“The Most Rowdy Ones Were Thrown into the Pit”

IStories and Conflict Intelligence Team discovered torture “pits” for violators on the territory of Russian military training grounds. What awaits Russian volunteers before they are sent to war?

24 Oct 2023
“The Most Rowdy Ones Were Thrown into the Pit”

In the summer of 2023, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, who is responsible for the large-scale campaign to recruit 400,000 contractors for the Russian army, inspected two Russian training grounds where volunteers were trained before being sent to war — Prudboy in the Volgograd Oblast and Totsky in the Orenburg Oblast. 

Prudboy, which is considered the best training ground in the country, was also inspected this summer by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The military personnel who trained there during Medvedev’s and Shoigu’s visits told Important Stories and Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) about the existence of torture “pits” on the territory of the training grounds. We managed to confirm their words with the help of satellite images. Here is the story about what awaits volunteers at Russian training grounds before they are sent to war.

“The best training ground of the Russian Armed Forces”

Prudboy in the Volgograd Oblast has held the title of the best training ground in the country since 2021. In the fall of 2022, a training center for mobilized personnel was deployed there, and now volunteers are being trained. On June 4, 2023, Dmitry Medvedev, dressed in a military uniform, visited the training ground surrounded by guards and TV cameras. “Take care of yourselves! But on the other hand, it is well known, there is such a profession — to defend the motherland,” Medvedev admonished the volunteers, who in a few days were leaving Prudboy for the frontline.

Dmitry Medvedev, dressed in a military uniform, visits Prudboy surrounded by security guards and TV cameras on June 4, 2023
Dmitry Medvedev, dressed in a military uniform, visits Prudboy surrounded by security guards and TV cameras on June 4, 2023
Photo: pool / Reuters

In the same month, Sergei [name changed at the hero’s request; IStories have confirmed his identity and history] arrived at the Prudboy training camp with another group of volunteers for training. “I saw what a mess was going on around me: classes were held for show, phones were seized, and those who were outraged were put in the ‘pits’ together with alcoholics and junkies, and I decided to run away,” Sergei told a member of the CIT. Later he managed to leave not just the training ground but the country.

According to Sergei, he tried several times to file a report to quit and refuse to fight, but in response he received only threats from the command: they threatened him with physical violence at the hands of the military police, said they would beat him and put him in a “pit” without food and water. 

Sergei claims that several of his fellow soldiers, mostly those caught drinking, have been in “pits.” According to him, the military police beat them and then put them in the “pit” where they were kept for several days to a week. Food was brought once a day and no medical care was provided. “People who came back from there didn't mess around anymore, they were afraid of everything,” he said. In Sergei’s words, one of his coworkers died at the training ground after being in the “pit.” No independent confirmation of this incident could be found by IStories and CIT.

Sergei told CIT and IStories that he saw two “pits” near the formation area with his own eyes. His words are confirmed by a satellite image of this place, taken in early August 2023. It shows two deep holes in the ground not far from the tent camp, at the same point indicated by Sergei, as well as paths leading to them from a passage in the camp fence. In the other photo from April 2023, there are neither pits nor paths at this location. They appeared later.

The “pits” in Prudboy in an August 7, 2023 image
The “pits” in Prudboy in an August 7, 2023 image
Photo: Planet.com.
There are no “pits” at this location in an April 16, 2023 image
There are no “pits” at this location in an April 16, 2023 image
Photo: Planet.com.

According to one CIT analyst, who has a long history of service in the Russian Armed Forces and specializes in combat training and supply issues for the Russian army, the look and location of the “pits” on the satellite images corroborate Sergei’s statements. 

“It cannot be said that these pits have any economic necessity or are a training site,” he says. — “For example, if they were pits for garbage from the training ground, they would not have been placed so close to the camp — this contradicts the requirements. Setting up a dumpster next to a tent camp is a huge penalty. It doesn’t matter if it’s war or not, environmentalists come every month to control it.”

According to the CIT analyst, the pits do not look like a training area either: “Next to the training areas, there would be some kind of area where personnel would line up before the exercise. There would be an entrance to these pits, we would see some kind of cut steps. It would not be a precipitous pit, not a hole in the ground. If they were for camouflage training, for example, we would have seen some sort of canopies. Nor is there a poster base next to the pits [which are usually placed in training areas]. For the grenade throwing training site, there is no target area located next to the pits. And it is impossible to present a live-fire trench at this location due to safety requirements - there is no isolated sector for firing. In general, we do not see any signs of a training purpose for these pits.”

“There were two of them in the pit, one survived”

In September 1998, the mother of 19-year-old Alexei Rybakov received a doorbell and a zinc coffin was brought into her apartment. Before that, no one had informed her of her son’s death: no call, no warning, nothing, a friend of the military man who died 25 years ago in Prudboy tells IStories. Alexei Rybakov was covered to death with soil in the same pit as those where “guilty” volunteers are now kept before being sent to war with Ukraine.

