Vladislav Kanyus, a young man from Kemerovo in southwestern Siberia, brutally killed his ex-girlfriend Vera Pekhteleva, torturing, suffocating and stabbing her for hours.
He was sentenced in July 2022 to 17 years after a high-profile trial that reignited a national conversation in Russia about the lack of protections against domestic violence and law enforcement indifference to such cases. But then Pekhteleva’s bereaved mother, Oksana, received a photo of Kanyus – not in prison but in a military uniform surrounded by other Russian soldiers.
Her daughter’s murderer was pardoned by President Vladimir Putin in exchange for taking up arms in Ukraine.
“I thought I was going crazy, I keep zooming into this photo and staring into his face in disbelief,” Oksana Pekhteleva said, described the shock it brought to her family. “You know what the human psyche is like, the first stage is denial.”
To avoid calling another controversial mobilization and risk angering the public ahead of presidential elections next year, Russia’s military has relied increasingly on prison recruitment to bolster its ranks, a tactic pioneered by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the late Wagner Group mercenary boss.
According to rights activists, the Russian Defense Ministry has enlisted as many as 100,000 people this year by scouring prison colonies and offering to chop off years from the sentences of people convicted of some of the country’s most gruesome crimes.
Just days after the Kanyus pardon made headlines came news that a former police officer convicted for his role in the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist, was also pardoned by Putin after serving six months of military duty in Ukraine.
The ex-police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 as one of five men charged with organizing Politkovskaya’s murder. (Who ordered the killing was never determined.) Politkovskaya’s work, uncovering Russian abuses during the Chechen wars, had resulted in numerous threats and attacks before she was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building.
Khadzhikurbanov’s lawyer told Russian media that his client recently signed another contract and will remain in the army.
Kanyus was secretly pardoned in April. Vera Pekhteleva’s family was not informed but suspected that he was out of prison when they received the photo of him holding a weapon.
By fall, Kanyus was posting photos of himself barbecuing on social media. About a week ago, Vera’s father got an official notice from the local prosecutor’s office informing them that Kanyus had indeed been pardoned and sent to the front line.
The Kremlin has expressed no regret when questioned about Putin’s decision to free murderers to reinforce the Russian ranks in Ukraine.
“Convicts, including those convicted of serious crimes, atone for crimes with blood on the battlefield, in assault brigades, under bullets, under shells,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.
Alena Popova, a human rights activist who represents Pekhteleva’s family and has long lobbied for the introduction of a domestic abuse law in Russia’s criminal code, said she is concerned that freed convicts will bring a wave of violence back home, emboldened by their early release.
Popova and her team said they are being flooded by calls and messages from people who have already come in contact with, or fear seeing, their abusers or the killers of their loved ones. Most cases most don’t generate headlines, she said, because people are afraid to speak out.
Affected families fear repercussions because their abusers are fighting in what Putin has described as a “war for Russia’s future.” Any criticism of those taking part in hostilities could be viewed by the authorities as criticism of the war or of the military – which is now illegal in wartime Russia.
Some of the most prominent rights activists in Russia, such as Popova and organizations such as Nasiliu.net (No To Violence), have been labeled foreign agents, a designation that puts anyone in contact with them at risk and further scares off women who might seek help.
“All this is preventing us from shedding light on how massive this problem really is,” Popova said. “These people are coming back from the war with post-traumatic stress disorders – their hands had blood on them before and then they went to Ukraine and killed more people there – and they see that the entire system is backing them so they feel an absolute sense of impunity.”
“Just before you reached out to me, I had a message from a young woman whose friend saw a rapist who long stalked her on the street, and took a handful of pills,” she added. “And this is just one case.”
Families of victims have virtually no recourse to overturn the pardons, said Ilya Politkovsky, Anna Politkovskaya’s son. In a statement published by Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where their mother worked, Politikovsky and his sister, Vera Politkovskaya, said they viewed Khadzhikurbanov’s pardon as “an outrage against the memory of a person killed for her convictions and professional duty.”
“If I am being honest, we suspected this may happen,” Politkovsky told The Washington Post. “When this whole prison recruitment just started, I had a feeling that Khadzhikurbanov would really want to go to war.”
“I think it’s unfair and illegal,” he said. “But, unfortunately, we are powerless and cannot change anything in this regard.”
Pekhteleva’s family has filed a request to launch an investigation into the actions of their local prosecutor’s office, which recommended Kanyus for pardon and did not inform the family about his whereabouts. The family had petitioned to be notified of all of Kanyus’s movements during trial, a measure permitted by Russian law for the safety of crime victims.
“We have been so humiliated by all this and no one wants to bear the responsibility,” Oksana Pekhteleva said. “There is such a flagrant violation of our law… . Why does our state treat us in such an outrageous way?”
The fast track to freedom via the trenches in Ukraine, made possible by the Russian judicial and penitentiary systems, stands in stark contrast to the severe punishments being meted out against antiwar activists for minor infractions.
On Thursday, for example, Alexandra Skochilenko, a pacifist artist from St. Petersburg, was sentenced to seven years for replacing a few supermarket price tags with antiwar messages.
Alexei Gorinov, a member of a Moscow municipal council who was the first person sentenced under a law penalizing the spread of “false information” about the Russian military after the invasion of Ukraine, recently had another case brought against him even though he is already incarcerated.
In a statement, Gorinov’s supporters said that he was being accused of justifying terrorism, because he had made positive statements about an explosion that damaged the Crimean Bridge – Putin’s prized infrastructure project connecting Russia to Crimea, the illegally annexed peninsula.
Kanyus, who never admitted his guilt in court, spent less than half a year in prison for the brutal murder.
Five police officers received suspended sentences for negligence after neighbors said they tried for three hours to get help as they heard Vera Pekhteleva’s cries, but there was no response. By the time a neighbor broke the door open with a crowbar, she was already dead.
“I feel like he will still get what’s coming to him, as there is also the judgment and punishment of our Lord,” Oksana Pekhteleva said. “I am not afraid of him but I am afraid that one day he may seduce some other girl, and if he was once capable of doing what he did and got away with it, he may torture her just like he did to my child.”