Prisoners are being used to replenish Russia’s depleted forces in Ukraine. A week or so ago prison wagons were seen approaching the border, and on Twitter a film showed prisoners being promised freedom if they fought at the front for six months.
This is nothing new. In World War Two, prisoners from the Gulag were moved into penal regiments and the practice has older roots. Several of the Decembrist exiles in the first half of the Nineteenth Century chose to cut their sentences short by volunteering to fight in the Caucasus.
In the words of Mikhail Zetlin: ‘The Caucasus was thus to serve…as a sort of purgatory. Although to be permitted to fight the ferocious Turks or the rugged Moslem mountain clans as an ordinary soldier, amidst constant danger and hardship, without much hope of ever regaining their lost commissions, constituted a doubtful favour, many of them welcomed it, …for it offered them some hope…of regaining their cherished freedom.’
One of the first to be allowed to take this step was the writer, journalist and lady-killer, Alexander Bestuzhev (Marlinsky). He transferred to the Caucasus as early as 1829 from his place of exile in Yakutsk. A former staff captain in the Dragoons, he was a brave and talented soldier who, against the odds, moved up through the ranks, winning a St. George medal on the way, but he died during a battle in 1837.
In that same year, the Tsarevich, the future Alexander ll, visited Siberia as part of his extensive tour of Russia. Although not encouraged to do so by his father, who was implacably hostile to the exiles, he expressed the desire to see some of them, and, having done so, petitioned Nicholas l to show them clemency. This request fell on stony ground, the Emperor replying that any way back to civilization would have to be ‘via the Caucasus’. Several men however did choose this hazardous road to freedom. Some, like Alexander Bestuzhev, died fighting; others, like the poet Prince Alexander Odoevsky, succumbed to disease; but others, like Andrey Rosen, who lived well into his 80’s, made it safely back to the West.
I wonder how many of the present prisoner recruits will make it home?