Late last summer, the land near a small farming community in southern Russia began to fill with dozens of freshly dug graves of fallen fighters in Ukraine. The resting places were adorned with simple wooden crosses and colorful wreaths bearing the insignia of Russia's Wagner Group, a feared and secretive private army.
There were around 200 graves at the site on the outskirts of the town of Bakinskaya in the Krasnodar region when Reuters visited in late January. The news agency compared the names of at least 39 of those killed here and three other nearby cemeteries with Russian court records, publicly available databases and social media accounts. Reuters also spoke to family, friends and lawyers for some of the dead.
Many of the men buried at Bakinskaya were convicts recruited by Wagner last year after its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, promised pardons if the prisoners survived six months on the front lines, this report showed. They included a hitman, assassins, professional criminals, and people with alcohol problems.
For months, Wagner has been locked in a bloody battle of attrition to take the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine. Western and Ukrainian officials have said they are using the convicts as cannon fodder to overwhelm Ukraine's defenses. Tightening sanctions against Wagner this month, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.brandedthe group "a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses." In a short, open response to the US government, Prigozhin asked Kirby to "clarify what crime" Wagner committed.
A booming graveyard for Wagner fighters
Videos and photos of the graves first appeared on social media channels in the Krasnodar region in December. Reuters geolocated these images to the Bakinskaya cemetery and reviewed satellite imagery from the Maxar Technologies and Capella Space site. Satellite images show Wagner's land was empty in the summer, three rows of graves at the end of November and three-quarters full at the beginning of January. Virtually all the land was used on January 24.
Local activist Vitaly Votanovsky, who took the first photos and documented soldiers killed in Ukraine and buried in cemeteries in the Krasnodar region, told Reuters he observed a truck delivering bodies to the cemetery. He said gravediggers told him the bodies came from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, near Russia's border with the Donetsk region. When Reuters visited the cemetery in January, fences and security cameras were being installed around the grounds and another burial was in progress.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published footage in early January of Prigozhin visiting the cemetery, crossing himself and laying flowers on a grave. To thesayingLocal media reports that the men buried there have expressed a wish to be buried in a Wagner chapel on the outskirts of the nearby town of Goryachiy Klyuch rather than have their bodies returned to their relatives. The Bakinskaya plot was provided by local authorities, he said, after the chapel ran out of space. In 2019,Reuters reportedabout the existence of a Wagner training ground in the village of Molkino, about 5 miles (9 km) from Bakinskaya.
Of the 39 convicts identified by Reuters, 10 were arrested for murder or manslaughter, 24 for robbery and two for serious bodily harm. Other crimes included manufacturing or trafficking drugs and blackmail. Among those convicted were citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and the Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia's Abkhazia. Wooden markings on their graves on Bakinskaya and in three nearby cemeteries show the men died between July and December 2022, at the height of the battle for Bakhmut.
One of the youngest, buried in the nearby Martanskaya cemetery, is Vadim Pushnya. He was only 25 years old when he died on November 19. Pushnya was arrested in 2020 for breaking into garages, a brewery and a cement factory in his hometown of Goryachiy Klyuch, near Wagner's chapel. The date of birth on Pushnya's grave matches the date listed on her social media accounts and court records.
The eldest, Fail Nabiev, was serving a year and a half sentence for robbery in Penal Colony No. 2 in the Ivanovo region, 320 kilometers northeast of Moscow, in at least his second prison term. He had been convicted in May 2022 by a court in the picturesque resort town of Suzdal for stealing a string trimmer and sander worth a total of 5,500 rubles ($80) from a garage. According to his simple wooden headstone, emblazoned with an Islamic crescent moon, Nabiev died in October, less than five months after he was sentenced. He was 60 years old.
Nabiev's wife, Olga Viktorova, confirmed to Reuters that Nabiev was killed while serving with Wagner in the military campaign in Ukraine. She said her husband was nearing the end of his prison term and he had substantial credit card debt that he now had to pay. She said she did not find out that her husband had joined Wagner until after his death. Russian independent news site iStoriesreportedthat Prigozhin visited Penal Colony No. 2 to recruit fighters in August. Reuters could not independently verify the report.
“He always had crazy ideas. An incorrigible optimist,” Viktorova said. Nabiev probably "thought he'd take a quick trip to the Ukraine and make some money."
