From Republic.ru, Jan. 30, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/107038. Complete text:
Russia is defining its hierarchy of traditional values, and it seems military service ranks higher in that system than children.
Wagner Group is once again in the spotlight – this time because of Aleksei [sic; Aleksandr] Tyutin, a felon sentenced to decades in prison, who, instead of serving his time in a penal colony, joined Wagner, did a short stint in Ukraine and happily left Russia for a resort in Turkey. Loyalists don’t see anything wrong with this story: After all, the entire special operation can be viewed as an attempt to quickly reform the entire country, so Tyutin’s miraculous rehabilitation does not look that far-fetched in this context.
A mere two years ago, Tyutin, the owner of a real estate brokerage in St. Petersburg, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for ordering the contract killing of a family of four, including two children, 11 and 15 years old. As journalists found out, he signed up with Wagner to join the special operation, spent six months at the front and has been officially cleared of all charges.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was defiant, commenting on the situation: “He is a killer, and in war, he is worth three, four or even more of those mama’s boys. Just consider that it could be your son, or your father, or your husband as one of those mama’s boys whose place he has taken.*** So, if it was his fate to survive there, he is no longer Jack the Realtor Murderer; he is now Johnny the Lucky Warrior.”
Prigozhin attached a citation by Tyutin’s commanding officer, which says Tyutin “provided covering fire for his assault team and personally killed seven enemy soldiers.” So, we have an individual who first ordered the killing of four people, and then killed seven more himself – admittedly, under different circumstances, in a different country, and with different passports – but it’s almost as if these different circumstances have made a hero out of a monster.
It is an interesting coincidence that Wagner, with its gangland ethics and aesthetics, found itself in the media spotlight just as Russia started putting together its hierarchy of traditional values. It’s almost as if Wagner is setting the tone, showing what Russia’s true priorities are.
We see this hierarchy gradually taking shape, and it seems that military service has a higher value in this system than, say, children.
Those who set the priorities in this new pyramid have no issue endorsing someone they describe as a killer. A killer is more valuable than your son, or your father, or your husband – who may be his next victims.
It may well be that this is all but a temporary phenomenon. In a sense, the way Wagner Group seeks to position itself [with respect to the regular Army] is somewhat reminiscent of the situation that existed during Russia’s Civil War, with its elite units like Baltic Fleet sailors or the “Red partisans,” heralded as the Russian Revolution’s “pride and joy” and led by “legendary Red generals.” However, these commanders were then deemed too influential and too independent, and were mercilessly exterminated one after another as soon as their job on the battlefield was done. It is quite possible that something similar will happen to Prigozhin. I mean, certain people will still be described as Russia’s “pride and joy,” but it will no longer be his men. The hierarchy of values, however, will remain exactly the same as the one being defined today.
It is not clear exactly what legal mechanisms are used to commute the sentences of convicts enlisting with Wagner. When asked about it, [presidential spokesman] Dmitry Peskov explained that “the president is the only person who has the authority to pardon***and all the legal requirements are strictly observed in whatever pardoning proceedings may or may not be taking place.” This means that Tyutin and all the others were pardoned directly by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. Normally, a pardon involves procedures like a proper review of the nature of the crime, whether the crime posed a threat to the general public, whether the convict has repented and how long the sentence is. In most cases, a person found guilty of a violent or grave crime and sentenced to 23 years in prison cannot expect to be pardoned after serving only two. It would be unthinkable but, as we can see, that’s what happened in Tyutin’s case.
But, after all, why should we expect clarity with the pardoning procedure if we don’t even know how the [Wagner] recruiting process works? Putin did not sign a law allowing the recruitment of convicted felons until November 2022. Besides, this law deals with military service in the regular Army. Wagner Group does not answer to the Defense Ministry. One could cite a provision in the mobilization decree which says that “special units may be formed for the purpose of incorporating them into the Armed Forces or using them to advance the national interests of the Russian Federation.” One could say that a private military company can hypothetically be construed as such a “special unit,” but again, the law says it can only be formed once mobilization is declared [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6], which only happened in September.1
Considering that Wagner recruits criminals (and even brags about it), it looks increasingly reminiscent of penal battalions in the Great Patriotic War. The parallel is not perfect, of course, because the official propaganda was reluctant to talk about penal battalions and their members were never heralded as heroes. For example, Vladimir Vysotsky wrote a song about penal battalions in the early 1960s. Initially, the plan was to use the song in a war movie but since this was such a controversial subject, the studio decided against it.
