‘What kind of example is this?’: Siberians balk at military honors for ex-cons killed in Ukraine
This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
When Roman Melnikov left Darasun, a tiny hamlet in Siberia’s Zabaikalye region, in 2015, few were sad to see him go. He had been sentenced to nine years in prison for manslaughter after being convicted of beating a cafe patron to death during a robbery.
But when Melnikov’s remains returned to the village last month in a military coffin from the war in Ukraine, dismayed residents watched as he was given a funeral with military honors, including an honor guard, paid for in part by the village administration.
“What is happening?” local resident Nina, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of repercussions, told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. “A prisoner who went to war just so he could get out of prison is suddenly a hero? My friends and I are shocked. The world really has turned upside down.”
Melnikov was one of tens of thousands of Russian convicts believed to have been recruited to fight in Ukraine in the ostensibly private Wagner mercenary army of Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who himself served nine years in a Soviet prison on a robbery conviction.
Darasun is a postage-stamp-sized village near Russia’s long border with China. Officially, it has a population of some 6,500, although residents say far fewer live there now that the state-owned farm and a local factory have been shuttered.
“Those who haven’t left just drink and do drugs like [Melnikov],” a local retiree said. “Do you think he was sober when he got into that fight?”
Moscow has only acknowledged about 6,000 killed since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022, but the fact that military funerals are being held in places like Darasun indicates the figure is much higher. Western analysts put Russia’s total military casualties at nearly 200,000 killed and wounded.
“Those of us here remember his ‘heroics’ very well,” said another local, who asked not to be named. “Robberies, theft, and he even attacked the girl he was living with, nearly suffocated her. He was only finally sent to prison because he was such a repeat offender. And then they let him out? So he could finish suffocating her? That’s our justice for you.”
Melnikov’s funeral was held at the request of his sister, Olga Melnikova, who says she considers her brother “a hero” and who told RFE/RL he was killed in Ukraine on February 3.
“We didn’t communicate much,” she told RFE/RL. “I didn’t know that he’d agreed to go fight in order to gain his release. He didn’t have much time left. But I think he did a good thing to go.”
“I don’t know why the others don’t agree,” she said of her neighbors in Darasun. “He went to protect us. To fight in another country so that they wouldn’t attack us. I don’t think they could have made it to Zabaikalye, but to Moscow, maybe.”
Initially, when Melnikova requested that the funeral be held in the village club, officials demurred.
“The relatives asked us to give them a space in the club,” village head Valentina Cheremnykh said. “But they have their own program, children’s groups and so on.”
Instead, Cheremnykh proposed holding the funeral outdoors.
“Many honorable residents of Darasun had their funerals outside, without particular pomp,” she said. “It is a normal thing for us.”
But it was not enough for Melnikova.
“When the village head suggested it, I started writing on social media and to the media,” she recalled. “One television channel responded. They raised a fuss that reached the governor and higher. In the end, they gave me the club for the ceremony.”
Twelve kilometers down the road from Darasun lies the neighboring village of Makkaveyevo, with a population of fewer than 5,000. Late last month, the military coffins of two local men — former convicts Dmitry Filippov and Sergei Slepukhin — were shipped back to the village for burial.
Filippov’s aunt, Nadezhda Filippova, arrived from her home in the Kursk region of western Russia to oversee the arrangements and was appalled that the men were not being treated like regular military because they had served in the Wagner mercenary army.
“The local military commission and the Defense Ministry didn’t want to have anything to do with the funeral,” she told RFE/RL. “I know that in Kursk the military commission partially subsidizes the funerals for Wagner fighters, so why is it different here?”
Just like in Darasun, locals in Makkaveyevo have no love lost for Filippov or Slepukhin. Filippov was serving sentences for several robberies and for selling dangerous homemade alcohol. Slepukhin had been convicted of at least six robberies and two muggings.
“He was held in custody as a minor,” Slepukhin’s sister, Olga Vanchugova, told RFE/RL. “He fell into bad company. But later he went to fight, and I think he redeemed himself.”
Nadezhda Filippova agreed.
“They got rowdy as stupid youths, but with their deaths, they redeemed everything,” she said.
Following lobbying by the two families, a military funeral was held for the two men at the local school, with the pupils in attendance.
“My children go to that school,” said one local woman. “What kind of example is this that we are giving such honors to recent prisoners? Of course I am against making children watch this and letting them think that this is a good life path — robbery, drunkenness, prison, war.”
“That’s what we said to the village head and, at first, she fully agreed with us,” the woman added. “But you know what happened.”
Makkaveyevo administrator Tatyana Zhuravlyova didn’t comment in detail about why she changed her mind.
“It was decided to compromise with the relatives,” she told RFE/RL. “Yes, some residents were unhappy. Such expenses aren’t included in our budget. Yes, the family bought the graves themselves, but the flags and everything had to be purchased from the budget.”
Locals said only the relatives of the two men attended the school ceremony.
“They complained to everyone, including the local military commissar,” one local woman said. “He brought them an honor guard and some general to give a speech. Soldiers carried the coffins.”
“It was a nightmare to see these convicts buried with such honors,” she added. “And we had to pay for it. The school needs repairs and our local museum is falling down, but, no, we need to pay for honor-guard funerals for convicts who ran off to war instead of serving their time.”