The Lives of the Wagner Group's Convict Recruits

Wagner Group, Russia’s infamous paramilitary organization, is well-known for replenishing its ranks with convicted criminals. Who are these men, and what leads them to sign up to fight and die in Ukraine?

“We need your criminal talents,” says Yevgeny Prigozhin, addressing a sea of Russian convicts dressed all in black.

“Our ideal candidate,” he continues, “is 30-45 years old. Strong, confident, hardy. Ideally, he’s served at least fifteen years. Ideally, he’ll have another fifteen years, or more, ahead of him. He’s in for multiple murders, severe assaults, robberies. If he’s fucked up some official or cop, even better.”

His audience laughs. Prigozhin is the swaggering leader of Russia’s best-known paramilitary organization, Wagner Group. In this video, filmed in a Russian prison this February, he’s describing the type of men he’s been recruiting to fight the group’s battles in Ukraine.

More than 50,000 prisoners have joined Wagner Group since Russia’s 2022 invasion, according to the non-profit advocacy organization Russia Behind Bars.

Many have deserted or been killed or captured, the Wagner force seriously depleted in Russia’s grinding battle for Bakhmut and other towns in eastern Ukraine.

Though hiring mercenaries is technically illegal in Russia, that hasn’t stopped the state from turning them into heroes. They receive posthumous medals and honors, feature in propaganda films, and are buried with military honors.

But who are these “ideal candidates?” And what leads them to join a nearly hopeless fight?

Reporters from IStories, OCCRP’s Russian partner, looked into the life stories of three former prisoners who signed up to fight for Wagner in Ukraine, and died there. None lasted on the battlefield for longer than a few months.

Little is known about what they experienced in the war or how they died. But conversations with their friends, their families, and even their victims, give some insight into their lives — often bleak and blighted by alcoholism and senseless violence long before they went off to the battlefield.

The Truth Seeker

Alexander Sitavichus fought in Ukraine for just two months before being killed. Today, the former salesman of agricultural products and father of four is back home in a Russian village — buried in the same cemetery as the three people he was jailed for murdering.

The targets of his drunken bout of racist violence were fellow residents of Ladozhskaya, the rural Cossack settlement in southwestern Russia that Sitavichus called home.

Stretching along a bank of the meandering Kuban river, several hours’ drive from occupied Crimea, his hometown is not rich in entertainment options. One of these is Ogonyok, a modest bar and restaurant where, on the last day of 2017, Sitavichus’s life changed forever.

By then he was already a veteran of the war against Ukraine, having traveled there in 2014 as Russia sought to break the country’s eastern regions away from Ukraine.

“Sasha is this kind of guy who has a sharpened sense of justice,” recalls his friend Alexei Gaivoronsky. “He went to the Donbass right away in 2014, to save the ‘Russian world.’ You know, all classically Russian people, they’re always driven by their emotions, they never think with facts.”

“That was his character,” says Sitavichus’s widow, Oksana. “He had to be everywhere. He was ideological, let’s say. He was always fighting for the just cause.”

By 2017, Sitavichus had returned to his hometown. On that winter night at the very end of the year, he was getting drunk with an old friend from the war.

Then, for reasons that are unclear, the two men got into a fight with several others. Their opponents, visible in security camera footage in a tense standoff, were ethnic Roma, a local minority.

One of his victims’ relatives, not identified to protect her privacy, recalls how the night began: “Sitavichus and his friend come to Ogonyok. They’re relaxing, they’re drinking, they get in a fight with the ‘gypsies.’ Sitavuchus and his friend leave, and they say: ‘We’ll be back.’”

Arming himself with a Kalashnikov he had likely brought home from the war, Sitavichus returned to the restaurant with his friend, who brandished a knife. The men they had fought with were already gone — but that didn’t stop them from targeting the first ethnic minorities they came across.

The first to fall was a young man named Artem Mirzoyan, who is of Armenian heritage.

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Artem Mirzoyan

Artem Mirzoyan, one of three people killed by Sitavichus. (Photo: VKontakte)
“They shot my brother by the bar,” says his brother Arnold, “and they shot the DJ, who really had nothing to do with it. They came in like Nazis, firing at those who had beards. … They just wanted to shoot some dark people, non-Russians.”

Coming out onto the street, Sitavichus killed once more, shooting an 18-year-old Roma man who was sitting in a car listening to music with a friend. After briefly hiding in a nearby forest, he and his friend were arrested.

Despite the senselessness of the killings, many locals supported Sitavichus, who had been widely respected. But others saw him as nothing more than a murderer. The affair sparked what amounted to a one-village ethnic conflict.

“In our little village, where everyone knows each other, it became pure hell,” recalls Mirzoyan’s female relative. “It was scary just to go onto the street, because everyone was fighting each other. They started creating groups in the social networks [calling for] Russians to push non-Russians out of the village. It was so scary to read all of that… I didn’t even leave my house.”

Sitavuchus’s friend Gaivoronsky also explains his actions in terms of ethnic conflict, while attributing his excesses to alcohol.

“There’s this Armenian-Gypsy organized criminal group, and they’re terrorizing this whole village,” he says, recalling unconfirmed rumors that some Roma men had raped a local girl in that same cafe. “It was a boiling point, you see? … The fact that he was drunk makes it worse, of course. All of our ‘truth-seekers’ drink a hell of a lot of vodka, and then they go to jail instead of solving things through the cops.”

Sitavichus was convicted of the murders and received a 21-year prison term. He would serve only four: In 2022, he took advantage of a Wagner Group offer to win his freedom by going to war.

Two months later, he returned home in a closed coffin. He was buried in the local cemetery with military honors.

To this day, locals debate whether he was a hero or a criminal.

Read full story on OCCRP website

Polina Uzhvak, Sonia Savina, and the IStories data team contributed reporting. Some information about the Wagner recruits was provided by the staff of Lyubov Sobol, a Russian opposition politician.