The Russian prison population, estimated at roughly 420,000 before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, plummeted to a historic low of about 266,000, according to Deputy Justice Minister Vsevolod Vukolov, who disclosed the figure during a panel discussion earlier this month.
Russian forces are now heavily reliant on prisoners plucked from colonies with the promise of pardons, a practice initiated by the late Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who began recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine a year ago and amassed a 50,000-strong force.
The convicts proved crucial to Wagner’s long, bloody and ultimately successful campaign to seize the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. In August, three months after claiming control of the city, Prigozhin died in a suspicious airplane explosion.
At the peak of Prigozhin’s recruitment campaign last year, he helicoptered from one Russian penal colony to another urging prisoners to atone for their crimes “with blood” and offering to make them free men. Around that time, Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, or FSIN, stopped publishing its typically detailed statistics, shortly after data showed that male prison population in Russia had declined by 23,000 people in just two months.
“If 10 years ago our contingent in prisons reached almost 700,000 people, now we have about 266,000 people in correctional colonies,” Vukolov said early this month, making a rare revelation at a panel on “social reintegration of prisoners in present-day conditions.”
Vukolov’s disclosure stunned Russians who monitor the country’s prison systems.
“This is a shocking number,” said Olga Romanova, the director of the Russia Behind Bars human rights organization. “There were 420,000 prisoners at the beginning of the war, and we know that Prigozhin took about 50,000.”
She added, “Usually, the influx of newly incarcerated people is roughly similar, so we should be seeing a figure closer to 400,000 now.”
“This means that the Defense Ministry has likely recruited around 100,000 people for the war there,” Romanova said, calculating the math aloud. “Starting Feb. 1, the Defense Ministry came to all prisons, and if Prigozhin toured colonies one by one, they recruit in them everywhere at once, practically every day.”
“There was a feeling that they were exceeding Wagner’s rate, but not by much. Now, it turns out that they far exceed it,” she added.
Mediazona, a Russian-language news outlet that covers the Russian justice system, calculated that in 2023 Russia’s prison population — those already convicted and serving time in a colony — declined by 54,000, but that it was difficult to determine how many were sent to the front lines without month-by-month data.
Romanova’s estimate also included people in pretrial detention centers where her group has documented cases of defendants being recruited to go to war even before their cases reach trial.
The former convicts provided Wagner with a near-constant influx of reinforcements. Prigozhin promised that they would receive presidential pardons after six months of service if they survived the hostilities. Once sent to the front, some were threatened with death if they retreated or refused to obey orders. Many were thrown into battle, to near certain death, in waves.
The prison recruitment strategy was then co-opted by the Russian Defense Ministry, which recognized it as an effective way to restore the depleted ranks in the regular military without triggering another mobilization.
In September 2022, President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization, which prompted hundreds of thousands of men flee the country to avoid being sent to fight.
As part of a bitter feud with Prigozhin, the Defense Ministry eventually barred Wagner from prison recruitment as military officials worked to limit the mercenary leader’s involvement in the war following his public rants accusing the country’s top brass of botching the invasion.
By February, Wagner had lost access to prison colonies.
“They stopped giving us prisoners out of jealousy,” Prigozhin said in an interview in May with a pro-war military blogger. “They fought well, the guys from a group of 12,000 people grew to 50,000, but the Russian army was not very well prepared for this situation.”
Prigozhin told the blogger that he had planned to recruit four times more fighters from prisons to reach the “minimal goals” of the war. That statement caused a backlash among Defense Ministry officials.
Prigozhin’s conflict with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu eventually led to a short-lived mutiny in late June, in which a convoy of Wagner fighters seized a headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then rolled toward Moscow. The mutiny was ended following a deal that called for Wagner to relocate to Belarus.
Prigozhin’s death in August raised suspicions that the Kremlin had him killed. Putin, however, announced that an investigation found evidence that grenades had exploded on board Prigozhin’s plane — a suggestion that the Wagner leader was killed by the careless handling of weapons.
Whatever the cause of his death, many of Prigozhin’s ideas live on, including the use of private armies to supplement regular forces to conceal real losses and reduce social payments, and sending an expendable force of convicts on suicide missions to preserve more elite units.
After the Kremlin dismantled Prigozhin’s empire, private military company Redut — believed to be sponsored by Russian oligarchs and fully controlled by the Defense Ministry — took the reins and became one of the largest proxy groups fighting in Ukraine.
Redut absorbed Wagner fighters willing to accept Putin’s deal, offering them a chance to continue fighting after the mutiny by joining the regular military. Redut also began recruiting prisoners with the Defense Ministry’s approval.
Romanova estimated that Redut has recruited at least a 1,000 convicts. Online chat groups for relatives of prisoners fighting in Ukraine have branched out from discussions about conditions at Wagner to deals offered by Redut.
In a report published by pro-Kremlin television channel RT, a trainer with one of Redut’s units said that most of his trainees were former convicts.
“This is the largest contingent we have, and recent Ukrainian attempts at offensives showed that these people can dutifully perform their tasks,” the trainer, who was not identified, said in the clip.
While some of Prigozhin’s recruits received pardons and walked free after he withdrew Wagner forces from Bakhmut, most convicts serving now are unlikely to be so lucky, Romanova added.
According to contracts reviewed by her organization, Russia Behind Bars, these prisoners essentially were given a one-way ticket to the front line with 18-month contracts with no rotation or leave. Those who refuse to fight may end up in one of the detention centers in Donetsk or Luhansk regions or in unofficial “basements” set up to intimidate potential deserters.
Some convicts get pressed into the so-called Storm-Z squads, a wordplay on a term for assault troops and the letter Z, which the Kremlin turned into a symbol of its invasion. Storm-Z units are effectively punishment battalions made up of prisoners and regular soldiers who violated disciplinary rules.
“If a soldier committed some offense, as punishment they are being sent into Storm-Z, so that’s why it is considered a punishment battalion, but officially, it doesn’t have such a status,” Romanova said. “And this battalion will be thrown into some brutal assault mission, it’s a meat grinder type of unit.”
Independent Russian news outlet Astra last week published complaints from family members of several Storm-Z fighters who said they were forced to renew contracts with the Defense Ministry or be thrown into basements in Zaitsevo and Rassypnoe villages on the border between occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Despite the significant drop in Russia’s prison population, the penitentiary service is expanding, and its budget is expected to grow by one-third, according to the draft of Russia’s federal budget for 2024-2026. Romanova noted that the funding will go toward expanding an already ambitious plan to build dozens more detention centers and prison colonies in occupied territories of Ukraine.
“There are simply not enough places of detention,” Romanova said.