The Brutal Unspoken Mafia Prison Rules that Russia Lives By

A new generation of Russians glorifies war, death, and Vladimir Putin.

None of this makes for good soldiers, and it’s already having serious consequences in Russian society. Organized violence is both physically and mentally demanding. A sense of camaraderie among the soldiers and respect, or at least obedience, for officers is vital. The Wagner Group operates on a different culture—one where such mutual respect and military tradition does not exist, and obeying formal superiors is literally taboo for the highest castes of prisoners. Nor can the dead be respected—after all, they might be roosters. Because of these prison laws and hierarchy, soldiers in the Wagner Group are not encouraged to bond; instead, they’re treated as expendable and sent as a human wave into the  “meat grinder.”

Extreme violence—like the shocking sledgehammer execution of a Wagner recruit who tried to defect to Ukraine—is used to keep soldiers in check. As Prigozhin commented about that event: “A dog’s death for a dog.” And while this does keep the prisoner recruits under some control and can achieve limited results, it also has made the Wagner Group tactically inflexible and predictable. Once Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut understood that these blunt, straightforward assaults were the only thing that Wagner forces would ever do, the Ukrainians adapted and improved, eventually negating the costly gains that Prigozhin’s private army had made.

The normalization of prison culture may be contributing to the brutalization of the Russian army and its war crimes in Ukraine—but it’s also affecting the home front. Many of the prisoner recruits return home with a full pardon after serving out the six months they’re contracted for, often having served a tiny fraction of their sentence. Wagner specifically looked for violent criminals—who usually have long sentences. Already, the crimes of these returning Wagner soldiers are piling up, and analysts and Russian opposition politicians, such as Mikhail Khodorkosky, are warning against the return of the violence of the 1990s, when crime soared. Lawful thieves, prison laws, and ponyatiya in general are surging again, as the country is once again criminalizing itself to the point of gang wars, but this time, with military-grade armaments.

Putin’s emphasis on supposedly traditional Russian values also implicitly includes the laws of the prison—especially when it comes to macho behavior and sexual purity. The Russian state’s homophobia can’t be understood without recognizing the sadism of a caste system that sees raping men as normal but loving them as degrading.

“Putin’s criminal behavior is more the case of a boy from an educated family trying to imitate the behavior of school bullies—but never quite becoming one of them. The Russian criminal world distinguishes between the blatniye and the ‘trash’ very clearly; the trash can try all they want to mimic this world, but they will always be subhuman to it, and their rhetoric is cheap cosplay, not true adherence to ‘the notions,’ since the notion is to kill them on the spot.”

Putin may only be playing at the rules, but the criminal world takes them very seriously. So too should Western analysts striving to understand the actions of Russian troops, especially Wagner’s, in Ukraine, and the kind of culture that will become even more prominent back in Moscow and St. Petersburg when they return from the war.

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