The 2020 murder of Vera Pekhteleva, by her ex-boyfriend, was so gruesome that even in Russia,in where violence against women often goes under the radar, it caused a media outcry.
Vladislav Kanyus spent hours torturing Pekhteleva before she died; neighbours repeatedly called police to report horrifying screams coming from the neighbouring apartment, but the police did not show up. At trial, it emerged there had been 111 injuries on Pekhteleva’s body.
Last summer, a court in Siberia sentenced Kanyus to 17 years in prison for the murder. Pekhteleva’s family members were disappointed that the judge dismissed additional charges of rape and unlawful imprisonment, but breathed a sigh of relief that the murder charge alone would put Kanyus behind bars for 17 years.
Nine months later, in the middle of May, Pekhteleva’s mother received two photographs from an anonymous account on WhatsApp. They showed a man in military fatigues and were accompanied by a message: “Kanyus is free, and fighting in Ukraine.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes, I tried to calm her down, I tried to say it wasn’t him, it was Photoshop. But we quickly realised it really was him,” said Vladimir Pekhtelev, Vera’s uncle, in a telephone interview from the Siberian city of Kemerovo.
Kanyus, it seemed, was one of tens of thousands of Russian prisoners freed early to fight in Ukraine. The vast majority ended up fighting for Wagner group, the private army run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in June went rogue and launched an armed mutiny that sent shock waves through the Russian political system before it was aborted.
As part of the deal, convicts were told that if they fought for six months and survived, they would be allowed to go back to normal life without serving the rest of their sentences. Later, prisoners were also freed to fight for the regular Russian army and for other Wagner-like formations fighting with the Russians in Ukraine.
When the Pekhtelevs put in an official request to prison authorities to locate Kanyus, they were told he had been transferred to the prison service of Rostov region, bordering Ukraine, and had disappeared. Activists say this is a typical administrative trail for a prisoner recruited to fight in Ukraine; there are no other plausible reasons for a transfer to Rostov.
Nobody can tell us how he was let out, nobody gave us any answer, any explanation,” said Pekhtelev.
It is not clear whether Kanyus is still fighting, but it certainly appears he is still alive, as he has posted regular updates to an account on VKontakte, a Russian social media network. His account has the tagline: “There is no such thing as the right choice, there’s just the choice you make and the consequences of it.”
In July, Kanyus responded to a message asking about his current status and whereabouts with a demand for payment in order to answer questions. Later, he locked his account.
The full ramifications of the decision to allow Prigozhin to build a private army of prisoners became clear when he launched his aborted mutiny. But as well as the political fallout, Putin’s experiment with Prigozhin is likely to have a significant social impact on Russia for years to come.
There have been numerous reports of ex-prisoners surviving their Wagner stint and returning home to cause havoc. Among those freed are many who committed violent crimes against women.
Russian authorities have a long history of not taking domestic violence or threats of violence against women seriously. Now, even in those cases where offenders received jail terms, victims and their families live in fear of them returning home much sooner than expected.
Vyacheslav Samoilov, from a small town in northern Russia, murdered 33-year-old Olga Shlyamina in March 2021 and later dismembered and hid her body. He was jailed for nine years and seven months in April 2022, but is now apparently free after fighting for three months in Ukraine.
Samoilov’s mother told 29.ru, a local news site in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, that her son had fought and been injured in Ukraine, and had now been pardoned. His mother said “he is cleansed before God”, by his service in Ukraine.
Vadim Tekhov, who killed 22-year-old Regina Gagieva in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz in 2019, was meant to be in jail until 2035, but was pardoned after fighting in Ukraine and has returned to Vladikavkaz.
“He was sent there, served for six months and in accordance with the law has now been released early,” the head of the North Ossetia region, Sergei Menyailo, confirmed in a press conference earlier this year, adding that in Tekhov’s place, he would not have returned home.
There are also those who were jailed for rape or violence, whose victims are still alive and are now again at risk.
“We have been getting so many messages from people who are scared, especially from the regions. They know that if the men who tormented them come back from this war, and start to beat them again or even kill them, the police will not do anything, because now these men are seen as heroes instead of rapists or killers,” said Alena Popova, a Russian women’s rights activist.
“They are returning to a situation where they will now be setting the rules of the game. They are all super-traumatised, nobody is working with them to socialise them, and I think there will be a wave of murder, rape and domestic violence.”
In the case of Kanyus, Pekhteleva’s family fears he could return and try to take revenge for their efforts to publicise the case at the time of the trial. The family’s refusal to stay quiet meant the case resonated with the public, and the police who failed to show up to the repeated calls for help from the neighbours were even tried for negligence.
“She is scared for herself now,” said Vladimir Pekhtelev, of his sister-in-law, Vera’s mother. “What if she will see him back in Kiselevsk, walking down the street? Of course she’s worried he could try to take revenge for the campaigning the family has been doing.”