‘He’s really dangerous’: fear as Wagner convict soldiers return from Ukraine

Anatoly Salmin, a convicted thief and murderer, is home from prison years ahead of schedule, his reward for volunteering for a suicide mission in Russia’s war in Ukraine – and then managing to survive.

Hundreds of convicts recruited into the ranks of Wagner, a private military company tied to the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been killed or severely wounded in Ukraine, where the mercenaries have been tasked with some of Russia’s most desperate campaigns.

But a video released last month showed several dozen former convicts – among them murderers, drug dealers and domestic abusers – now heading to their home towns in northern Russia, supposedly having earned pardons by surviving six months in Wagner’s ranks in Ukraine.

In interviews, those who knew Salmin said they feared running into the same man who once terrorised their home town and may now have been made untouchable by his association with Prigozhin, one of Russia’s most notorious figures.

“We started seeing him in town a few weeks ago,” one local resident who has known Salmin for many years told the Guardian. “He is a dangerous man, we all know what he did to his friend. I told my kids not to run around alone in the coming days. It wasn’t just what he did to his friend, he stole from people, got in many fights and was harassing girls. He drank a lot, used drugs and was violent.”

“We don’t want such people back in Pikalevo,” said the person, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “What kind of hero is he?”

Related: ‘We thieves and killers are now fighting Russia’s war’: how Moscow recruits from its prisons

Salmin was recruited into Wagner while serving a sentence for theft. But in 2011 he was convicted of murder. In the court’s description of the killing, Salmin and a friend got drunk while fishing at a local quarry and began to argue. Then Salmin grabbed a rock and hit his friend on the head twice. As the man continued to flail, Salmin held his friend’s head underwater until he stopped moving.

“This is a small fraction of the crimes he committed,” another acquaintance said in an interview with BBC Russian earlier this year, shortly after Salmin’s release was discovered. “There are people who are still very afraid that he will return to our city. And I am very afraid that he will do something to these people. Salmin is a terrible person.”

The release of the convicts who volunteer for Wagner is contentious among Russians, many of whom fear the men will go on to commit further crimes.

Last month, the Kremlin defended the practice, saying convicts were being pardoned “in strict adherence with Russian law”.

Under the Russian constitution, only the president can issue pardons and critics point to the fact the Kremlin has not published such decrees since 2020.

Many are hardened criminals. Dmitry Kuryagin was convicted of murdering his 87-year-old grandmother and taking the money she received for selling her flat. Others were sentenced to decades in prison for extortion, selling amphetamines, or robbing jewellery stores.

“It’s often people who have the most years left on their sentences who are willing to go into Wagner,” said a prisoners’ rights activists based in Russia. “And that means, usually, it’s people who have committed the most serious crimes.”

Prigozhin this week claimed Wagner had already halted its recruitment drive in prisons, although he did not provide any proof or explain why the decision had been made.

Recent media reports said Wagner was having more difficulty recruiting prisoners because they had heard about the high casualty rates among Russian convicts sent into battle.

“What percentage of our guys who went [to Ukraine] are still alive?” one prisoner asked a Wagner recruiter in December, according to a report by the independent Mediazona outlet. “At that point, [the recruiter] started to stammer; he couldn’t give an answer, and he ended his speech there.”

In Thursday’s statement, Prigozhin maintained Wagner would “fulfil its obligations to those working for us”, which was likely in reference to his promise of a full pardon to those who joined the ranks of military company from prison.

Even pundits traditionally close to the government have raised doubts that scouring prisons for some of their most desperate inmates, sending them on violent missions to Ukraine and then releasing them back among the public is sound policy.

“Now another group of prisoners are returning from the [war] zone. It is necessary to understand whether psychologists have worked with them?” Ivan Melnikov, a Russian human rights activist, said in a recent radio interview. “We may end up with a colossal relapse of criminal behaviour in the near future if nothing is done.”

Salmin, when reached by the Guardian, declined to be interviewed, suggesting he should be paid for an interview. Melnikov cited data that at least half of Russian convicts who were released would probably end up in prison again.

The men being released come from a constellation of towns and small cities across north-west Russia, Prigozhin’s home region where he may have found some of the first volunteers during his mobilisation drive. Ultimately, Wagner is believed to have recruited tens of thousands of prisoners willing to kill for their freedom.

Some of their crimes are particularly horrifying. Alexander Tyutin, who has been labelled “the black realtor”, was convicted of ordering the 2005 contract killing of his business partner and family. The hired killer shot and bludgeoned the family of four to death, including the 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

Related: Ukraine releases video appearing to show Russian troops beating own wounded officer

Just months after joining Wagner from prison, Tyutin was reportedly discharged for having reached pension age and flew from Russia to Turkey to join his wife.

Prigozhin appeared to confirm the release in a statement, saying it was better to send a “murderous real estate agent” who in war was “worth three or four, or even more dandelion boys”, including “your son, your father, your husband”.

“Consider what you want more: for a murdering realtor to be sent to fight or for it to be your loved ones, who you’ll likely end up receiving back in a zinc coffin,” he added.

In a separate episode earlier this year, Prigozhin, speaking in front of a group of former convicts who had served out their contracts in Ukraine, promised to help them out if they got in trouble with the law enforcement.

“The police should treat you with respect. If they are being unreasonable … I myself will call, and sort things out with the governors and so on. We will find a solution.”

Many fear that those being released could now seek to settle scores at home.

In 2014, Kirill Neglin of Segezha was sentenced to 12 years in prison on counts of drug dealing and domestic abuse. After a bout of heavy drinking, he repeatedly hit and kicked his wife, terrorising her both at home and then following her to their dacha, where she said she silently endured another attack because she feared for their children’s lives.

After she testified against him, Neglin issued a threat in court. “She won’t live long,” he said, according to a court transcript first reported by the independent news outlet Verstka. “Whatever sentence the court gives [me], that’s how long she has left to live.”

Social media from 2014, the year before Neglin was sentenced, showed he regularly posted ultrapatriotic memes, including some that suggested firing nuclear weapons at the US. A relative who confirmed Neglin had fought in Ukraine said she was surprised he had volunteered for the war.

Neglin and his former spouse could not be reached. Court records show that while he was in prison, he was sued by his own mother to return a loan for an apartment in Segezha.

In the video published by Wagner-affiliated media, Neglin offered bromides about patriotism and family values.

“You’re not fighting here for just anything, you’re fighting for your children,” he said. “And naturally for your families, for money, and as for your homeland, that follows … So, guys, take care of yourselves, take care of those close to you.”

But those who know the men say they fear what will happen upon their return.

“We have known each other for many years,” said another acquaintance of Salmin. “He is not a pleasant person, in fact he is really dangerous. He is unpredictable. And he is back in town, yes.”

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