Wagner thugs, however, are treated like heroes. Cemeteries have special section called “pathways of valor” for them. They are given military funerals. Loyalist media romanticize them. No PMC in the world has ever enjoyed such red-carpet treatment. For example, a popular newspaper recently published an interview with three convicts – a car thief, a drug maker and one more felon whose crime was not mentioned. The author writes enthusiastically about their camaraderie and the thrill of war. Journalists admire Wagner fighters. It reads almost like a leaflet at a recruitment office. There is no need to fear a harsh sentence and time in prison; there is always an excellent and thrilling alternative. Just like those who don’t want to serve in the military are entitled to alternative civilian service, convicts now have their own alternative to doing time in prison.
The Wagner sledgehammer has smashed to pieces the fundamental principle of the certainty of punishment. Basically, criminals no longer have to suffer the punishment meted out by law. A private entity with a shady legal status has essentially robbed the state of its authority to punish criminals, which is one of its most basic powers. But the state seems fine with it. The state, as represented by the president, acts as if there is nothing wrong with it and is not worried in the least that the sentences handed down by its courts no longer mean anything.
Wagner Group has long become the face of the special operation, replacing the regular troops.
Just recently, the US designated Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization based on its exploits in Africa and the Middle East. But Yevgeny Prigozhin is not impressed: Rumor has it that he plans to get one of his men a seat in the State Duma. Reportedly, it will be offered by the A Just Russia party. Its leader Sergei Mironov was absolutely delighted recently when he received a sledgehammer with a gift inscription from the “Kremlin chef” himself [Prigozhin is known as “the Kremlin chef” due to his catering contracts with the Kremlin – Trans.].
The reputation of Wagner Group and the horrible implications of the sledgehammer do not bother Mironov. On the contrary, he is thrilled by its ostentatious brutality and the air of scandal around it. This is like a straight-A high school girl falling for a local hoodlum, or like a TV audience admiring the glamorized pirates of the Caribbean.
This brazen cruelty almost certainly involves an aspect of intimidation. People don’t just admire Wagner thugs; they also fear them. A guy like Tyutin can easily kill anyone who questions his status as a hero, people think. This is precisely why the authorities put these guys on display. At the same time, part of it is genuine admiration. People always sympathize with rebels. In this case, propaganda skillfully portrays Wagner men as rogues rising up against our old enemies, the Anglo-Saxons.
It’s not hard to see why a convict may be willing to enlist with Wagner. In a penal colony, you are doomed to a bleak existence for years and years. Every day is the same. You stay within a confined space, and every day the same rituals repeat ad nauseum. The same food is served. And even after you’re released, you don’t really get a lot of opportunities to start a new life. But with Wagner, all of a sudden you get a chance to turn the page and have a fresh start. Convicts are not afraid of getting killed because, to many of them, death is not much worse than their current existence. Civilians who respond to mobilization notices may have somewhat similar motives. Some people don’t see a lot of opportunities in their boring, depressing lives. These people are inspired by characters like [Donetsk people’s republic militia commander] Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov, who is remembered posthumously by Vladimir Putin himself. Just like Prigozhin says: You start out as a realtor (i.e., a boring, ordinary, uninteresting person), and then bam, one day you are transformed into a lucky warrior.
In a sense, we might say this has been the main motive for the entire special operation.
Putin’s Russia languished in the prison of its own ambition, which could not be confined to the limits of democratic procedure. Russia could not decide whether it was a democracy. It was torn between two desires: It yearned to encourage the opposition and to simultaneously wipe it out. At a certain point, it seems, Russia became terrified at the prospect of living a boring, routine life year in and year out.
The promise of an instant transformation into something new through a desperate leap of faith is a powerful magnet both for individual people and for the entire country. If you pull it off, nobody will ever dare to criticize you for petty stuff like election fraud or corruption, as illustrated by the new rule allowing lawmakers not to publish their tax returns. In other words, Wagner thugs are not the only ones getting pardoned; bureaucrats think they, too, are heroes and deserve to have all their sins forgiven.
Still, romantic as the image of a pirate, a conquistador or a Red partisan may be to some, its effect is limited. To see how people really feel about it, let’s turn to a recent news story that went largely unnoticed. The Wagner Center in St. Petersburg got a new name. Prigozhin was extremely pleased that he managed to open a business center called Wagner right under the nose of his sworn enemy, St. Petersburg Governor Aleksandr Beglov. But then, the building was quietly renamed Morskaya Stolitsa [Maritime Capital]. Reportedly, the decision to rename the building was made because of problems attracting potential tenants. So, it seems not everyone is susceptible to hypnosis after all. It loses its grip on people as soon as they turn off their TVs.
1[Sic; actually, the mobilization decree states that special units may be formed during peace time in preparation for potential mobilization in the future. – Trans.]