March 4. 2024. 9:45

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War heroes or paid criminals? Russia struggles to deal with slain mercenaries

When the corpse of a Wagner mercenary fighter arrived in his small Russian village in late February after he was killed fighting in Ukraine, some residents wanted to give him a hero’s burial. Others could not forget that the former prisoner had stabbed his father to death.

The ruckus prompted a stream of acrimonious comments on social media, with those demanding military honours for the fighter, Ilshat Askarov, flinging words such as “Shame!” or “Traitor!” at opponents. Detractors called it a travesty to treat convicts who went to war for money as if they were regular soldiers.

Disputes like this one are erupting across Russia as convicts killed in the war are returned to their home towns – dividing villages and pitting neighbours against one another. The diverging viewpoints underscore the difficult moral calculations involved in releasing criminals to fight for their country.

Some villages have vetoed the presence of a military honour guard at the burials, while others denied relatives the use of public spaces to accommodate mourners. One remote Siberian village balked at providing transportation to bring home the coffin of a man formerly imprisoned for beating his girlfriend.

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In the southwestern Rostov region, Roman Lazaruk (32), was buried in February in the local “Alley of Heroes” after dying in the battle for Bakhmut. But his violent criminal record – he was convicted of burning his mother and sister to death in 2014 – outraged some local residents.

A former classmate of the sister was appalled that convicts were being buried in the area of the cemetery once reserved for soldiers from the second World War. “What did this Lazaruk or other guys do?” she told a local online newspaper. “They killed, stole, stabbed, raped, went to jail and went out to continue killing. What kind of heroes are they?”

Russia wandered into this thicket by allowing the Wagner private military group to recruit tens of thousands of convicts from penal colonies to fight and die in Ukraine, many near the eastern city of Bakhmut. The move allowed the Kremlin to replenish its ranks and postpone a conscription of civilians until last September, but it also alienated some Russians.

With President Vladimir Putin deepening the militarisation of Russian society, soldiers are being put on a pedestal. Both the Kremlin’s propaganda machine and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner forces, have sought to portray all those killed as heroes defending the Motherland, no matter how sordid their backgrounds.

In Russian schools, new patriotic education classes have been named “Heroes of Modern Russia”, and fresh plaques on some school walls honour former prisoners who died.

“Designing the image of a hero has always been a matter of state policy,” said Elena Istyagina-Eliseeva, a member of the Civic Chamber, a Kremlin organisation that steers civil society, at a recent Moscow conference about heroes.

The tension between that jingoistic narrative of the war and the grim realities of coping with soldiers’ deaths is an especially acute phenomenon in small villages. Residents tend to remember the chilling details of the crimes committed by men who were subsequently recruited from prison to fight.

“They know who is a criminal, who is a danger to the community, and they want to protect their everyday lives,” said Greg Yudin, a Russian professor of political philosophy currently doing research at Princeton University. “It is a kind of moral protection of their community.”

On the other side are regional officials who intercede in disputes over burials, pushing the Kremlin’s narrative, as well as relatives and friends of the deceased who want to remove the stigma of the crime. Soldiers who were outcasts in the community can become heroes, Yudin said. “You can get some money out of them,” he said, referring to government payments to families of dead soldiers, “and their reputation is whitewashed. That is a good deal, so you can understand those people.”

In Akhunovo, population 2,500, near the border with Kazakhstan, an extended argument erupted on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, over Askarov’s burial.

One resident, Gulnaz Gilmanova, wrote that she was ashamed of the village administration for decreeing that he be buried without military honours. She said she was grateful to Askarov for fighting “for the Motherland”.

Others were more vociferous. One woman called the village administration “TRAITORS” for withholding honours, while another man noted that purged Red Army officers released from the gulag helped to defend the country during the second World War.

Contacted online, Gilmanova said that no one should criticise Askarov, whom she described as a sympathetic, simple man who loved fishing and picking berries or mushrooms. She declined to discuss the events that landed him in prison, saying she did not want to extend his family’s pain.

Others were just as adamant in their opposition. “They are not the same as soldiers, they are criminals,” wrote one man in the comments on VKontakte, while another noted that mercenary armies were technically illegal in Russia.

Askarov (35), a native of the village, had worked at odd jobs like fixing motorcycles and harvesting hay. He killed his father, Ilyas, in July 2020 by stabbing him in the leg during a drunken brawl, severing an artery; he also tried to murder a witness. Father and son had often been at loggerheads, with the older Askarov accusing his son of being a product of his late mother’s infidelity, and mocking him for an ear deformed by a long-term infection, according to court papers.

Askarov was sentenced to 12 years in prison in March 2021, recent enough that village residents still remember the crime.

Amir Kharisov, head of the village administration, defended the way the funeral was handled. “Everyone who wanted to honoured the memory of the warrior,” he wrote in a post that he deleted after The New York Times asked him about the situation.

Sometimes families ask Prigozhin himself to intervene in the funeral arrangements.

In January, the mother of Ivan Savkin (25), appealed to Prigozhin, according to local news reports, after the administration of her son’s village rejected her request to use the recreation centre for his funeral; they turned her down because her son had been convicted of theft, the reports said. She buried him in her own village instead.

Prigozhin responded online later in the month. He vowed that he would “deal with the scum” who failed to honor the Wagner dead and pull the children of such officials “by their noses” to force them to fight in Ukraine.

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In the remote Siberian village of Krasnoselkup, another couple complained to the Wagner leader because village officials refused to help transport the coffin of their son or to provide a military honor guard. Instead the family dragged the coffin over a long outback road in a trailer.

Prigozhin has personally entered the fray over burials repeatedly. He recently threatened to stack bodies in the mayor’s livingroom in the Black Sea resort of Goryachy Klyuch, near Wagner’s own cemetery, which is rapidly filling with hundreds of dead fighters. The mayor had asked that burials be halted because of the negative publicity, Prigozhin said.

In Zhireken, a defunct mining community of 4,200 in far eastern Russia, regional officials intervened in the dispute among residents over the burial of Nikita Kasatkin (23). He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison in December 2020 after stabbing another man nine times during a drunken scuffle, according to court documents.

A fracas erupted after Alena Kogodeeva, the local administrator, said that the town recreation centre, with large flowers and other artwork for children painted on the walls, was an inappropriate site for Kasatkin’s funeral.

“Half of the village says: ‘Are we going to make heroes out of killers now?’” Kogodeeva, the local administrator, was quoted as saying in an online newspaper. “Half say that he atoned for sins with his blood.”

As the debate raged back and forth, two journalists held a discussion on a local YouTube broadcast laying out the arguments, with one of them arguing that all fighters should be treated equally in death.

But Georgy Bal (68), a retired writer who listened to the debate, already had his mind made up. He said the dead man was a mercenary who fought for money, not a hero. “In the village there are graves of people much more worthy of being remembered,” he said when contacted online, repeating remarks that he had written on social media, “What good did he do, what good for the residents of the village, before he was convicted?”

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.