The deal put forward to Russian criminals is pretty simple: If you join the Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine and survive at least six months, you get a pardon, guaranteed by Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. It sure beats rotting away in a Russian prison – or does it end up with you rotting away in a Russian graveyard?
On the outskirts of Bakinskaya Village in the Krasnodar region of Russia, a graveyard is slowly filling up with the remains of dead Wagner Group fighters. In the last few months, 200 have been added to plots in Bakinskaya, and Reuters compared the new names on the freshly-dug graves to Russian court records, social media accounts, and other publicly-available information sources.
It paints a pretty clear picture of what’s happening to the Russian prisoners who take the Wagner deal. Death seems to be a pretty consistent outcome and it’s clear that Wagner isn’t too picky on to whom they extend the offer. The graveyard includes the final resting places of murderers, alcoholics, and even a hitman.
The revelation of the graveyard’s existence came in December 2022, as photos and video of the graves began appearing on social media. Reuters was able to trace the location of the imagery to Bakinskaya and find a series of satellite photos through civilian space agencies. They found it empty in Summer 2022, but virtually full by January 24, 2023.
A local activist first began documenting the delivery of the bodies, asking the gravediggers where they were from. The answer was Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city close to the heavily contested Donetsk region of Ukraine. The cemetery itself is close to a Wagner training camp, in the nearby village of Molkino, just a few miles away from Bakinskaya.
Although Reuters reported that fences, cameras, and other security measures were being installed when its reporters actually visited the cemetery, Wagner isn’t exactly hiding the cemetery’s existence. Russian state media reported Yevgeny Prigozhin himself visited the graves in November 2022, laid flowers, and said a prayer. Prigozhin said the dead wished to be buried near a Wagner chapel, but that chapel’s graveyard had filled up, so Bakinskaya donated the land where the new cemetery was started.
Wagner is part of the Russian forces currently fighting Ukrainian forces for control of Bakhmut and Soledar in Donetsk. It is assumed the remains of those Wagner mercenaries killed in those cities are evacuated to Rostov-on-Don before being sent to Bakinskaya for burial. Since the Bakinskaya cemetery is now nearly at capacity, it’s likely that other plots in the area will soon be partitioned off for the Wagner dead.
The fighting in Donetsk has devolved into a bloody stalemate, more akin to the trench warfare of World War I, rather than the maneuvering, mechanized warfare of World War II that dominated the early days of the war in Ukraine. The death toll on Russian forces has been devastating, requiring multiple “mobilizations,” essentially a draft of Russian fighting-age men. At the end of January 2023, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry estimated it had killed around 127,500 Russians since the war began.
This is one reason Wagner began turning to Russian prisons to gain conscripts. Of the 39 dead prisoners Reuters identified, 10 were in jail for murder or manslaughter, two others were similarly violent. Drug dealers and manufacturers and blackmailers round out the list of prisoners hailing from countries like Moldova, Georgia, and even Ukraine itself.