Despite Wagner Mutiny, Russia Still Honoring Convict-Mercenaries Killed In Ukraine


By Caucasus.Realities

(RFE/RL) — The mayor’s office in the southern Russian city of Volgograd announced on January 17 that a stretch of road in the city will be named after Aleksei Nagin, a former convict who joined the notorious Wagner mercenary group and was killed outside the Donetsk region city of Bakhmut in September 2022.

Despite the June 2023 Wagner mutiny against Russia’s senior military leadership and the mysterious death in a plane crash two months later of the company’s outspoken leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, municipalities across the country continue naming public spaces after mercenaries who were killed in Ukraine.

However, it appears the authorities are choosing their heroes more selectively than in the past and are increasingly ignoring their Wagner connections. The goal, analysts say, is to boost the ideological motivation for new volunteers and to reassure current mercenaries that they will not be forgotten.

“The glorification of mercenaries, whether from Wagner or other groups, is certainly supported by the authorities and [pro-Kremlin] propaganda,” said political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky. “This is because the Russian Army has become essentially a mercenary formation, whether through contracts [with the Defense Ministry] or the various ‘volunteer’ formations. They are all essentially mercenaries.”

‘Proper Life Values’

A few months after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Wagner began recruiting convicts in Russian prisons to fight, promising them pardons after they served six-month stints. Ultimately, tens of thousands of prisoners, many of them serving long sentences for horrific crimes, were recruited, with thousands being killed and thousands of others being sent back to Russia as free men.

Many Russian towns have been outraged by official honors bestowed on slain men that locals remember fearfully as hooligans, troublemakers, and criminals. The return of pardoned convicts after their relatively brief service in Ukraine has also exacerbated social tensions in many cases.

Nagin, by contrast, had a less colorful civilian past and more solid military credentials. In 2014, he was given a suspended seven-year sentence for theft after he stole a car and forced the owner to sign a fictional sales agreement on threat of violence. According to court records, the judge showed leniency because Nagin had already served military stints in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Libya, and had been awarded five military medals.

In Ukraine, he was commander of a Wagner unit. Before the full-scale invasion, Nagin served in the Moscow-stoked separatist conflicts in parts of eastern Ukraine, training fighters from those areas at a base in the Russia-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea.

He was seriously wounded in May 2022, but returned to the front after he recovered. He was reportedly killed on September 21, 2022, at the age of 41. He was awarded the Hero of Russia order, as well as the highest military honor of the Russia-installed administrations of the occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the platinum star of the Wagner Group.

The funeral of the Volgograd native was a major event in the region, with the service being held in the panorama museum of the Battle of Stalingrad under the iconic Motherland Calls statue. Prigozhin and Volgograd region Governor Andrei Bocharov attended the event, at which it was announced that President Vladimir Putin had posthumously awarded him the Hero of Russia honor.

He has already had a classroom in one local school named after him and a memorial plaque installed at the school he attended. Volgograd Duma Deputy Andrei Gimbatov has pushed to have that school officially named for him, offering to pay for the new sign himself.

“Without doubt, this will help cultivate in the younger generation, using Aleksei’s example, a love for the motherland and inculcate in them proper life values,” Gimbatov wrote in his letter to the municipal government.

‘Grassroots Diplomacy’

In the city’s announcement about naming the street after Nagin, Mayor Vladimir Marchenko stressed that the idea came from “an initiative group of Volgograd citizens.” Denis Eliseyev, a former official in the Volgograd city administration who left Russia shortly after the full-scale assault on Ukraine, told RFE/RL that this assertion may well be true.

“It is possible that some smart Volgograd people decided to [rename] their street, in the hopes of getting lighting, sidewalks, and proper paving,” he said. “After all, they can’t leave a lot of unplowed snow or uncollected garbage on a street named after a Hero of Russia.”

“I expect that within months other active locals who live on unpaved and unimproved streets will also ask to have them named for Heroes of Russia,” he added. “Let’s call it ‘grassroots diplomacy.'”

Maria Khudoyarova, an activist with the Dozor anti-war movement, said the practice of naming public spaces after fallen mercenaries is part of the normalization and legitimization of the invasion of Ukraine and an important aspect of the government’s “overall propaganda algorithm.”

“Judging from the posts on pro-government Telegram channels…the authorities prefer to ignore the fact that he committed theft,” she said. “Some of them piously claim that he ‘washed away his sin with service to the motherland.'”

She noted that local court records have already expunged Nagin’s name from its files.

“I think it is important to constantly remind people that these Putinist ‘heroes’ have committed crimes, many of them quite serious ones,” Khudoyarova said, adding that future citizens of a democratic Russia will have no compunctions about renaming such spaces yet again.

Retired army Colonel Vitaly Votanovsky, who runs a Telegram channel focused on Krasnodar and keeps track of the number of slain Wagner mercenaries and Russian military personnel buried in the city, agreed with Khudoyarova.

He noted that official attitudes toward Wagner had changed after the group’s fighters, led by Prigozhin, carried out a short-lived mutiny in the city of Rostov-on-Don in June 2023.

“I guess this will continue as long as Putin is alive,” he told RFE/RL. “Then it will all be undone and no one will complain. Earlier, there were banners featuring killed convict-volunteers in Krasnodar, but they were all removed after the mutiny.

“In the first year of the war, before Prigozhin got into politics, the authorities didn’t distinguish between contract soldiers with the Defense Ministry and the mercenaries,” he continued. “But when his company acted against the government, they practically forgot all about them.”

‘Fight For An Idea’

In the fall of 2023, a memorial plaque in the Stavropol region honoring a Wagner mercenary who was killed in Ukraine was removed after local police retirees complained that he had been convicted of the “heinous murder” of a police officer.

Political analyst Sergei Zhavoronkov said the authorities have yet to form a coherent policy regarding the Wagner fighters.

“The authorities overall are trying to pursue a dualistic approach, like the attitude of the Chinese authorities to [communist dictator Mao Zedong] — that he was ‘two-thirds correct and one-third mistaken,'” he said. “The most scandalous murderers and rapists who have been pardoned by Putin are not going to be honored, but among the present-day ‘heroes’ there are still people with criminal pasts.”

Analyst Preobrazhensky said the Volgograd authorities have selected Nagin because they wanted a patriotic example whose criminal past was not so off-putting. A key objective is to motivate future volunteers.

“Volunteers go to fight for an idea rather than for money,” he said.

Caucasus.Realities is a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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