The Kremlin, the Russian Defense Ministry and the Russian prison authorities did not respond to questions in this article. The Russian government has in the past praised the "courageous and selfless actions" of Wagner's fighters. Wagner founder Prigozhin, who also declined to comment, previously said he is giving convicts "a second chance at life."
While Reuters could not confirm where exactly the men died, the mother-of-one said her son was killed in the Donetsk region. The social media accounts of several others also indicate that they were in Ukraine before his death.
Since the start of Russia's war in the Ukraine, the previously secretive Wagner and founder Prigozhin have acquired an increasingly public profile. In the past, Wagner fighters have deployed to Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic in support of Russia's allies. Prigozhin, known in Russia as "Putin's chef" because of his catering contracts in the Kremlin, has consistently denied any connection to Wagner. Then, last September, he confirmed that he had founded the private army, which he called a "group of patriots."
Since then, Prigozhin has repeatedly visited the front lines in eastern Ukraine, criticizing Russia's military leadership and some top officials, and personally leading a campaign to recruit fighters from Russia's extensive penal system.
According to a periodic reportPublishedby the Russian Federal Prison Service, the population of Russia's penal colony dropped by about 8%, from 353,210 in August to 324,906 in early November, the biggest drop in more than a decade. The report gave no reason for the sudden steep decline, which coincided with the start of Wagner's prison recruitment drive. The Federal Penitentiary Service did not respond to detailed questions for this article.
Last month, Reutersreportedthat the US intelligence community believes Wagner had approximately 40,000 conscripted prisoners deployed to Ukraine in December, representing the vast majority of Wagner's personnel in the country. Wagner did not comment on the figure or provide information on the number of fighters. In a January 14 video message, Prigozhin described Wagner as a fully independent force with its own planes, tanks, rockets and artillery. It is “probably the most experienced army in the world today,” he said.
Violent criminals and alcoholics
Some of the convicts identified by Reuters were violent criminals who had spent much of their adult life in prison or were facing lengthy sentences. Court documents reviewed by Reuters also show men who have had alcohol problems. The names of a few others are on bank blacklists, suggesting personal financial problems.
Their lives highlight the realities of Russia's criminal underclass. Wagner's founder, Prigozhin, told the Russian news website RBC in December that he is giving convicts a chance to "redeem". In January, hehe appearedtogether with the first group of fighters to be pardoned, after having survived the passages through the Ukraine. A few weeks later, he wrote an open letter to the speaker of the Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, asking him to criminalize any action or publication that discredited Wagner's fighters and to prohibit public disclosure of his criminal past. He wrote that those "who are risking their lives every day and dying for the Fatherland are being portrayed as second-class people, depriving them of the right to atone for their guilt." Volodin did not respond to Reuters' request for comment.
Among the prisoners identified by Reuters was Anatoly Bodenkov, 43. He was serving a 16-year sentence after his conviction as a hitman, court documents show. In accordance witha local reportAbout the case, in 2016 Bodenkov murdered a local real estate agent in the northern city of Kirovo-Chepetsk with a sawed-off shotgun for 400,000 rubles ($5,720). The tombstone says that Bodenkov died on November 27, 2022. It does not say where.
A second inmate, Viktor Deshko, 40, was sentenced to 10 years for murder in 2021, according to court documents andlocal media reports. He slashed a woman's throat during a drunken argument over money in the woods near the mining town of Shakhty, near the border with Russian-controlled Donbass. Court documents describe Deshko as "an aggressive person given to alcohol abuse." He was on probation at the time of the murder, having previously served three and a half years for assault with a deadly weapon.
For Bodenkov and Deshko, the full names and dates of birth on the headstones matched social media and court records. Reuters could not reach friends or relatives of the two men, and their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
A third man, Vyacheslav Kochas, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by a St. Petersburg court for murder and armed robbery in 2020 when he was 23 years old. According to Russian court documents, Kochas and another man broke into an acquaintance's apartment while drunk in a robbery attempt. He beat the acquaintance and a female victim unconscious with an iron and a metal clothesline. Kochas then set an article of clothing on fire and threw it at the unconscious man. Much of the apartment was destroyed by the fire and the man succumbed to his injuries from it two days later.
“Wagner can bring in people who are definitely, or think they are, marginalized, outsiders, losers in some way in the system, and give them a chance to consider themselves winners.”
