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'He Considers Himself A Hero': Russian Town Uneasy After Ex-Con's Return From Ukraine War

Residents of Pyalma have expressed concern about the return of a convicted killer to the small town in Russia's Karelia region.
Residents of Pyalma have expressed concern about the return of a convicted killer to the small town in Russia's Karelia region.

PYALMA, Russia – The community center in this northern Russian town of less than 1,000 people is locked.

“Our club only opens on holidays,” a passerby who gave her name as Anna said. “Sometimes in the summer they have events for kids. But most of the time it is like that -- closed up.”

But the club’s doors were open on the night of January 1-2, 2019, when some young locals were gathered for drinks to celebrate the New Year. Sometime during the night, Sergei Pokotilo and Valery Minin began to argue.

“Valera began insulting everyone,” recalled Pokotilo’s widow, Natalya, using a diminutive of Valery. “My husband told him he had no right to talk that way. So Minin went home and got a kitchen knife. He caught up with Sergei in the yard outside our building and stabbed him in the abdomen. He threw the knife away right there.”

At first, Natalya said, it didn’t seem as if her husband was seriously injured. There wasn’t much bleeding, so they dressed his wound and went to bed. In the morning, however, the situation appeared serious. An ambulance was summoned from the district center, Pudozh, about 100 kilometers to the east. Sergei, however, refused to be taken to the hospital, so the medics treated him as best they could and left.

During the day, however, his condition continued to worsen. Eventually, Sergei changed his mind. Minin, one of the only people they knew with a car, agreed to drive him.

“He only asked that we not report him to the police,” Natalya said. “They operated on Sergei at 10 p.m. on January 2, but he never regained consciousness. He was in a coma for 10 days and died on January 13.”

A family photo of Sergei Pokotilo and his wife, Natalya
A family photo of Sergei Pokotilo and his wife, Natalya

Minin was arrested on January 15 and charged with intentionally inflicting bodily harm leading to death. Apparently hoping for a reduced sentence, he signed a confession shortly after being detained. After 10 court hearings, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison in September 2019. He was ordered to pay 2 million rubles ($30,000) to Natalya and the victim’s children – money that never came.

'How Can You Stand It?'

In June, Natalya recalled, a neighbor approached her and asked: “How can you stand it?”

“I didn’t understand at first,” she told RFE/RL. “But it turned out that Minin was back. As soon as I heard it, I began to cry.”

At the beginning of the year, Minin was recruited in prison by the notorious Wagner mercenary group to fight in Ukraine. Like tens of thousands of other convicts, he was promised a complete amnesty and good money if he fought for six months in Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. Now many of those former convicts, as well as other mercenaries and mobilized soldiers, are returning to towns and cities across Russia, presaging a potential social crisis that could rock the country for years to come.

“The number of petty and serious crimes is on the rise,” Sergei Nechayev, a psychologist from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities in July, adding that the impact of the war comes up in every session in his office these days. “It is already beginning…. The same thing happened after the [Soviet] war in Afghanistan, after the wars in Chechnya, and after World War II…. During combat, all restrictions are lifted. Murder, stabbing isn’t a complete taboo like it was before. Such borders don’t disappear immediately, but they become blurred. And under the influence of alcohol and drugs, they can vanish.”

Even in situations like the one in Pyalma, where there is no indication that Minin has committed a crime since he came back from the front, the return of such of fighters is fraught with anxiety for locals who remember their past.

Minin and his wife declined RFE/RL’s requests for comment.

'Hello, Old Man!'

It is a six-hour bus trip from Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Karelia region in northwestern Russia, to Pyalma. After the bus leaves the modern A-119 highway, the last 5 kilometers or so are covered by a rutted and pitted hard-pack road. A ticket costs 850 rubles ($9) each way. Getting off the bus, one is struck by the darkness. There are only a handful of streetlights in the whole town. You need a flashlight and a good set of directions to find a particular address. Cellular service and Internet access are spotty, at best.

