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Graves at the Wagner cemetery in Bakinskaya in southern Russia

Foto: Dmitrij Serebrjakow / DER SPIEGEL

Larissa scrolls further and further through her nephew’s chat messages, eventually stopping at a photo of Andrei and enlarging it on the screen. A gaunt, pale young man in a dark sweater, he is gazing into the camera with a serious look on his face. Behind him, the bunkbeds of a prison barrack can be seen. Larissa’s eyes fill with tears. "Why him? He was so delicate," she sobs. When she is finally able to pull her gaze away from the picture, she begins playing an audio recording – the voice of her nephew Andrei.

Clearly trying to sound nonchalant, he says: "Hi, I’m doing well, but I’m going to war…" His tone sounds like he’s just telling her that he’s about to start another round of one of those shooter games she says he used to play as an adolescent. He continues: "But not for the draft board. For a private army … Don’t cry, calm down, everything will be fine … I’m going to fight for six months and then I’ll come home."

Andrei Kargin, 22, sentenced to several years in prison for repeated theft and sent to the front in Ukraine as part of the Wagner Group, never made it home. He didn’t come back from the war.

The messages and the photo are all that Larissa has left of her nephew. The small, energetic woman in her 40s wipes the tears from her face with her hand and sits up straight on the bench out in front of her small home located between the fields and steppes in a village in the Volvograd region. DER SPIEGEL has elected not to publish the name of the village out of safety considerations.

"How could they send Andrushka to war? He wasn’t suited for it," she says. After suffering from tuberculosis as a child, he had constant problems with his lungs and back, she says. "They sent Andrushka and all the other prisoners into the meat grinder and turned them into hash."

Over the course of several months, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin pulled tens of thousands of prisoners from Russia’s penal colonies, throwing wave after wave of them at Ukrainian positions. Thousands of the convicts appear not to have survived this "meat grinder  ," as Prigozhin himself refers to the strategy he adopted in an effort to grind down the Ukrainian military in Bakhmut. Recently, following months of blood spilling, his mercenary army has apparently taken complete control of the destroyed city.

Larissa’s nephew has now been dead for six months. The blooms of the lilac bushes in the village are swaying in the spring breeze. Larissa has a number of questions, and thus far, nobody has shown any interest in giving her answers – neither the state agencies nor, especially, the Wagner Group, which has studiously ignored her queries as though she were nothing but an annoying beggar on the side of the road. "What do you want? You’re not getting any money," a man from the Wagner Group had grumbled on the phone before hanging up. Her husband advised her to finally come to terms with Andrei’s death.

But Larissa is unable to do so. She feels responsible for Andrei, who she only just found again a few years ago. Following the early death of his mother, who apparently drank too much, Andrei ended up in an orphanage at the age of six. His father, Larissa’s older brother, left the family early on and did nothing to care for his son. Andrei ended up with a foster family, something that Larissa only learned years later.

She wants to understand why her nephew allowed himself to be recruited. Did the Wagner people coerce him? Was he lured by the promise of amnesty and freedom? Why didn’t they bring her his body, as they did for the parents of a different convict-soldier in the village? How come she still hasn’t received a death certificate for Andrei?

It’s unclear how many Russian prisoners fighting in Ukraine for the Wagner Group have been killed, in part because many of their families prefer to remain silent – either out of fear of retribution or simply because they hardly know anything about the fates of their loved ones. Wagner frequently leaves family members in the dark. DER SPIEGEL contacted dozens of them. In most cases, they only know that their sons, brothers or husbands are still alive because they are still receiving the monthly pay. Money, in other words, is the only sign of life.

If it actually comes. Larissa has never seen any mercenary pay from the Wagner Group. The mercenary army promised the convict fighters at least 200,000 rubles per month for front line service, the equivalent of around 2,400 euros. It’s a lot of money in a country where average monthly wages are just a few hundred euros. But Larissa isn’t interested in the money.

