Anatoly Salmin, a convicted thief and murderer, is home from prison years ahead of schedule, his reward for volunteering for a suicide mission in Russia’s war in Ukraine – and then managing to survive.
Hundreds of convicts recruited into the ranks of Wagner, a private military company tied to the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been killed or severely wounded in Ukraine, where the mercenaries have been tasked with some of Russia’s most desperate campaigns.
But a video released last month showed several dozen former convicts – among them murderers, drug dealers and domestic abusers – now heading to their home towns in northern Russia, supposedly having earned pardons by surviving six months in Wagner’s ranks in Ukraine.
The release of the convicts who volunteer for Wagner is contentious among Russians, many of whom fear the men will go on to commit further crimes.
Last month, the Kremlin defended the practice, saying convicts were being pardoned “in strict adherence with Russian law”.
Under the Russian constitution, only the president can issue pardons and critics point to the fact the Kremlin has not published such decrees since 2020.
Many are hardened criminals. Dmitry Kuryagin was convicted of murdering his 87-year-old grandmother and taking the money she received for selling her flat. Others were sentenced to decades in prison for extortion, selling amphetamines, or robbing jewellery stores.