Locals are reluctant to answer questions about Minin, although everyone knows who he is and why a journalist might be asking about him. Many said Minin lives quietly and rarely leaves his house. He is occasionally seen around town in his car.

“What’s to be afraid of?” a long-time resident name Yevgeny said. “None of us has been [to Ukraine]. We have no idea what is going on there and no idea what he did there.”

“I haven’t seen Minin in the village,” another passerby said.

“I don’t know him well,” replied a third.

“Everyone was in shock,” said a woman who lives near Natalya. “I have heard a few people saying he redeemed his guilt over there. But most people aren’t talking about it. But I think it is horrible for Natalya and her children and her father-in-law.”

Sergei Pokotilo’s father, 73-year-old Aleksandr Pokotilo, is a popular physical-education teacher and coach who has lived in the town since he moved there from Ukraine’s Luhansk in 1969. He lives in a ramshackle, three-room wooden house. Earlier this summer, when his veranda collapsed, local residents chipped in money and time to rebuild it for him.

Neighbors work to repair Aleksandr Ivanovich's house in Pyalma.
Neighbors work to repair Aleksandr Ivanovich's house in Pyalma.

Aleksandr’s house is two streets over from the building where Natalya and her children live. Minin’s house is on the street almost exactly halfway between the two.

It is hard to miss Minin’s house among the others in Pyalma. There is a satellite dish on the wall and a neatly trimmed lawn around it. A new car sits in the drive. There are security cameras on the front gate. Locals say they were installed after Minin’s return from Ukraine.

“We no longer walk the direct route out of fear of running into Minin,” Natalya said. “We walk around the block. Once my father-in-law was walking home when someone shouted ‘Hello, old man!’ from a passing car. At first he didn’t know who it was but a friend with him recognized [Minin]. Afterward, he couldn’t eat or drink for three days. It was scary to see him.”

Valery Minin's residence in Pyalma
Valery Minin's residence in Pyalma

“When Valera returned, he bought a new car, probably using the 1.5 million rubles ($15,500) he got for being wounded,” Natalya said.

RFE/RL was not able to find any court records regarding the 2 million rubles of compensation that Minin failed to pay.

“I don’t have a husband anymore,” Natalya concluded. “But he considers himself a hero who supposedly washed away his guilt with blood. He only served half his sentence.”

'Still In Shock'

Reports of similar tensions surrounding returning soldiers have been steadily accumulating across Russia, as have reports alleging they have committed murders and other serious crimes.

“One evening I was in a café with a girlfriend,” a 25-year-old woman named Tatyana, who lives in Ulan-Ude in southeastern Siberia, told RFE/RL in July. “We were talking when a guy in camouflage came up to us. He had a medal on his chest and a huge scar on his face. When he found out I wasn’t interested, he became furious, swearing and flushed…. I tried to leave but he blocked my path and shouted to his friends: ‘Look at this bitch! I sat in the trenches, and she won’t put out.’”

The bartender and the security guard at the cafe were able to defuse the situation, Tatyana said, and she and her friend managed to leave.

“I still haven’t recovered,” she said, several days after the incident. “They are coming back, and this is very scary to me. There are lots of bad people among them…. If I had been alone on the street instead of in a cafe, who knows what might have happened?”

A student named Aleksei, also in Ulan-Ude, told RFE/RL he had been accosted one evening by a drunken demobilized soldier who insisted on a cigarette.

“He was shouting so much that he was spitting on me and poking me in the chest with his finger,” Aleksei recalled, saying that some other men who were with the soldier pulled him away. “‘I’m fighting over there while you stroll around here,’ he said, swearing the whole time.”

“I’m still in shock,” Aleksei said. “The war still isn’t over, but they are already appearing everywhere. And for some reason they think we all owe them something. What is going to happen when they all come back?”

RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson and RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities contributed to this report.

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