Russian inmate Dmitry Gorodilov had a routine: He would call his mother Marina twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, from a prison in Russia’s northern city of Petrozavodsk, where he’s serving a 13-year sentence on a drug-related conviction.
The last such call, a video chat, came on July 4, but the connection was bad.
“[He] said: ‘Fine, then I’ll call you on Friday.’ He hung up, but didn’t call on Friday,” Marina Gorodilova told RFE/RL’s North.Realities.
At first Marina wasn’t worried. But two days later, she received a call from a friend: the mother of a prisoner serving time at the same facility as Dmitry. Marina’s friend told her that her son, 44-year-old Yevgeny Yeremenko, had been killed in action in Ukraine.
“I was in shock for two days. I didn’t know what to do,” Marina said.
After collecting herself, Marina sent appeals to the Russian Investigative Committee, to the prison, regional correctional-system officials, and prosecutors about the whereabouts of Dmitry, 30, who had previously served in the Russian military. (Copies of the appeals were obtained by North.Realities.)
“I asked them to conduct a probe. I wrote the truth: that I suspect that my son is being held in a cellar with the goal of forcing him to sign a contract to deploy to Ukraine, with the goal of coercing him. I wrote to them about [Yeremenko], that he was in the same prison as my son and then died in Ukraine,” Marina said.
Bolstering The Ranks
Marina Gorodilova’s hunt for her son within Russian’s penal system comes in the wake of multiple reports by independent Russian media outlets and rights activists that Russian security officials and private military companies are actively recruiting inmates to fight in Ukraine following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the neighboring country on February 24.
Relatives of inmates told the independent news site IStories in July that prisoners were being recruited to join the notorious Vagner private paramilitary group, believed to be led by Putin’s close associate, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Meanwhile, the Vot Tak online television channel quoted inmates at a penal colony in the city of Bataisk, in Russia’s southern Rostov region, on September 1 as saying that Prigozhin himself recently arrived at the prison by helicopter and met with all of the inmates at the facility’s central square.
The recruitment of prisoners appears to be part of a broader Russian campaign to find more men to bolster its troop numbers in Ukraine, which have sustained heavy casualties amid stronger-than-expected resistance from Kyiv’s forces since the Kremlin’s invasion.
“The numerous stories of relatives and media publications, unfortunately, has not made the situation better,” Vladimir Osechkin, head of the rights group Gulagu.net, which monitors the treatment of Russian prisoners, told North.Realities.
Osechkin’s group regularly publishes reports from various Russian regions in which inmates or their relatives describe alleged efforts to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine.
'He Won't Sign Up To Kill People In Ukraine'
After officials failed to respond to her inquiries about the fate of her son in Petrozavodsk’s Penal Colony No. 9, Marina says she twice went to the facility to try to arrange a visit with him -- on August 20 and August 29.
“They did not let me in. They said: ‘He’s been punished.’ It seems he’s been placed in solitary confinement,” Marina told North.Realities.
Marina’s encounter echoed that of her friend, Petrozavodsk pensioner Tatyana Kotenyeva, whose son Yevgeny Yeremenko was serving time in the same prison as Marina’s and was later reportedly killed in Ukraine.
Kotenyeva told MediaZona that, after her son had failed to call her for several weeks, a prison official phoned her and told her that her son was being punished. In mid-June, she received a call from her son, who said he was being transferred to another prison, MediaZona reported.
Kotenyeva said that two strangers arrived at her home on August 14 and informed her that Yeremenko had been killed in Ukraine on July 24. His body was returned to Petrozavodsk and buried four days later.
North.Realities sent requests for comment on the cases of Dmitry Gorodilov and Yevgeny Yeremenko to the regional branch of the Federal Prison Service in Karelia, to regional prosecutors, to regional human rights ombudswoman Larisa Boichenko, and to the Russian federal government’s rights ombudswoman, Tatyana Moskalkova.
Only Boichenko responded in time for publication. She claimed that she had not received any complaints about the recruitment of prisoners to fight in Ukraine, neither from prisoners themselves nor their relatives.
Marina Gorodilova believes her son Dmitry may be currently in solitary confinement in order to pressure him into signing a contract to fight in Ukraine -- or to pressure him to keep quiet about recruitment efforts he witnessed.
She does not believe her son would accept an offer of deployment to Ukraine in order to commute his 13-year sentence, which was handed down in 2018.
“My child won’t sign up to kill people in Ukraine in exchange for his own freedom,” she told North.Realities. “That I know for sure. Maybe they are torturing him there? I don’t know. I just know my son.”