Photos of Kochas on social media show a baby-faced man. In some, he is embracing an unidentified young woman. Kochas' profile on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, now reads: "Killed in Donbass." Kochas' headstone on Bakinskaya gives his date of death as July 21, shortly after his 25th birthday and in the early days of Russia's advance on Bakhmut.
Kochas' lawyer, Stepan Akimov, described his former client as "a really ordinary guy" who he said was wrongly convicted. The last he heard from Kochas was a text message after his appeal failed, thanking Akimov for his help. Akimov learned from Reuters that his former client had joined Wagner.
“I can imagine, given the length of his sentence and how young he was, it seemed like a way out,” Akimov said. “When a prisoner has a double-digit sentence, here they offer freedom in six months. Apparently, Vyacheslav thought that this offer was a way out.
Reuters was unable to contact Kochas' surviving relatives.
Russia has one of the largest prison populations per capita in the world. Mark Galeotti, author of The Vory: Russia's Super Mafia, a book about Russia's criminal and prison cultures, says Wagner's potential appeal to inmates is broader than a plea for mercy. Service with Wagner, he said, offers pride and a sense of purpose to convicts with few prospects after release, people who have spent time in a prison culture steeped in "a strong Russian nationalist undertone."
“Yes, it will give you a chance to get out of prison, but it also gives you a chance to be someone real,” Galeotti said. “This is actually a way that Wagner can bring in people who are definitely, or think they are marginalized, marginalized, losers in some way in the system, and gives them a chance to think of themselves as winners.”
At least one of the men buried at Bakinskaya hid his criminal record and prison time from loved ones.
For more than half a decade, after marrying and leaving her hometown of Lugansk in eastern Ukraine, Svitlana Holyk believed that her brother Yury Danilyuk was working somewhere in Russia's far north. The two Ukrainian-born brothers had few living relatives and rarely spoke after Russian-backed prosecutors seized her hometown in 2014, she said. Svitlana only knew that her brother regularly traveled for work to the Russian border city of Bryansk, 800 kilometers away.
But while Svitlana was building a new life in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Yury was using social media to subscribe to pro-Russian groups supporting the Donbass separatist insurgency, his online activity shows. In 2016, without contact for a year and a half, Yury told his sister that she had moved to Russia's arctic north. She said that her messages were short and spoke little about her life.
"Then I suspected that something had happened, that he might have some problems that he didn't want to or couldn't talk about for some reason," he told Reuters, speaking in Ukrainian, in a phone call from Dnipro. The city is now a major logistics center for the Ukrainian army fighting in Donbass and a constant target for Russian missiles.
A close friend of Yury Danilyuk spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. The friend said that Yury lied to her sister, whom he loved very much, so as not to upset her with the news of her arrest. In fact, he had been sentenced in 2016 to nine years and eight months in prison for drug trafficking. The two men were incarcerated together in Penal Colony No. 6 in the Krasnodar region.
The friend said he last spoke to Yury in September 2022 and later that month heard from other inmates that Yury had joined Wagner. Olga Romanova, a prisoners' rights activist with the Russia Behind Bars watchdog group, told Reuters that Yevgeny Prigozhin visited penal colony number 6 to recruit prisoners on two separate occasions. Reuters could not independently verify these visits.
The friend said that during his time in prison, Yury became involved with a faction of prisoners who refuse to cooperate with prison authorities on principle, a common phenomenon in Russia's prison system. This meant that Yury missed the early release due to good behaviour. He said Yury's decision to join Wagner was motivated by the knowledge that he would likely serve out his long sentence in full.
According to his grave, Yury Danilyuk died on November 30, 2022. He was 28 years old.
Danilyuk's sister, Svitlana, said she knew nothing about her brother's prison sentence, service with Wagner and eventual death during Russia's war against the country of his birth until Reuters journalists contacted her. Holyk said: “The fact that Yury died I learned from you. I reread your message several times when you wrote to me. Somehow I couldn't believe it.
The reclusive friend remembered Yury as a fierce patriot of his native Donbass with a passion for cars. “I blame everything on him for not wanting to cooperate with the prison authorities,” the friend said. “If he had agreed, he would be alive. But he refused, so he is a fool.
A Russian cemetery reveals Wagner's army of prisoners
By Felix Light and Filipp Lebedev in Tbilisi and Reade Levinson in London
Photo Editing: Simon Newman
Graphics: Field Cage
Art Direction: Eve Watling
Edited by Janet McBride