Not that she couldn’t use it: She dreams of a bigger house for herself and her children, a roomier kitchen and air conditioning for the hot days of summer. But she doesn’t want to pay for it with Wagner money. "Not like that. It’s all so painful. I want to finally get some answers. We're people too." She admits that she is also afraid of the Wagner Group, but she nevertheless continued calling, sending messages, posting appeals on social media and visiting state agencies in an effort to find out where her nephew’s body might be located. For many months, she heard nothing.

Around seven weeks after she received Andrei’s final voice message in late September, Larissa’s phone rang one Saturday morning. A powerful man’s voice introduced himself as a Wagner commander and told her, because she was his closest relative, that Andrei had been killed. Larissa says she was told that he had first been wounded and then his column had come under fire. She can no longer remember where exactly Andrei was killed: Was it Bakhmut? Or perhaps Soledar? It all went so fast, she says. Larissa was, however, able to ask the man when she would be able to lay Andrei to rest. "You have to ask at your local military office," came the answer from the Wagner commander.

At the office, though, she was told: "We know nothing. We don’t have anything to do with Wagner." Months would pass before a woman she didn’t know sent Larissa a photo through a messaging service of Andrei’s grave, taken in the village of Bakinskaya.

The village of Bakinskaya is located in southern Russia, several hundred kilometers from Larissa’s home village, and it is where Prigozhin has established the largest of now seven Wagner cemeteries. The Wagner Group’s training center in Molkino is only 10 kilometers away, and the group’s own chapel also isn’t far away.

It is a Sunday in early April and the fresh graves of the Wagner fighters can be seen from a distance, basked as they are in the morning sun of Bakinskaya – row upon row upon row. During a visit at the beginning of April, DER SPIEGEL counted more than 600 graves – 12 times more than there had been around three months earlier. And new graves are added by the day, with a small digger working away on this morning as well.

Andrei’s grave is in one of the first rows. There is almost nothing to differentiate it from all the others: There is a plastic wreath in the design of the Wagner Group emblem along with a golden star and a simple Orthodox cross bearing his name, his birth date of March 18, 2000, and the day of his death, November 15, 2022. Somebody has added a pink carnation.

Is it really her nephew buried here, so far from his home? It is a question that Larissa frequently wonders about.

His foster mother Lydia, who also lives in the Volgograd region, shows pictures of a smiling, blond boy and talks of her "sunshine Andrushka." She says she had to constantly bring the boy to the doctor because of his tuberculosis, and that he wasn’t particularly interested in school, preferring instead to retreat into his daydreams. Later, when he was a bit older, Andrei frequently went out, and when he was at home, he would spend hours in front of the computer playing "awful" shooter games. Lydia says they argued frequently and that he started coming home later and later, and at some point, he stopped coming home at all. She says Andrei had terrible friends, and that he dropped out of a vocational training program, where he was learning the welding trade. That was when he started stealing: first a welding machine and, at some point, a car. He was sentenced to five years in prison, as he would later tell his aunt. By then, he had stopped communicating with his foster mother.

Lydia, a friendly woman in her early sixties, laughs frequently as she talks about Andrei, almost as though she were trying to laugh away the pain. Ultimately, though, she is no longer able to, and after an hour, her voice cracks as she starts talking about Andrei’s grave, which she would like to visit – despite everything. Her eyes fill with tears: "I raised him, and I wanted him to become an adult and do something with his life. Now, all my hard work has been wasted."

"Orphanage, foster family, prison, war and death – what a fate for a child," says Larissa. She feels guilty. She says she should have tried to bring her nephew to her, or to help Lydia. "Maybe then, none of it would have happened." The women refer to Andrei as a hero: "He died for his homeland, after all."

Larissa’s preference would be to exhume Andrei and perform a DNA test so that she could have some closure. But for that, she would have to sue the Wagner Group, which isn’t a particularly promising endeavor given that it would involve a mercenary army that shouldn’t even exist according to Russian law. And she would have to convince her brother to provide a DNA sample. But, says Larissa, he doesn’t care about his son at all.

