The independent Russian news site Verstka published the results of a study it has done into the practice of honoring convicted criminals as “war heroes.” After examining local and national news reports, including figures published by Mediazona and the BBC Russian Service, it has identified 58 regions that have commemorated the memory of 408 former prisoners who were released to fight in President Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operation.”

Murderers, rapists, drug dealers, armed robbers and others convicted of violent crimes are remembered in individual memorial plaques placed on schools and residential buildings, school information stands, memory corners and desks dedicated to individual “heroes,” lanes and city streets have been renamed and are decorated with their portraits, museum exhibitions and sports competitions are organized in their honor, trees are planted, and their names are added to memorials erected to the dead from past conflicts including those of the “Great Patriotic War.”

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Verstka also analyzed the crimes committed by those released to the war. There were 128 convictions for murder, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm resulting in someone’s death. The next most frequent crimes were those involving illegal drugs – 110 cases. The balance involved “banditry,” armed robbery or thefts involving violence, sexual assaults, rape and serious assault. Also, the future “heroes” committed 88 thefts, 24 robberies and 46 robberies. In addition, the authorities immortalized those convicted of beatings, threats to kill, banditry, and in two cases, rape and sexual assault.

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In some cases, the “heroes” had been convicted for several different serious crimes and more than half were “repeat offenders,” with several having been convicted for multiple murders and manslaughter.

Analysis of where and how dead criminals were “immortalized” shows the regions of Saratov, Volgograd, Rostov regions, the Republic of Bashkortostan and the Krasnodar Territory commemorated the most. Almost 100 Russian schools have displayed plaques and signs with the names and photographs of the dead criminals on its “desks of heroes,” and on information stands and plaques in special “memory alleys” on school grounds. In almost 200 cases, their names were added to existing group war memorials and in 65 cases, museum exhibitions were created in their honor with streets and areas named after them.

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The practice of releasing prisoners to fight began in the summer of 2022 under the auspices of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner PMC, and before the end of that year the first reports appeared in the Russian media of memorials being erected for those killed.

An investigation by the Russian news site Mediazona, working with BBC Russia in June, reported that of the nearly 50,000 Wagner fighters dispatched to fight in Ukraine around 20,000 died with nearly 18,000 of those, almost 90 percent, being released convicts.

In early 2023 the Russian Ministry of Defense took over responsibility for recruiting prisoners for the front. A BBC Russian Service investigation concluded that criminals recruited by the ministry died on average within eight weeks of arriving in Ukraine compared with Wagner convict “volunteers” surviving a mere four weeks longer.

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According to Verstka in 2023 more than 190 serious criminal cases were opened against former Wagner fighters who returned from the war in Ukraine and had received a presidential pardon. More than a third of these were those previously convicted for murder, sexual or violent crimes and then killed or raped again on their return, some literally within days or even hours of coming home.

While it may be considered natural for communities to honor their citizens who died serving their country, no matter how dishonorable the war in which they fought might seem, it is beyond the comprehension of many that violent criminals would be held up as paragons, as is currently happening in parts of Russia.

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