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More than 400 of Russia’s “immortalized heroes” are serious criminals

The independent Russian news outlet Verstka has published the results of a study it conducted on the practice of honoring convicted criminals as “war heroes.” After analyzing local and national news reports, including data published by Mediazona and the BBC Russian Service, it identified 58 regions that honored the memory of 408 former prisoners who were released to fight as part of President Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operation.”

Murderers, rapists, drug dealers, armed robbers and other convicted violent crimes are commemorated on individual memorial plaques placed in schools and residential buildings, at school information stands, in memorial corners and on desks dedicated to individual “heroes”, streets and city streets are renamed and decorated with their portraits, museum exhibitions and sports competitions are organized in their honor, trees are planted, and their names are placed on monuments erected in honor of those killed in past conflicts, including the “Great Patriotic War”.

Verstka also analyzed the crimes committed by those who were released for war. 128 people were convicted of murder, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm resulting in death. The next most common crimes were those related to illegal drugs, with 110 cases. The rest were “banditry”, armed robbery or theft with violence, sexual assault, rape and serious assault. In addition, the future “heroes” committed 88 thefts, 24 robberies and 46 robberies. In addition, the authorities immortalized people convicted of beatings, threats to kill, banditry and, in two cases, rape and sexual assault.

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In some cases, the “heroes” were convicted of several different serious crimes, and more than half of them were “recidivists”, with several of them convicted of multiple murders and manslaughter.

Analysis of where and how the deceased criminals were “immortalized” shows that the Saratov, Volgograd, Rostov regions, the Republic of Bashkortostan and the Krasnodar Territory were most commemorated. Almost 100 Russian schools placed plaques and signs with the names and photos of the deceased criminals on their “hero desks” and on information stands and boards in special “memory alleys” on the school grounds. In almost 200 cases, their names were added to existing group war memorials, and in 65 cases, museum exhibitions were created in their honor, naming streets and areas after them.

The practice of releasing prisoners of war began in the summer of 2022 under the auspices of Military Group Wagner led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, and before the end of that year the first reports of monuments being erected to the fallen appeared in Russian media.

An investigation conducted in June by the Russian news website Mediazona, in cooperation with BBC Russia, found that of the nearly 50,000 Wagner fighters sent to Ukraine, about 20,000 had been killed and almost 18,000 of them, or almost 90 percent, had been released from prison.

In early 2023, the Russian Defense Ministry took over responsibility for recruiting prisoners to the front. A BBC Russian Service investigation found that criminals recruited by the ministry died on average within eight weeks of arriving in Ukraine, while “volunteers” sentenced to the Wagner death penalty survived just four weeks longer.

According to Verstka, in 2023, more than 190 serious criminal cases were opened against former Wagner fighters who returned from the war in Ukraine and received a presidential pardon. More than a third of them were people previously convicted of murder, sexual or violent crimes, and then killed or raped again after returning, some literally within days or even hours of returning home.

While it is natural for communities to honor citizens who died serving their country, no matter how shameful the war they fought may seem, it is unfathomable to many that brutal criminals could be held up as role models, as is currently the case in parts of Russia.