“There were two of them in the pit. One survived,” says a friend of Rybakov. — “The rain canopy collapsed on them. They made it themselves and dug the pit themselves. And the man responsible for his death brought his body to mother to bury.”

In 1998, 19-year-old Alexei Rybakov died in the “pit” at the Prudboy training ground
In 1998, 19-year-old Alexei Rybakov died in the “pit” at the Prudboy training ground
Photo: VK

“In September 1998, at the Prudboy training ground, Lieutenant colonel S. ordered to dig two pits measuring 2 x 2.5 meters and 3 meters deep, overlap them with poles and reeds and cover them with soil. The pits were intended for keeping there for disciplinary arrests of servicemen and for temporary isolation of violators of military discipline instead of the brig,” the Volgograd public organization “Mother’s Right” reported about this case. — “Two privates were put in the pits — for a dirty cuff and for unkempt hair. <...> Afraid that the visiting commanders would see the improvised brig, Lieutenant colonel S. ordered to put more soil on the ceiling of the pits. <...> The ceiling collapsed, as a result of which R. died and G.’s health was seriously harmed (he was subsequently dismissed on psychiatric grounds).”

“Everything new is the well-forgotten old,” CIT analysts say. — “In 1998, the army was completely different: there was hazing then, terrible lawlessness. Naked people running around the training ground, soldiers hanging from flagpoles — this was the norm for that time. Now this systemic lawlessness is returning. The war is making adjustments. The people who are leading these volunteers and mobilized are people who have been through the war, who have come back with PTSD. And there is a noticeable loyalty to lawlessness on the part of the structures that are supposed to fight this lawlessness [in the case of Prudboy, the military police]. If before the start of the full-scale invasion the story about someone being put in a pit without food and water could create a huge fuss and end in showy resignations, now it does not attract much attention, which means that it is not prohibited, no one will be punished for it.”

“They were put in handcuffs and held until sobered up”

Another Russian military officer who deserted in the summer of 2023 was training at the Totsky training ground in the Orenburg Oblast, where Dmitry Medvedev was also visiting at the time. Viktor [name changed at his request] told IStories and CIT that at Totsky, volunteers who “violated the charter” were beaten, handcuffed, and the “most rowdy” ones were also threatened with “pits.”

Victor did not see the “pits” with his own eyes, but he personally heard how his fellow soldiers were threatened to be "sent in the pit.” IStories analyzed satellite images of the Totsk polygon: on the image from early August, we found two pits near the field camp where the soldiers lived. 

In this case, unlike in Prudboy, the images of the pits did not allow CIT experts to make an unambiguous conclusion about their purpose. “It is more complicated with Totsky: the image of one of the pits shows a trench going sideways — this section tells us that there is a descent into this pit. They are dug in a different way, round in shape, and the ground is visible around them — if someone was constantly being brought there to lower into this pit or to give food and water to the detainees, the edges would be different. I do not see any economic need for these pits. But it could be a training facility or an attempt to create one, rather than a ‘pit’ for the detention of military personnel — you can’t say for sure,” the CIT analyst said.

Objects that look like “pits” at the Totsky ground in the Orenburg Oblast in an August 4, 2023 image
Objects that look like “pits” at the Totsky ground in the Orenburg Oblast in an August 4, 2023 image
Photo: SkyFi
In June 2022, there were no “pits” at this location
In June 2022, there were no “pits” at this location
Photo: Maxar Technologies / Google

“At that time [in the summer of 2023], a new, 25th army was being created in Totsky, which was promised to be sent to fight in September,” — says Viktor. — “All they took there were volunteers: 80% of them were former convicts, sentenced under articles ranging from murder to rape of minors. For many years of service in the army I have never seen such a contingent, absolutely uncontrollable, with their own prison laws and principles. Then Putin gave them the go-ahead to serve [in June 2023, he issued a decree allowing those with a criminal record to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry], and everyone rushed in. It was mostly for the money. They didn’t want to learn anything, they had one discontent: ‘I can’t wait to go to Ukraine and start making money.’ 

All of them had poor discipline, they drank, there were a lot of drug addicts, they went AWOL [without permission], they could beat up their commanders — the officers of their company. There was anarchy in one of the battalions: once I saw four people handcuffed in the weapons room. The commanders locked them up because it was impossible to deal with them in any other way — they were inadequately drunk.”

“This contingent [at training grounds] is the result of active recruitment of contractors, which began in April 2023 [the Defense Ministry plans to recruit 400,000 contractors by the end of this year],” — CIT analysts explain. — “These are volunteers who have bought into all this advertising, the promise of large payments. All the ‘patriots’ who came to the military recruitment offices themselves have long gone, having enlisted in the army last year. Now only those who want to earn money go there. And the command really does not know what to do to maintain discipline. They are faced with the fact that thousands of aggressive adults with a specific background, who have no army system of authorities, have arrived in the ranks of the Armed Forces. On the ground, they are trying to solve this problem with violence.”

