By Niko Vorobyov for Gangsters Inc.
Several months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it soon became clear to those in the Kremlin that their so-called “brother nation” was not going to sit still for target practice. What’s more, they were running out of professional soldiers. Russia hasn’t been releasing up-to-date body counts, but some estimates place their losses at over 10,000 KIA, more than all those killed during the entire decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan.
To keep their war machine running, the top brass had to search elsewhere for manpower. It might have come as a surprise to the convicts in a penal colony in the Mari El republic, central Russia, to be addressed on a gloomy September day by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s bald-headed crony and boss of the once-secretive Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit hired to do the Kremlin’s dirty work.
"If you serve six months [in Wagner], you are free," he told the convicts gathered in their exercise yard, “[but] if you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will execute you."
It was a strategy lifted straight from the plot of The Dirty Dozen. The mercs have a gruesome reputation for smashing in traitors’ skulls with sledgehammers.
The Wagner Group was founded after the first phase of the Ukraine conflict, which began in 2014. Mercenaries are officially illegal under Russian law, so for many years, on paper, Wagner didn’t officially exist. But the guns-for-hire have been secretly deployed in combat zones across the Middle East and Africa. It’s partly a PR move – mercenaries aren’t listed on the official death tolls, so the Russian government can pretend they haven’t lost so many boys to the meatgrinder.
Prigozhin personally did the rounds of penal colonies on his own private helicopter, promising prisoners a pardon if they survived six months on the battlefield. His new recruits included robbers, hitmen and drug dealers. British intelligence believes 50,000 convicts have been pardoned by Putin for the war; American intelligence places the number closer to 40,000. On New Years’ Eve, Putin presented armed robber Aik Gasparyan with a medal for heroism.
Igor Kusk wasn’t so lucky. The 55-year-old crime boss had seen action before as a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. During the 1990s chaotic transition to capitalism, veterans of the Afghan and Chechen wars became “torpedos” (enforcers) for the racketeering organizations muscling in on the new, free-market economy. In 1993 a group of unhinged Afghan veterans hijacked a tank from a factory in the Urals and drove it to a showdown with some rival Azerbaijani gangsters, like a scene from Grand Theft Auto. The Azeris never bothered them again.
Kusk was the head of an organized crime group in the central Russian republic of Tatarstan. His gang was suspected of shooting dead a businessman outside his office in Kazan. He was serving a 23-year sentence when he volunteered for Wagner, and died in September 2022 when a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head during the battle of Bakhmut.
Another member of Russia’s real-life Suicide Squad was gang leader Ivan Neparatov. His crew carried guns and donned police uniforms for a string of stick-ups, home invasions and homicides, including three of his own men for holding out on loot. In 2013 Ivan was handed 25 years for five murders, three robberies, extortion, fraud and weapons charges. He died in August 2022 in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, posthumously receiving a medal from Putin.
"It's either private military companies and prisoners [waging this war], or your children – decide for yourself," Prigozhin once said.
Prigozhin’s own biography reads like a screenplay to a mob movie. In 1981 a Soviet court sentenced the young tearaway and an accomplice to 13 years imprisonment for savagely mugging a woman at knifepoint, along with a string of burglaries and "involving a minor in drunkenness".
In the 1990s, Prigozhin made a fortune from the gambling business in St Petersburg, at which time Putin was the chairman of the committee overseeing casinos. Back then, casinos, as almost all private enterprises in Russia, paid off or otherwise had ties to organized crime. According to the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Prigozhin’s partner in the casino was one Mikhail Mirilashvili, a “businessman” convicted of two kidnappings.
Since then, Prigozhin’s earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” for his restaurant and catering empire. And now a warlord as well, it seems.
Traditionally, Russian convicts have shirked the call of duty. Historically, the underworld was dominated by the vory-v-zakone, or thieves-in-law, a D&D-style thieves guild born in Stalin’s gulags in the 1930s with an almost monastic devotion to a life of crime. Among their principles was never cooperating with the authorities in any way. During World War II, a number of vory decided to enlist in the Red Army. When they returned, those who stayed true to the thieves’ code called them “suki” (bitches), and shunned them for breaking their vows. The Suka Wars which followed between the two factions of prison gangsters wiped out much of the old-schoolers and reshaped the structure of the criminal world. From then on, a certain degree of collaboration was allowed, particularly with crooked officials.
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Thieves are traditionally supposed to be above politics. However, in the equally bitter Armenia-Azerbaijan war in the 1990s, Armenian vor Svo Raf hijacked arms shipments bound for Azerbaijan. But his right-hand man was an Azeri, and when Svo died in a Moscow prison in 1993, the Azeri blockade of Armenia’s capital Yerevan was briefly lifted to allow a delegation of mobsters from Baku to fly over and pay their respects. The outlaw brotherhood transcended ethnic and political divides.
With the advent of capitalism in the 1990s, the criminal world changed again: tracksuit-wearing ex-boxers wanted to get rich or die tryin’ and didn’t care much for the old rules. Now the criminal world might be changing yet again. Between August and November 2022, Russia’s prison population plummeted by 8%, the same time as Wagner’s recruitment drive, leaving plenty of free bunks for dissidents.
Only one thief-in-law, Sergey Lysenko aka Lera Sumskoy from Ukraine, has openly spoken out against the war. In April last year a handwritten note circulated around Russian prisoners, urging them not to take up arms for Ukraine, and those who do will be severely sanctioned. One Wagnerite claimed to Novaya Gazeta that even highly respected thieves are on the frontline, even though it’s supposedly against their principles (although he added they probably only enlisted looking for an easy way out).
If the experience of Afghanistan and or even the 2014-15 Ukraine conflict is anything to go by, giving pardons, weapons and training to dangerous felons could come back to haunt the Motherland. In 2017 Alexander Litvinov was arrested for robbing and beating an elderly woman to death in a village in the Kurgan region, and sent to a nearby prison camp. An ex-sniper in the Donetsk rebels’ militia, he used improvised weapons including homemade grenades in a showdown with camp authorities. In the end, one guard was killed in the dramatic escape attempt, as well as Litvinov himself, who was shot by a police marksman.
Last year, Wagner was blacklisted as a “transnational criminal organisation” by the US government for allegedly taking part in atrocities in Ukraine as well as Africa. Are they war criminals, or criminals at war?
Niko Vorobyov is the author of Dopeworld. Follow him on Twitter @Narco_Polo420
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