March 28, 2023 - 5:54pm

“Now prisoners will come back home and two Russias will look each other in the eye,” wrote Russian poet Anna Akhmatova of the release of Gulag inmates. Seventy years later, Russia is once again grappling with the issue of how to handle a mass return of its imprisoned. 

Last September, footage emerged of the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, touring Russian prisons, offering inmates the chance of a pardon in return for six months of frontline duty in Ukraine. While the prisoner recruitment programme has now been halted, approximately 50,000 had accepted the offer by mid-February, according to US government estimates, with around 30,000 injured and 9,000 dead. 

For those who survived, Prigozhin seems to have kept his word. At the weekend, he posted online that 5,000 former prisoners have been pardoned and only 0.31% of those have committed another crime within a month of returning from Ukraine, a rate “ten to twenty times less than the standard figures” of re-offending. He added that the crimes committed have been primarily patriotic in nature, intended to “mainly injure people who opposed the actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine and who are harnessed to the Kyiv regime”.

If Prigozhin’s figures are correct, around 16 re-offences have already occurred, although he does not explain the nature of those crimes which were not intended to cause injury to Ukraine. His numbers also presumably do not include those inmates who reportedly paid vast sums to simply be released or declared dead, with the purpose of discreetly slipping back into society without first seeing the battlefield. 

Prisoner rights activist Olga Romanova has claimed that the inmate recruitment policy originally proved “very popular” in Russian society, as “everyone prefers it to be the prisoners, rather than their own sons and husbands,” in the line of danger. Indeed, in September Prigozhin directly addressed those with qualms about the idea, demanding: “It’s either private military companies and prisoners or your children — decide for yourself”.

Yet Prigozhin’s figures are merely the latest indicator of growing public anxiety about the prospect of thousands of ex-convicts returning home, now with fighting experience and weapons training. Those with the longest sentences tended to sign up for Wagner, ensuring a high prevalence of murderers and other serious criminals on the frontline. 

Russian citizens have taken to online forums to express their worries about an influx of ex-convicts while, last November, mafia boss Grisha Moskovsky warned of Wagner recruits targeting ordinary people upon their return to society. At particular risk are victims and witnesses to crime, who have told the BBC of their fear of revenge from liberated inmates with old scores to settle. 

That is before considering the psychological impact of war on already violent criminals. The UK Ministry of Defence noted last week that “the sudden influx of often violent offenders with recent and often traumatic combat experience will likely present a significant challenge for Russia’s war-time society”. Human rights activist Ivan Melnikov has warned of a “colossal relapse of criminal behaviour” and demanded to know “whether psychologists have worked” with recruits who have just endured six harrowing months of battle.

Prigozhin himself has even betrayed some concern about their potential behaviour, advising released recruits in January: “Don’t get too hammered, don’t take drugs, don’t rape chicks, behave yourselves.” In an unexpected foray into dating advice, he even told them to have sex “only for love or for money”. 

When Akhmatova wrote her words, the Soviet government was deliberating over how to manage the release of prison inmates in such a way as to avoid influxes into towns and cities. As thousands of serious criminals now return home from battle, often seeking vengeance, two Russias are once again looking each other in the eye.