In January 2022, the Yekaterinburg-based publisher Gonzo released the memoir of Marat Gabidullin — the first combatant from the Wagner private military company (PMC) to speak openly about his experience in the secretive organization. Despite the Wagner group’s active participation in military conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, information about the mercenary company — and the people who have died working for them — is hard to come by; the Kremlin usually responds to questions about the group by pointing out that the concept of a PMC doesn’t even exist in Russian legislation. Gabidullin, who started out as a rank-and-file Wagner combatant and rose to become the commander of a reconnaissance company, sat down for an interview with Meduza in 2020 — and sat he was planning on releasing his memoir. Soon after that, according to Gabidullin, pressure from “the relevant people” forced him to put the publication on hold. A year later, though, he was able to find a new publisher. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova read an advance copy of the book — and spoke to its author and editor about the difficulties (and dangers) they faced on the path to publication.
In his memoir — titled In the Same River Twice — Russian Airborne Forces veteran and former mercenary Marat Gabidullin describes the first three years of Wagner PMC’s Syrian campaign, from their entrance into the war in 2015 (when Gabidullin first started working for the Wagner group) to their battles for the country’s oil fields and their fights against the Islamic State — including two operations to liberate Palmyra.
The book’s narrative ends in the fall of 2017, when the PMC fought for control of the city of Uqayribat in east Hama province. Gabidullin himself wasn’t a direct participant in the operation, having been seriously wounded not long before; according to him, it’s the only one of the book’s 34 chapters whose events he reconstructed from his fellow soldiers’ stories.
Gabidullin claims that all of the events he describes in the book are told exactly as they occurred; only the characters’ call signs have been changed. The memoir describes Gabidullin’s experiences both with Russian forces, including its Special Operations Forces, and with Syria pro-government militias. According to Gabidullin, the Wagner group was cooperating with both of these forces for the entire extent of its time in Syria.
In the book’s 33rd chapter, for example, the Wagner group finds itself at the Khmeimim Air Base — the Russian military’s main outpost in Syria. Gabidullin himself heads there to get dentures, which are paid for by the Wagner group; while he’s recovering, he lives “in a unit that belongs to the PMC.”
The book also describes some command failures, his fellow soldiers’ looting, and military decorations being traded for successfully completed operations, as well as the mercenaries’ daily lives in Syria.
Was Marat Gabidullin really a mercenary?
According to the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets, which specializes in tracking Russian mercenaries, Gabidullin did indeed work for the Wagner PMC under the badge number M-0346.
The fact that Gabidullin commanded a reconnaissance company for the Wagner group has also been mentioned on social media.
To support his stories about “business trips” to Syria, Gabidullin provided Meduza with photographs taken there — military specialists working in the region believe that the photographs are authentic.
Three Meduza sources close to the Wagner PMC also confirmed Gabidullin’s identity and occupation.
“They got it into my head that publishing the book might harm by comrades”
Gabidullin has been trying to publish his book since 2017. He started writing the first draft of the book while still serving in the Wagner group — after emerging from the coma he had been in since March 2016, when he was injured in a battle near Palmyra.
“After the injury… I just wanted to record everything to make sure I didn’t forget anything: it was a serious turning point for me,” Gabidullin told Meduza in December 2020. “But as I worked on the project, I started to have another goal: to communicate to people that the military and political establishment were lying to them about the PMC. The whole world knows, and you’re hiding the truth from your own people. How is that okay?”
Gabidullin showed the first version of his memoir directly to Yevgeny Prigozhin (the media has repeatedly published evidence that Prigozhin, who receives a large number of government contracts, could be involved in financing the mercenary group; Prigozhin denies the connection).
According to Gabidullin, after the injury, he was transferred to an office job: he became Prigozhin’s assistant on issues related to Wagner group activities. He decided to show his boss the draft of his memoir to help him “better understand” what the Wagner group had been doing in Syria. “[My decision] came from the fact that he actually doesn’t understand a lot of the things that had happened in Syria. Back then, a bunch of people had attached themselves [to the PMC] and were really stealing money from Prigozhin,” Gabidullin told Meduza.
Prigozhin took an interest in the memoirs: he did some editing work and even had “two or three” copies printed, according to Gabidullin; he promised to have the book published later on. Gabidullin, though, decided to do things on his own timeline, rather than waiting for Prigozhin.
Evgeny Prigozhin didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about Marat Gabidullin’s memoir and his role in publishing an edition of it.
“[Prigozhin] doesn’t have any relations [with the Wagner PMC], he doesn’t finance mercenaries and doesn’t stay up to date on information about their locations,” the press service for Prigozhin’s company Concord Management and Consulting told Meduza.
Gabidullin stopped working for Prigozhin in 2019. The Siberian publishing company Nayemnik agreed to release the memoir and the publication date was set for December 2020. “We’re basically samizdat,” a Nayemnik representative told Meduza a day before publication of the memoirs’ first 50 copies. “There’s no other publisher that publishes the same things we do. That’s the whole point: we’re part of civil society.”
“The publishing company is located in Siberia — and why not?” Gabidullin told Meduza. “Here, in the center, the only publishers who flourish are the ones who publish the things that the authorities permit. Over on the periphery, people can afford to get away from the all-seeing eye.”