According to Viktor, “troublemakers” in Totsky were dealt with by a group of “cronies of the unit commander [Colonel I.G. Yem]”: “Guys who were drunk, violated the regulations, debauched, went AWOL — they were caught, in other cities sometimes. Then they were punished by storm troopers, who had already participated in the war, all with experience, walking around with beards and “Akhmat” patches. They were his [unit commander Yem] punishing hand, ‘untouchables’ — they did whatever they wanted, everything was allowed to them,” — Victor says. — “They could just walk into my company, see a drunk, and then they would take him away and beat him up. 

Those who systematically violated discipline, they took them to their floor and beat them. They were put in handcuffs and held until they sobered up, came to their senses and apologized. The most rowdy ones, according to [their] stories, were thrown into pits in the street after the beating, covered with a lid, and that was it. There was a moment when a fellow soldier caught drinking was threatened in front of me: “Now we’ll put you in a fucking pit and you’ll sit there!” The same guys used to take [volunteers] to the training ground in their underwear, barefoot — they disgraced them on the orders of the unit commander.”

“A commander, especially such a high ranking one, needs to have loyal dogs, if such dogs have appeared in a war zone, why not carry them with him further,” the CIT experts explain. — “It’s such a natural process: the easiest way to organize discipline is through violence. For violence, you need people who are loyal and don’t ask questions, and they are selected when the unit is formed. In mobilization units, curfew companies are often set up for this purpose, and they perform these functions. And the mobilized complain that they are acting lawlessly, they obey only the commander, there is no control over them, and no laws are not important to them.”

Why Medvedev and Shoigu did not notice “pits,” drunkenness and torture on the grounds territory

During Victor’s training at the Totsky ground, Dmitry Medvedev came to the camp to then ”report on the political and combat training of future special operation participants” to Vladimir Putin.

“On that day, training points were set up all over the range, which he drove around and looked at. He was shown new military equipment, although we had old-style tanks: three [new] tanks were brought to us from another district. When Medvedev arrived, the tankers received a command to make ten tanks out of three. And the poor tankers, they were continuously rolling around in circles to simulate more tanks,” Victor says of Medvedev’s visit.

“Before that, we were intimidated: ‘Medvedev himself [is coming], all that kind of stuff,’ but of course that didn’t stop anyone from drinking,” Victor claims. — “His helicopter landed, he just drove around the training ground, [journalists] filmed him. And no one even took him into the unit, he didn’t go in, he didn’t walk through the barracks.”

In July 2023, Dmitry Medvedev came to the camp to then ”report on the political and combat training of future special operation participants” to Vladimir Putin
In July 2023, Dmitry Medvedev came to the camp to then ”report on the political and combat training of future special operation participants” to Vladimir Putin
Photo: pool / AP / Scanpix / LETA

According to CIT analysts, there is nothing surprising in the fact that everything described by the military personnel who deserted from Prudboy and Totsky went unnoticed by high-ranking inspectors: “Who will show Medvedev a field camp where there is shit, mud and garbage? He traveled only to training facilities. 

For an inspector to find something unsightly, it is necessary for that inspector to have a strong desire to go not where he is taken by those who invited him, but wherever he wants to go. Such inspectors do not stay in the Russian system for long, because they are recalled from such positions. This is the tradition: the inspection is not to find any violations, but to report on the high level of training of the troops.”

The practice of imprisonment in a “pit” was used in the so-called LPR and DPR even before the full-scale invasion, then mobilized people complained about “pits” in the occupied Ukrainian territories, and now they are used in Russia — and not in border camps, but in “conditionally safe places,” CIT analysts summarize.

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“Reports of ‘pits’ and other cases of systemic violence against Russian servicemen are adding to the hopelessness [about future developments in the Russian army],” — the CIT analysts said. — “It’s very cruel, it’s wrong, but it does create an imaginary discipline in the troops: an understanding that if you refuse to fight or disobey your commanders’ orders, you will be severely punished. 

Given that the war continues, new ‘pits’ will appear. People who go to war will already initially realize that there is no way back. At the front, it’s like a regular job: when there is punishment for misbehavior, you are no longer motivated, you perform your duties only to the extent that you can avoid punishment, nothing more. A soldier will not be the first to rush to the attack, to storm the enemy. He will only do what will allow him to avoid landing in the ‘pit.’”

IStories sent inquiries to the press services of the Central and Southern Military Districts, as well as to the Defense Ministry with questions about “pits” on the territory of the Prudboy and Totsky training grounds. If we receive meaningful answers, we will publish them.

IStories thank the OCCRP ID team for providing the satellite imagery.

Editor: Alesya Marokhovskaya