A Prayer for Evgeniy Nuzhin
Earlier in 2022, Evgeniy Nuzhin, a man in his 50s, was serving hard time in a Russian prison for a murder that he committed in his youth. His life took a turn when another Evgeniy, Prigozhin, head of the infamous Wagner group of merceneries, arrived at the prison in a helicopter and encouraged the convicts to join one of his units at the Ukrainian front. Their reward would be freedom if they survived the war; if not, a reward in rubles would be paid to their family members.
Evgeniy and about 90 others from his penal colony took the bait. They were given rudimentary training, then flown to an area near the front. By truck they were taken to an assembly point. From there, their assignment was to walk or crawl to No Man's Land and to retrieve the bodies of the dead. It was made clear to these men that any deviation would be met with immediate execution. Some were shot just for "mouthing off."
Evgeniy worked in these conditions for only a few days before surrendering to the Ukrainians. According to a long interview that he gave to the Ukrainians from a dungeon-like holding cell, he did this with a view towards joining a Russian legion that is fighting on the side of Ukraine. According to him, his allegiance was based on who was right and who was wrong in prosecuting the war, but he claimed to have a sister and niece or nephew living in Ukraine as well. (There are reasons to believe that his allegiance was entirely of convenience.)
Soon after the interview took place, it appears that Evgeniy was kidnapped off the streets of Kiev by Wagner men. (An alternative theory is that he was given back to the Russians in a prisoner exchange.) A few days ago, a new video was released, of Evgeniy in Wagner captivity, confessing his betrayal of the Russian cause. He seems calm as he relates his story, but he must know that there is a reason why the left side of his head has been pressed against a heavy chunk of cement. And then, nearly mid-sentence, a man behind him crushes his skull with a sledgehammer blow against the cement. He falls immediately onto his back, and the execution is completed with another hammer blow to the head. Thankfully, miraculously, we don't see a lot of blood, brains or gore. It all happens too quickly.
Two things leapt out at me as I watched it: the depth of depravity of the executioner and the fine, fragile line between "here" and "gone." (It called to mind an essay that George Orwell wrote, about his own participation, as a policeman in Burma, in the execution by hanging of one of the locals.) And of course I also thought that it is both a blessing and a curse that the ugliest scenes of contemporary life are brought into our homes courtesy of our precious devices.
Evgeniy would forgive me, I think, that his killing finally inspired a bitter joke, in Russian. We might say, the Wagner men might say, «Евгений больше не Нужин,» which means "Evgeniy is no longer Nuzhin." But if only one soft-sounding vowel is substituted in his last name, the expression becomes "Evgeniy is no longer needed."
Even some of the harder-core Russian nationalists were shocked at the cruelty of his killing. But Prigozhin was not apologetic. He waxed philosophical about "war being war," noted that more friendly means of execution like the electric chair are not much fun either, and concluded that "a dog must die like a dog." May the Top Dog and his minions, when all of this is over, also die like dogs.