had been now preventing in Ukraine after a one-week coaching course.
He mentioned he would now be part of up if Prigozhin got here calling once more. “I’ve 11 extra years to spend in jail,” he mentioned. “Both I die on this shithole or I die there, it doesn’t matter that a lot. At the least I’ll have an opportunity to struggle for my freedom. All of us evaluate it to Russian roulette.
“Moreover, proper now, signing up is voluntary. Quickly we’d haven’t any alternative and be pressured to go,” he mentioned, voicing a perception echoed by different prisoners contacted by the Guardian.
An inmate at jail colony No 2, in Russia’s remoted northern Komi area, described an analogous go to by Prigozhin in mid-July.
Vladimir, who had solely three weeks left of a sentence for theft when Prigozhin arrived, additionally determined to not enroll, however he mentioned his cousin, who had 15 years left behind bars, was considered one of 104 inmates there who agreed to struggle in Ukraine.
The Guardian was unable to confirm all the main points of the inmates’ accounts, however their tales corroborated earlier reviews by the Russian investigative shops Vital Tales and Meduza.
In response to Vladimir, prisoners had been proven footage throughout Prighozin’s go to of Russian troopers “bravely preventing” in Ukraine and had been promised that their actions within the nation wouldn’t be punished.
“Prisoners will know they’ll act with full impunity there,” mentioned Vladimir, who has since left jail. “Jail turns you into an animal, and there’s a lot of hate rising inside you. Their arms will probably be untied there,” he added.
All prisoners interviewed mentioned they had been promised a presidential pardon after six months and a wage of 100,000 rubles (£1,400) a month.
Vladimir mentioned Prigozhin informed the group throughout his go to that they had been recruiting “prisoners of all backgrounds, so long as they had been wholesome,” however warned that ingesting, drug use, looting and desertion in Ukraine can be punishable by execution.
The precise variety of Russian inmates recruited is difficult to ascertain. A US official mentioned on Monday that Wagner, which has been accused of struggle crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine and different conflicts, was attempting to recruit greater than 1,500 convicted felons.
However Olga Romanova, the pinnacle of Jailed Russia, a prisoners’ rights NGO, believes the quantity is way increased. In response to Romanova’s estimate, about 11,000 Russian prisoners have already signed as much as go to Ukraine, a quantity that she mentioned was rising quickly.
“The method is accelerating. Simply this morning alone, we obtained reviews of 600 prisoners being transported from Nizhny Novgorod.”
Navy specialists have posed questions concerning the doubtless influence of poorly disciplined and badly skilled Russian prisoners on the struggle. Rob Lee, a army analyst, mentioned Moscow’s newest recruitment push may “plug some holes” within the quick time period however would do little to deal with Russia’s “essential” scarcity of manpower.
The Kremlin’s reliance on unorthodox strategies to maintain the preventing stepping into Ukraine is worrying for Russia, in response to Lee. “Russia now not has knowledgeable military within the conventional sense. It’s now made up of some skilled models, blended with paid short-term contract troopers, mercenaries and now, apparently, prisoners.
“Armies are efficient when there’s clear hierarchy and cohesion,” Lee added. “I can’t even start to think about what disciplinary issues prisoners will convey.”
On Tuesday, the opposition chief Alexei Navalny, himself behind bars, tweeted that Russian prisons had been full of individuals with “large issues with self-discipline and even larger issues with alcohol and substances”. He mentioned: “What might such a military even accomplish in fight?”
Moreover questions of effectiveness, Romanova mentioned the method of recruiting prisoners to struggle for a personal army organisation whereas promising presidential pardons was “utterly illegal on so many ranges”.
Her group has now centered its consideration on serving to households dissuade prisoners from signing up. “Each prisoner that doesn’t go there’s doubtlessly a saved Ukrainian life,” she mentioned.
However for some households, Romanova’s provide of assistance will come too late. One girl, Irina, mentioned her husband, who was in jail in Nizhny Novgorod, had informed her two weeks in the past that he was departing for Ukraine the following day.
“He informed me he was doing it for me and our child. In order that we could be reunited once more,” Irina mentioned. “However what use is he to us lifeless? I want Prigozhin by no means got here.”
Prigozhin’s private recruitment of prisoners has made the beforehand shadowy businessman considered one of Russia’s most seen pro-war figures. Though Wagner forces have beforehand been deployed in Syria and several other African conflicts, its operations had been wrapped in secrecy till the invasion of Ukraine introduced it out of the shadows.
Regardless of Prigozhin’s earlier denials of any hyperlinks to Wagner, a spokesperson for his firm Harmony mentioned when requested concerning the recruitment video that the person within the footage “seemed and spoke like Mr Prigozhin”.
Prigozhin, whose picture now seems on Wagner posters, commented on the footage by criticising those that opposed the recruitment of prisoners. “It’s both personal army contractors and prisoners [fighting in Ukraine] or your kids – determine for your self,” he mentioned on social media.
Inmates mentioned Prigozhin appeared snug contained in the partitions of Russia’s infamous prisons. “You possibly can see he was commanding the respect of the inmates,” mentioned Mikhail, a 3rd prisoner, from the Ivanovo area, whose penal colony Prigozhin visited in August.
“He wasn’t attempting to candy speak us. He mentioned we had been going to enter hell, however that it may very well be our fortunate ticket out.” He mentioned Prigozhin’s speech made a “nice impression” on the prisoners, with 170 fellow inmates signing as much as struggle.
Telegram teams linked to Prigozhin now share movies of prisoners turned Wagner troopers who encourage different inmates to affix their ranks.
However not all prisoners going to Ukraine look like able to struggle for Russia. Yury Butusov, a Ukrainian journalist, printed an interview final week with a Russian prisoner recruited to struggle in Ukraine and captured by Kyiv who mentioned he had used the chance given by Prigozhin at hand himself over to Ukraine.
“I informed myself that after I got here, I’d do no matter it took to give up,” the prisoner mentioned, citing his anti-war stance and including that he hoped to struggle for Ukraine in opposition to Russia.
Romanova, the prisoners’ rights activist, expects that recruitment efforts in Russian prisons will probably be ramped up within the coming weeks. In a rustic that has the world’s fifth largest jail inhabitants per capita, Prigozhin’s helicopter is more likely to carry on flying, she mentioned. “They’re protecting extra floor day by day.”
Regardless of the eventual influence on the struggle, the extraordinary footage of Prigozhin recruiting prisoners has already been described by observers as one of many defining, grim photos of Putin’s presidency.
“The reality is,” mentioned Ivan, the inmate from Tambov, “we, thieves and killers, are actually preventing Russia’s struggle.”