In the next few months, she and Lydia are planning on making the journey to Andrei’s grave. Both of the women are opposed to this war. "None of us needs it. Nobody. It weighs on us all, the children especially. What kind of a future do they have?" says Larissa. She is echoed by Lydia: "It’s terrible for all these people who are dying. Terrible for the Ukrainians and all that has already been destroyed in Ukraine."

The two would prefer not to talk too much about the Wagner Group and politics, saying they don’t know enough about it. Lydia says that in these times, you have to be careful what you say, "otherwise they’ll also arrest me." Larissa praises Putin despite everything: "He is a good president and has done so much for our country. I respect him." She does find it strange, though, that he continues to tolerate Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. But, she adds, she doesn’t know much about it.

In Perm, located 1,600 kilometers to the northeast, Nadezhda is far more direct over the phone: "Prigozhin is a criminal. He brazenly recruited our children in violation of numerous laws."

Her son Yaroslav, 27, was sentenced to four years in a penal colony in Perm for aggravated assault, the result of a fight he got involved in. He was allowed to make calls during his imprisonment, and Nadezhda spent weeks warning her son over the phone: "Don’t allow yourself to be recruited by this guy Prigozhin. You won’t survive." She had read on the internet about the Wagner leader’s efforts to recruited fighters from Russian prisons. And she was worried: After his military service, her son had enlisted in a missile unit.

Nadezhda, a woman in her mid-40s with Ukrainian roots, is a vehement opponent of the invasion of the neighboring country. "Don’t worry," her son told her, she relates. But then, in early October, he called her: "I signed. There was nothing else I could do." He was never able to explain to her what exactly he meant by that. Several months later, she learned from a former fellow inmate of his that her son had been pressured in prison and threatened with additional punishment – such as solitary confinement or reduced rations. By the time she learned of it, though, Yaroslav had long since been killed.

According to the Wagner Group, he died in early January in Bakhmut. Nadezhda doesn’t know much else about it, in part because her son had listed her ex-husband as his contact when he joined Wagner – likely because he knew how opposed his mother was to him joining the war effort. Her ex-husband received 5 million rubles, more than 56,000 euros, in compensation from Wagner. Otherwise, though, he didn’t care much what happened to his son, Nadezhda says.

Indeed, it was left to Nadezhda and other relatives to make arrangements for his funeral. She did, at least, receive a death certificate and was able to bury her son herself.

But Nadezhda doesn’t know what to do with her mourning. She simply can’t accept the fact that all of her son’s rights were ignored. And, she says, she can’t imagine what her son was forced to go through as a member of the Wagner Group.

She began searching for information, reading through the social network channels of other Wagner soldiers and their relatives, but most of them were silent about the war in Ukraine, or supported it. One woman even accused her of being a supporter of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Wherever Nadezhda has turned, she has run up against a wall of silence. She visited the director of the penal colony where her son had been held, asking him why he allowed her son to be sent to war. He merely looked at her and said nothing. She called the Wagner Group several times, demanding to see the contract that Yaroslav had signed with the mercenary army. She drove to a Wagner Group office in Yekaterinburg, but they threatened her with the police. She visited a member of the United Russia party, which holds power in the Kremlin, and has written to state prosecutors and to the Russian prosecutor general’s Investigative Committee. It is her form of protest. "I cannot accept the way in which Prigozhin took advantage of our children." She has, she says, already been levied a monetary fine on one occasion for allegedly disparaging the Russian army.

Prigozhin has recently begun trying to present his convict-soldiers as heroes, even unveiling monuments in their honor at his Wagner cemeteries. At the funeral of her own son, someone spoke of Yaroslav as a hero, Nadezhda relates. "Hero of what?" she responded, saying that nobody had attacked Russia and that she doesn’t need such heroism, nor does she have anything against Ukraine. "I didn’t bury my son as a hero. I buried him because he was illegally sent into this war by Prigozhin and Putin," Nadezhda says.

Nadezhda says she is ashamed. She doesn’t know how to explain all this to her relatives in Ukraine.

With reporting by Alexander Chernyshev und Andrey Kaganskikh