Russian cemetery hiding Wagner’s secret: Reuters journalists searched the names of the buried, discovery is horrifying
Late last summer, a plot on the edge of a small farming community in southern Russia began filling up with a mass of newly dug graves for fighters who lost their lives in Ukraine.
Reuters reporters managed to identify some of the people buried there. They were members of Wagner’s mercenary army, many of them former prisoners who joined the group to be released and given a “second chance at life”.
Reuters journalists visited the site on the outskirts of the village of Bakinskaya in the Krasnodar region, where they saw almost 200 graves with simple wooden crosses decorated with brightly coloured wreaths and the signature of the Wagner group.
The names of at least 39 people buried here and in three other nearby cemeteries were cross-checked against Russian court records, publicly available databases and social media accounts. They also spoke to the families, friends and lawyers of some of the dead.
Many of the men buried at Bakunskaya were convicts recruited by Wagner last year after its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin promised a pardon if the prisoners spent six months on the front line, Reuters reports.
For months, Wagner’s group has been fighting a bloody battle to capture the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. Western and Ukrainian officials have claimed that the group used the convicts as cannon fodder to break through Ukrainian defences. In toughening sanctions against Wagner this month, White House national security spokesman John Kirby described the group as a “criminal organisation that commits widespread crimes and human rights abuses”. In a brief open reply to the US government, Prigozhin asked Kirby to clarify what crimes the group had committed.
Videos and photos of the graves first appeared on social media in the Krasnodar region in December. Reuters geolocated these images and identified the Bakinskaya cemetery and reviewed satellite images of the site taken by Maxar Technologies and Capella Space.
Satellite images show that Wagner’s plot was empty in the summer, had three rows of graves by the end of November, and by the beginning of January three quarters of the space was filled. Almost the entire plot was filled by 24 January.
Local activist Vitaliy Votanovskiy, who took the first photographs and documented the burial of dead Ukrainian soldiers in cemeteries in the region, told Reuters that he had seen a truck bringing bodies to the cemetery. He said he was told by the gravediggers that the bodies came from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, close to the Russian border with the Donetsk region. When journalists visited the cemetery in January, fences and security cameras were in place around the plot and the funeral was taking place.
Of the 39 convicts identified by Reuters, 10 were imprisoned for murder or manslaughter, 24 for robbery and two for causing grievous bodily harm. Other offences included drug production or trafficking and extortion. Those convicted include citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and the Russian-backed breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. Wooden markers on their graves indicate that the men died between July and December 2022, at the height of the Battle of Bakhmut.
One of the youngest, buried in the nearby Martanskaya cemetery, is Vadim Pushnya. He was only 25 years old when he died on 19 November. Pushnya had been in prison in 2020 for breaking into garages, a beer shop and a cement factory in his hometown of Goryachi Klyuch, near the Wagner chapel. The date of birth on his grave matches the date listed on his social media accounts and in court files.
The oldest person buried there is Fail Nabiev, who was imprisoned for a year and a half for burglary, the second time he was imprisoned. In May 2022, he was convicted in the city of Suzdal for stealing a trimmer and a grinding machine with a total value of 5,500 roubles ($80) from a garage. According to his simple wooden grave marker, decorated with an Islamic crescent, Nabiev died in October, less than five months after his conviction. He was 60 years old.
Last month, Reuters reported that the US intelligence community believed Wagner had about 40,000 prisoners stationed in Ukraine since December, representing the vast majority of Wagner’s troops in the country. Wagner did not comment on the figure or provide any information on the number of fighters.
Some of the convicts identified by Reuters were violent offenders who had spent most of their adult lives in prison or serving long sentences. Court documents reviewed by Reuters also show that the men had alcohol problems. Some of the others’ names are on banks’ blacklists, indicating personal financial problems.
Among the prisoners identified by Reuters was 43-year-old Anatoly Bodenkov. He was serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted as a murderer, court documents show.
According to local media reports on the case, Bodenkov killed a local real estate agent in the northern town of Kirov-Chepetsk with a 400,000 rouble ($5,720) gun in 2016. A tombstone says Bodenkov died on 27 November 2022. It does not specify where.
Another prisoner, 40-year-old Viktor Deshko, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2021 for murder, according to court documents and local media reports. He slit a woman’s throat during a drunken quarrel over money in a forest near the mining town of Shakhti, close to the border with Russian-controlled Donbas. Court files describe Deshk as an “aggressive person due to alcohol abuse”. He was on probation at the time of the murder and had previously served three and a half years for assault with a deadly weapon.
The names and dates of birth of Bodenkov and Deshko on the tombstones matched their social media accounts and court records. Reuters could not reach friends or family of the two men and their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
A third man, Vyacheslav Kochas, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for murder and armed robbery in a St Petersburg court in 2020 at the age of 23.
According to Russian court documents, Kochas and another man broke into an acquaintance’s apartment while drunk during an attempted robbery. He beat the unconscious man and the victim, who was at the scene, and then burned a piece of clothing and threw it at the unconscious man. The fire burnt down most of the apartment and the man succumbed to his wounds two days later, N1 reported./Oslobođenje.ba/