From Prison Cells to Special Units: Russia’s New Recruits

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Vladimir Osechkin says he studied law because he wanted to go into law enforcement. To be a good sheriff, he tells me. But after a few bad brushes with Russia’s justice system — he says he was falsely accused of murder until the police found the right man and then years later was shaken down when the car sales empire he built grew too big for his own Russian good — his plans changed.

Both experiences he describes as terrifying and violent. Osechkin has since dedicated his life to exposing torture in Russian prisons. There is so much abuse, he says, that many inmates are finding the prospects of a bloody and uncertain future on the front lines of Ukraine appealing enough to take recruiters’ bait as Russia’s defense chiefs look to prisons to beef up the ranks of the army .

“Inside this 21st-century gulag, you can be humiliated, beaten, raped. You may be subjected to the most terrible bullying. Or you will be forced to work in the industrial zone. From 7 am to 11 pm, or at least more than twelve hours a day, with faulty, outdated equipment, and you run the risk of losing a hand or an eye,” Osechkin tells Fox News from his home in France via Zoom. “They want to leave the torture dungeons by any means. Many don’t realize they are likely to be killed in a week or two.”

Osechkin runs the human rights group Gulagu.net. He himself is said to be one of Russia’s most wanted men for having circulated dramatic torture videos from a prison in Saratov and disseminating reports of discontent within the ranks of the FSB, Russia’s security services.

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File photo – A contrail left by a passenger plane is seen behind a Russian state flag as it passes over the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, August 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Ilya Naimushin)

Russia for its part has said it has a fraud case against Osechkin. Fraud charges in Russia many say are liberally used for anyone the Kremlin has in its crosshairs, like Alexei Navalny.

Osechkin calls the active recruitment of Russian prisoners for work on the front lines of the war a cynical act. According to his sources — he gets tips from a range of people including prisoners’ families — these efforts have been recently stepped up.

The army wants sappers as the Russian military has lost quite a few and it takes many years to train de-miners up. Russia, according to Osechkin, is also looking for men to send out as a sort of bait for Ukrainian soldiers — to draw fire from them in order to help Russians trace and then attack their positions. Finally, Osechkin says, they are tapping convicted killers and others with violent records to form “killer brigades” to shoot, cut and maim “the enemy.”

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FILE - In this photo taken from video a view of a destroyed barrack at a prison in Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces, eastern Ukraine, on July 29, 2022. Russia and Ukraine accused each other Friday of shelling a prison in a separatist region of eastern Ukraine, an attack that reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian military prisoners who were captured after the fall of a southern port city of Mariupol in May.

FILE – In this photo taken from video a view of a destroyed barrack at a prison in Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces, eastern Ukraine, on July 29, 2022. Russia and Ukraine accused each other Friday of shelling a prison in a separatist region of eastern Ukraine, an attack that reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian military prisoners who were captured after the fall of a southern port city of Mariupol in May.
(AP Photo)

Osechkin says the number of takers of such offers dropped off at one point when inmates started waking up to the fact that they might be used as cannon fodder. He believes that prompted an infamous man sometimes called “Putin’s Chef” to himself start making the rounds of prisons. This has not been confirmed, but Osechkin is not the only one who has heard the reports.

The independent Mediazona outlet heard it from a few inmates. The “chef” is himself an ex-convict. Turned billionaire from involvement in many businesses from catering to running the mercenary group Wagner, which he incidentally denies, Yevgeny Prigozhin is said to be close to the Russian president.

“Apparently, like an ace, like a trump card, Putin pulled out Prigozhin and personally sent him to meetings with prisoners,” Osechkin said, adding that Prigozhin could do an easy sell, saying something like, “I myself was once in prison, and now I am recruiting you. I have become a hero of Russia and you also have a chance in Putin’s current system, to climb the ladder, get rich.”

Mediazona interviewed prisoners who allegedly heard Prigozhin offer them “amnesty and money.” And in the meeting with recruiters, one inmate recalled being told “we’re interested in murderers and burglars.”

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Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec.  28, 2021. Russia's Supreme Court has ruled that one of the country's oldest and most prominent human rights organizations should be shut down.

Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled that one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations should be shut down.
(AP Photo)

Meanwhile, Osechkin, beyond concerns that prisoners will be sent to their deaths on promises of good money, fame and honor or dreams of escaping. He also says he thinks the whole idea of ​​telling the already violent — the murderers and burglars — to go take up arms again is wholly irresponsible and even reprehensible.

“Instead of correcting these people,” Osechkin says, “the prison system is taking their basest, most vicious sides and is using them for its own purposes. I think most of them will not come back. But those who survive and return to Russia will pose an increased danger to society,” he says. I ask how all this information manages to find its way out of cells and over the barbed wires of Russia’s prisons.

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“Vladimir Putin and his PR people are trying to build a myth that he is omnipotent and they have a super-totalitarian system. In fact, this is a mafia system. And as in any mafia, people are primarily interested in money and corruption, ” he says, adding, that’s not all. “Many people within the system are against the war themselves. Hundreds of thousands of people work in the federal penitentiary system and not all of them love Putin. Not all of them respect Putin. And not all of them are ready to participate in crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

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