Cemeteries For Wagner Mercenaries Grow Across Russia
By RFE RL
By Ekaterina Barkalova
(RFE/RL) — In this small village in southwestern Russia, fighters from the notorious Wagner mercenary company are buried daily in a specially designated cemetery that continues to expand, highlighting the growing casualties the group is taking in Ukraine.
According to interviews, video footage, and a visit by a correspondent from RFE/RL’s North.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, more than 300 fighters have been buried at the site since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, with the cemetery expanding rapidly in size in recent months. That growth has coincided with a bloody and costly Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, where the mercenary group has played a key role.
Approximately 50,000 fighters from the mercenary company Wagner are believed to be in Ukraine, with the U.S. government estimating that the group has suffered more than 10,000 casualties while fighting alongside the regular Russian military. A growing majority of those mercenaries are inmates who were recruited to fight in exchange for being released from prison.
The Russian advocacy group Russia Behind Bars believes that as many as 40,000 prisoners have been recruited to fight for the group so far, with U.S. government estimates saying that 90 percent of Wagner’s mercenaries are inmates.
During a recent trip to the cemetery in Bakuskaya, rows of freshly dug graves could be seen, as well as newly made walls meant to house cremated remains. Many graves display combat awards along with flowers and wreaths. And while the vast majority show Orthodox crosses, others have Islamic crescent moons.
Despite the outward signs of mourning, locals say that they have not seen any organized funeral services taking place.
“They dig 16 holes a day in the cemetery.… They bury them day and night,” said Andrei, a Bakuskaya resident whose last name RFE/RL has withheld. “There was nowhere to bury them [in the village or neighboring areas], so the Wagner [fighters] were given a separate cemetery.”
An RFE/RL analysis done by cross-checking the names and birth dates of the deceased with online court databases also found that an overwhelming majority of those buried in the cemetery had been convicted of violent crimes.
Located within the Krasnodar region in Russia’s North Caucasus, a special chapel made for Wagner fighters is also nearby. The cemetery is not far from Molkin, a village that’s home to a training facility operated by Wagner, which is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” due to the lucrative catering contracts his companies received for Kremlin events that were often attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘Battalions of Death’
The cemetery was the subject of growing speculation for months, but its existence was first confirmed in December by Vitaly Votanovsky, a local activist and former Russia Air Force officer, and its growing size has been shown in various videos circulating online, as well as in satellite imagery.
Following public reports about the cemetery, Prigozhin even visited the siteand has since posted videos on his Telegram channel of himself placing flowers on graves.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen Prigozhin and Wagner change tack and assume an expanded public presence. Formally outside of Russia’s military chain of command, Wagner was once a shadowy organization to which both Prigozhin and the Kremlin denied any connection. The group kept a low profile and operated abroad in countries like Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic, where they gained a reputation as an effective — and brutal — force.
Since February 2022, the group has risen in prominence and has played an important role in Russian military success in taking Ukrainian cities like Mariupol. Wagner has also become known for adopting risky head-on infantry attacks, which Ukrainian troops have described during battles for eastern towns like Soledar and Bakhmut.
Due to these tactics, Igor Girkin, a retired Russian officer turned critic of the Russian war effort, recently described Wagner units as “battalions of death.” Girkin, who sometimes goes by the nom de guerre Igor “Strelkov,” fought alongside Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014, where he is implicated in potential war crimes and connected to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.
The New Face Of Wagner
The youngest mercenary buried in the cemetery in Bakuskaya was only 18 when he was killed, while the bulk of the fighters are between the ages of 35 to 50 years old.
But while their ages vary, many of them share a similar violent criminal past that led them to join Wagner’s ranks to avoid lengthy prison sentences for crimes ranging from murder to theft to rape.
Court documents from 2020 show that Sergei Marinko, a 46-year-old St. Petersburg native who is buried in the cemetery, was sentenced to five years in a prison colony for stabbing an acquaintance in the back during a drunken fight.
Another of the recently buried is Filaret Gamuryak, a 47-year-old born in Moldova who was sentenced to 10 years for murder and the attempted murder of several others. The court documents state that he stabbed a woman 10 times.
Aleksandr Korkhalev, who according to his grave markings was killed in Ukraine on January 14, was sentenced to a prison colony for 12 years for killing his mother. According to his case file, he stabbed her after she refused to give him her pension money so he could go buy cigarettes. After the stabbing, the file says that he went out drinking, returning to find his mother still conscious in a pool of blood, but refused to call an ambulance.
While many of these inmates with violent criminal pasts are being buried in the special cemetery in Bakuskaya, others are stirring controversy when they’re returned to their hometowns after being killed in Ukraine.
One such incident recently occurred in the village Zhireken, some 300 kilometers northeast of Chita in southeast Siberia.
Nikita Kasatkin, a 23-year-old native of Zhireken who joined Wagner in hopes of commuting his sentence, was returned for burial after being killed fighting in Ukraine.
According to legal documents seen by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities, Kasatkin was given a 10-year sentence for the murder of a local woman in 2020 but is believed to have joined Wagner in 2022 after only serving two years.
Due to his difficult history in the small village, many residents are opposed to giving Kasatkin a proper soldier’s funeral service at the local community center. However, a faction of local residents has begun lobbying Zhireken’s mayor to organize a service, despite his violent past.
Locals told a correspondent from Siberia.Realities that the case has divided the village and revealed rifts over how to view Wagner mercenaries fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine, given their criminal pasts.
“The murder happened only two or three years ago, and people still remember it,” said Alena Kogodeyeva, Zhireken’s mayor. “Many residents are outraged, and there are those who say, ‘Are we going to make heroes out of killers now?’”
Similar episodes have happened across Russia in recent months. In one case from January, Prigozhin himself took to his social media channels after the parents of a Wagner fighter who was serving a sentence for theft was killed in Ukraine and denied a funeral in his hometown of Kamyshlov when his body was returned.
“Unfortunately, I was not aware that the [mayor’s office] decided to show its [savagery] in this way,” Prigozhin said in a statement posted to the Vkontakte page of his company Concord. “We will deal with this scum and we will try to pull their children by the nostrils to participate in [Ukraine].”
Written by Reid Standish based on reporting by Ekaterina Barkalova and RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities