The most violent criminals get a Kremlin pardon if they agree to fight in Ukraine.
One murderer whom Putin recently pardoned, 27-year-old Vladislav Kanyus, spent more than three hours killing his former girlfriend, Vera Pekhteleva. Forensic records describe 111 stab wounds, including several on the woman’s face. Then Kanyus choked his 23-year-old victim with the electrical cord of an iron.
“When I was hitting her, I did not like that she was screaming. I wanted her to shut up,” Kanyus told the court in July 2022. A local news site, NGS42, documented the hearings and assessed that Kanyus “partially” admitted his guilt.
Pekhteleva was just a few months from graduating with a degree in economics. “When I looked in the coffin, I could not recognize Vera, my beautiful friend, who was like a sister to me,” Pekhteleva’s friend, Tanya Peskova, told me. “Kanyus had chopped off pieces of her face, so I did not have a chance to say goodbye to my friend of 21 years.”
One year after the murder, the investigators allowed the family to hear the recording of an emergency call to police from a neighbor’s apartment. “Vera’s heartbreaking screams, horrific screams, could be heard on the calls to police, but it took more than an hour for police to arrive, and she was dead by then,” Peskova told me.
Russian police do not jump on calls about domestic violence, especially since 2017, when the Kremlin decriminalized domestic violence that does not cause “substantial bodily harm” and does not occur more than once a year, and reduced the punishment for violence that does rise to that level from up to two years in prison to just 15 days or, in many instances, a fine. The decision was supported by 380 out of 450 members of the Russian Parliament. Only three deputies voted against it. After the decision, attacks on women went unpunished, and graver attacks followed. A consortium of women’s-rights NGOs found that more than 70 percent of the women killed in Russia in 2020 and 2021 were victims of domestic violence.
The investigation of Pekhteleva’s murder lasted nearly 22 months. In July 2022, Kanyus was sentenced to 17 years in a penal colony and ordered to pay the family of his victim some $45,000 in compensation. But less than a year later, in April 2023, Pekhteleva’s parents, Oksana and Yevgeny Pekhteleva, saw his photograph on social media: The man who had tortured and slowly murdered their daughter stood with a group of soldiers, wearing a military uniform and holding a machine gun.
Pekhteleva’s parents wrote to Kanyus’s prison colony, IK-18, and received a response from the prosecutor’s office in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia about 70 miles by car from the Ukrainian border: “By decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated April 27.04. 2023, Kanyus V.R. was pardoned with release from further serving of sentence on 28.04.2023.” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement on November 10 about men like Kanyus: “Those convicted of even the most serious crimes are atoning with blood for their crime on the battlefields.”
When I spoke with Oksana Pekhteleva, she was outraged: “Atoned before whom, us?” In mid-November, she told me, authorities informed the family that as a soldier, Kanyus no longer had to pay the compensatory damages for killing their daughter.
Later the same month, Russia pardoned and released Nikolai Ogolobyak, a member of a Satanist cult who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing and dismembering four teenagers in 2008. He, too, was sent to fight in Ukraine.
“Pardoning is a good thing, especially for innocent people, but look at who Putin chooses to pardon,” a Moscow-based human-rights activist, Svetlana Gannushkina, told me by phone on November 15. “Kanyus became violent in a flash. It means that any moment he can commit another wild, horrific crime. Psychiatrists should be constantly watching him.”
The day I spoke with Gannushkina, she had received some disturbing news. Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, one of five men convicted for the murder of her friend the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, had also been pardoned after fighting in Ukraine. Politkovskaya’s newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, responded with a statement: “This is a monstrous fact of injustice and arbitrariness, an outrage against the memory of the person killed for her convictions and the performance of her professional duty.”
The release of convicted violent criminals is not just morally galling but also dangerous. The late Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, declared in June that 32,000 of his recruited convicts had returned home free men after fighting in Ukraine. According to Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, an organization that works with current and former prisoners, many of the returning Wagner soldiers commit new crimes—for example, Ivan Rossomakhin, a former Wagner soldier, killed an 85-year-old woman—and only the most egregious, such as the rape of two young girls in Novosibirsk, are even recorded, let alone prosecuted.
“Indeed, there is recidivism,” Putin admitted of the returning convicts back in June. “But then the person must be held accountable to the full extent of the law, no matter what.” Since then, however, he has continued to pardon killers so long as they fight in Ukraine.
The impact on victims of domestic violence is likely outsize, given that only the most extreme abuse, including homicide, is punishable under the law, and now not even murder necessarily results in a lengthy sentence. In 2016, a young politician and lawyer named Alena Popova co-founded a project called You Are Not Alone to support victims of domestic violence. The organization has provided legal assistance to more than 7,000 victims of such abuse and to the families of murdered women. Popova recently posted a picture to Instagram of one more murderer pardoned by Putin: Anton Buchin, sentenced to 20 years for raping and killing a 23-year-old nurse and single mother, Tatiana Rekutina.
“The number of calls from women asking us to save them from violent veterans is increasing,” Popova told me. “We feel helpless. We don’t know how to protect women, and the entire system is backing their executioners.”
For Vera Pekhteleva’s friend, Peskova, the result is the constant fear that Kanyus will show up at her door. “I am afraid of every noise,” she told me. But she also fears for Kanyus’s next partner—a girl somewhere, she imagines, who won’t know his story and could wind up in the same relationship that Vera did, equally without recourse.
Human-rights defenders point to systemic damage to justice and law enforcement. “This is a new level of catastrophe, the final end of judicial law,” Alexander Cherkasov, who works for the human-rights group Memorial, told me. “All these murderers went to prison after investigators investigated, prosecutors accused, judges sentenced—all of that law-enforcement work is now meaningless.”