A few days after the plane crash that killed Russian oligarch and head of the Wagner private military company Yevgeny Prigozhin, two videos emerged online showing the destruction of cemeteries for Wagner mercenaries – or so social media users claimed. Some people are saying that this destruction is part of a Russian campaign to erase any sign of the powerful Wagner Group in Russia after Prigozhin led a short-lived rebellion against the country’s military leadership. Our research currently shows no link between what is happening in the cemeteries and the plane crash.
The plane transporting Russian oligarch and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed last Wednesday in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow, killing all on board. Many people suspect that the Kremlin was involved as Prigozhin had recently tried to stage a rebellion against Russia’s military leadership.
Since Prigozhin’s death, the future of the powerful militia group has hung in the balance. Its troops were pulled from Ukraine after the rebellion but they are still active in Africa. At least two videos emerged in late August that social media users claimed showed Russian authorities trying to erase all trace of the Wagner fighters by tearing down their cemeteries. Our team analysed these two videos.
A Wagner fighter denounces the destruction of a cemetery dedicated to mercenaries
In a video posted on August 25, Sergey Trifonov, a mercenary with the Wagner Group, spoke out against what looks like the dismantling of a cemetery for Wagner fighters in Nikolaevka, in the Russian region of Samara.
In the video, the man wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Wagner”. He films a cemetery where more than 100 crosses are sitting in a pile, floral wreaths in the colours of the Wagner Group are tossed to the side, and the area apparently set aside for graves is covered with rubble.
“Everything was demolished. What have you done? It’s a sacrilege! All of the tombs were destroyed,” he says into the camera. The video was widely shared on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, where it garnered more than 1 million views.
Supporters of the Wagner Group, as well as pro-Ukrainian accounts, said that these images offered proof that the Russian government is carrying out a campaign to erase all traces of the powerful militia group that has fallen into disgrace in Russia.
“Russians are masters of falsifying history,” wrote this pro-Ukrainian account. Another account said what was happening was “Stalinist”, asking: “Will the next step be to erase any evidence of Wagner’s existence?”.
However, a number of Telegram channels with links to Wagner responded to the video, explaining that the Nikolaevka site was in the process of being “renovated” and that the crosses and flowers in the Wagner colours were going to be replaced by black pyramids inscribed with the symbol of the mercenary group and the names of the dead.
This explanation was also reported by several pro-Russian media outlets, which said that renovations were being carried out at all of the Wagner cemeteries in Russia. One of these outlets, the Daily Storm, published a photo of what appears to be the plans for the renovations.
But were these plans made after the fall of the Wagner chief?
The BBC’s Russian-language service interviewed residents of the village of Nikolaevka, who said that work on the cemetery began as early as August 19, so before the crash of the plane transporting Prigozhin.
However, our team wanted to determine if the plans to renovate the cemeteries came about after the Wagner Group rebellion attempt.
The earliest media reports we were able to find about black pyramids being placed in Wagner cemeteries were published in Bloknot, a Russian media outlet from the region of Krasnodar, in southern Russia. The article – published last April, ahead of the attempted rebellion – covers planned renovations at a Wagner cemetery in Bakynskaya, near Krasnodar. The article reported that black pyramids would replace the crosses currently marking the sites.
The outlet reported that the Wagner Group was behind the project, but we haven’t been able to confirm this information through independent sources.
Vot Tak, an independent newspaper founded by journalists from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus reported on July 11 that black pyramids were starting to replace the traditional crosses and flower crowns in Wagner cemeteries.
Thus, near identical renovations were taking place in another cemetery well ahead of the brief rebellion.
The black pyramids are a reference to the concrete blocks erected by the Wagner militia to prevent Ukrainian tanks from approaching lines of defence.
After his video sparked a debate in both Russian and Ukrainian media, Wagner soldier Sergey Trifonov changed his tune in an interview with a Russian media outlet, saying: “There’s no conflict – the people did well, especially because Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] personally approved these renovations. It’s just that I think that the bodies should have been exhumed ahead of the construction. But if that is necessary, then there’s nothing to be done: the most important thing is that we take care of the fighters.” Our team also reached out to him but, for the time being, he hasn’t responded to our questions.
Misleading images that supposedly show a ‘burnt’ Wagner cemetery
Six days after Prigozhin died, another video appeared online, said to show the charred remains of a Wagner cemetery in Irkutsk, in eastern Russia.
The footage shows grave markers amid clouds of smoke. One of these videos, shared with an English-language caption on X, formerly known as Twitter, garnered more than 184,000 views.
If you do a search using the words “Irkutsk”, “cemetery” and “Wagner” in Russian, then you’ll see that the original video was shared by a Telegram channel called “People of Baïkal” on April 17, about two months ahead of the Wagner Group rebellion and four months ahead of Prigozhin’s death. Baïkal is a Russian media outlet.
The media outlet claims that the video was filmed while workers were digging new graves. However, “the earth in March-April hasn’t had time to thaw yet, so you have to do that by lighting fires”.
Thus the images do not show a fire of a criminal nature.
Our team has found no proof that there is a large-scale operation under way to erase any sign of the Wagner Group. However, if new images emerge, we will update this article.