When the mayor of a small town in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai told the notorious Wagner Group over the weekend that he didn’t want the area to become the new dumping ground for dead mercenaries, he apparently thought he had a say in the matter.
He didn’t. And Yevgeny Prigozhin, the cutthroat founder of the group, would soon make that frighteningly clear—with threats to dump dead bodies on his doorstep instead.
Prigozhin’s fighters backed their boss up, releasing a video of themselves armed to the teeth in the Donbas and threatening to come home to kill.
“You just wait, degenerates, for us to have to come and deal with you. Because you fuckers are doing more harm than the Ukrainian army, than the Nazis. Because you are the Nazis, the fucking administration of Goryachy Klyuch,” one of the masked fighters warned.
In perhaps the starkest illustration yet of Prigozhin’s growing power, the burial went ahead just as he’d wanted, under the barrel of guns wielded by more masked Wagner fighters.
But hundreds of local pensioners, veterans, and out-of-towners also attended the burial of eight Wagner recruits killed fighting in Ukraine. Some of them apparently heeded Prigozhin’s public call to pay their respects and defy local authorities.
“The administration of Goryachy Klyuch forbid the burial of our Wagner fighters at the cemetery in Bakinskaya. Tomorrow, at 10 a.m. the funeral will be held for our fighters. Everyone wanting to say goodbye to them, I invite you to the cemetery,” Prigozhin fumed in an audio message released on the eve of the planned burial.
Despite large crowds showing up, the New Tab reported that no one in attendance actually knew the dead fighters, four of whom had been serving prison time when they were swept up by Wagner to join the war.
“If today we behave in such a way that there is no place to bury them, then tomorrow they will come to us,” one unnamed pensioner was quoted telling the New Tab at the funeral.
Prigozhin emerged victorious from the standoff with local authorities, boasting in a pre-recorded message played at the funeral that “we forced those dirtbags to hide out in their offices.”
And the next day, he announced that he’d personally been assured by the region’s governor that no one would stand in his way again.
In his telling, the confrontation was not part of a power grab by a mercenary group accused of war crimes on multiple continents, but a noble example of the underdogs in society taking a stand against the powers that be in a simmering class war.
“The war has exacerbated the colossal divide in society,” he said, telling supporters that government officials are only interested in building an “ideal world” for themselves and the rest of the elite, in which there’s “no place for ordinary guys” like members of Wagner.
Just a few months earlier, he proudly told inmates locked up at a penal colony in the Tyumen region that those same “ordinary guys” previously “chopped off the ears of negroes in the jungle” but were now “defending the borders of our motherland,” according to a new report from Discours.
“We are a paramilitary organized crime group, with its own internal code, which sometimes does not comply with the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation,” he was quoted saying by an inmate.
Meanwhile, family members of Wagner fighters killed in Ukraine say the group has not even bothered to inform them where their loved ones were buried—leaving it up to the families to dig up their dead and rebury them.
Vitaly Botanovsky, an activist in the Krasnodar Krai, told iStories he’d been approached by at least 25 people in recent days who had not been informed their dead relatives were buried by Wagner at the cemetery in Bakinskaya.
“We didn’t know that he died,” one woman told iStories of her father. “He was serving time at the IK-9 penal colony in Kaliningrad, he went to Ukraine in secret from us.”
Several families are now reportedly working to rebury their relatives.
While Wagner’s trademark prison-recruitment scheme has been taken over by the Russian Defense Ministry, the next few weeks will be a test for the mercenary group, as they stand to lose thousands of fighters recruited from prisons last fall whose six-month contracts are due to expire.
If those recruits opt out of renewing their contracts, they will be released to return home.