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- The Wagner Group recruited thousands of Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine in exchange for freedom.
- While those who died return home to be buried, residents can’t agree on how they should be treated.
- One soldier who was convicted of killing his mom and sister was buried in an “Alley of Heroes.”
Many Russian prisoners who fought on the frontlines in Ukraine ended up paying the ultimate price, but their compatriots back home can’t agree on whether or not they should be honored.
The Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, caused controversy by recruiting convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine in exchange for their freedom. The group said last month it would discontinue the practice, with reports suggesting prisoners had begun refusing to go because they did not want to be enlisted in suicide missions.
Some prisoners-turned-soldiers had complained they were given insufficient training, weapons, or supplies, and were essentially sent to the frontlines to die. The UK Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence briefing earlier this month that about half of all the Russian prisoners sent to fight Ukraine have been killed or wounded.
UK intelligence said last week that Russian forces were now facing an “exodus” of troops as thousands of prisoners who had fought in exchange for pardons were expected to be released.
But the returning soldiers — whether they’re coming back dead or alive — are unlikely to be met with universal gratitude.
Roman Lazaruk, a former prisoner from Russia’s Rostov region, was convicted in 2014 of killing his mother and sister, according to The New York Times. After dying in the battle for Bakhmut, he was buried in the “Alley of Heroes,” a section of the cemetery that included WWII veterans.
But the hero’s treatment was condemned by some members of the community, including a former classmate of his sister’s. “What did this Lazaruk or other guys do?” she told a local Russian outlet. “They killed, stole, stabbed, raped, went to jail and went out to continue killing. What kind of heroes are they?”
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov, a fighter of the Wagner group who died during a special operation in Ukraine, at the Beloostrovskoye cemetery outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022.
Associated Press, File
The disputes have also pitted local officials, who may wish to avoid the controversy of extending public honors to convicts, and residents who want the fallen soldiers to be treated with respect as defenders of the Motherland, The Times reported.
When a mayor in Russia’s Krasnodar region paused funerals for the prisoners who died in battle due to the public controversy over them, Wagner founder Prigozhin threatened to pile up corpses in the mayor’s living room, according to The Times.
Some residents are also concerned about pardoned prisoners who return home alive but may still be violent. The UK Ministry of Defense has said the return of the former prisoners to Russian society could pose a threat to communities, noting there will be a “sudden influx of often violent offenders with recent and often traumatic combat experience.”