But on December 2, 2020 — the day after Meduza published the interview with Gabidullin about his upcoming book — Nayemnik took down its page on VKontakte and set its Instagram page to private, while representatives from the company reported that the memoir wouldn’t be published after all. “The author called today and canceled the book’s publication,” a spokesperson for Nayemnik told MBX Media.
Gabidullin confirmed to Meduza in 2022 that the book’s publication was actually called off at his own request. He says he was “asked” to do this, though he declined to specify whether it was Wagner group representatives or someone else who made the request.
“[After the news about the memoir’s release came out,] I was contacted by the relevant people,” Gabidullin told Meduza. “I don’t want to get into the details, but at that point, they managed to get it into my head that the book’s publication would harm by comrades, my military friends who are still working in the field. I confess that I showed some mental immaturity and gave in to their persistent entreaties not to publish the book.”
After that conversation, Gabidullin contacted Nayemnik. “I called [the publishing company] and asked them: excuse me, because of my circumstances, I’m actually not in a rush to publish the book,” said Gabidullin. “And then someone went and compensated them [the publisher] for the money they’d spent in preparation for the publication.”
“People have been lied to enough”
Nonetheless, Gabidullin returned to his plan to publish the memoir. He says he’s no longer afraid of the consequences.
“First of all, I realized that there’s no way this book can hurt my friends. And most of all, I understood why exactly I wanted to talk about these people — and these reasons outweigh any of my fears our doubts. Before, there was something just burning inside of me — and now I’ve become acutely aware that I don’t want to live in a hypocritical society that prefers not to notice [the PMC’s existence]. Even just the word ‘mercenary’ hurts their ears! The generals don’t want to admit that their victories in Syria were achieved by methods that fall outside of official military doctrine, and the number of casualties presented to the public was falsified so that people would be proud — ‘Our generals are so smart that they were able to beat that damned ISIS with so few losses.’ You just don’t know the real figures.”
Mercenaries from the Wagner group died in Syria at least four times as often as officers who were officially serving in the conflict zone. According to the latest available data from the State Duma Defense Committee, as of March 2021, 112 Russian soldiers had died in Syria; in the same period, according to media reports and sources from the PMC who spoke to Meduza, around 400 Wagner fighters had died.
Official data about Wagner group casualties has never been published, but journalists and researchers have been collecting it at least since the beginning of the group’s Syrian campaign.
Between the fall of 2015 and February 2018, human rights advocates and journalists were able to confirm the deaths of 53 Wagner fighters, while a Wagner group employee confirmed that 47 Wagner fighters were killed just between January and September 2017. According to The New York Times, up to 300 pro-regime soldiers were killed in a battle near Deir ez-Zor on February 7, 2018.
In December 2021, New Lines Magazine published information from the Ukrainian Center for Analytics and Security (founded by a Ukrainian Security Services veteran). The Center had given journalists access to a database containing the names of more than four thousand names — significanty more than any lists that had previously been published. According to Center, more than 372 of the people on the list had died.
Unsurprisingly, finding a new publisher wasn’t easy. “After taking a look at the text, they all said the same thing: ‘This is really interesting, even fascinating, really a new topic. But we need to consult some of our friends,’” Gabidullin recalled. “After the discussions, they all declined. A represented from one large company told me straight out: ‘The projected risk isn’t work the potential profit.’”
Alexander Biserov, head of the Yekaterinburg publishing company Gonzo, said he contacted Gabidullin and asked to read the book after hearing about it in the news. “The manuscript was a real page-turner,” said Biserov. “That way the book shows the private military company from the inside is a really effective hook. And the fact that the protagonist is a mercenary whose thoughts are occupied not by making money but by a sort of overestimation of his own role: for him, the PMC is first and foremost a chance to serve the Motherland, even in this camouflaged way.”
Gonzo was founded in Yekaterinburg by Alexander Bisserov in 2009.
Like Biserov’s previous publishing ventures, Gonzo specializes in “intellectual fiction and American postmodernism,” as well as nonfiction and books “about the various aspects and phenomena of modern mass culture, politics, sociology, etc.,” according to a brochure Biserov gave Meduza.
“Our publishing company is small,” Biserov told Meduza. “We don’t publish mainstream literature — we publish marginal stuff: historical fiction, nonfiction, Slavoj Žižek, Winston Churchill, and American twentieth century postmodernism in translation. We also have modern fiction, but mostly in translation, because Russian authors prefer Moscow-based publishers: they think it’s a better bet.”
Biserov described the kind of author he seeks to publish as “pointedly alternative.” “Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re as nontraditional [as we planned],” he said. “Although Marat’s book, for example, is exactly the kind I mean.”
Gabidullin’s memoir about the Syrian war occasionally “breaks out into arguments about Russia,” Biserov pointed out. “Through his examples, he manages to convey his opinion of the Russian situation. There’s one episode [in the book] when the mercenaries run into some Mukhabarat — Syrian counterintelligence — officers who behavely brazenly and arrogantly, with no regard for the others on the road. Our hero, observing things from inside an SUV, immediately recalls how those in power in Russian exploit their privileges in exactly the same way.”
Biserov himself served as the memoir’s editor (the publishing company only has five employees in all). “When someone reads the poetry of [poet Maximilian] Voloshin about the Motherland, which completely resonates in today’s world, or recalls the poems of [actor and poet] Leonid Filatov, that’s an indication for me of who exactly I’m working with,” he told Meduza. “It was a real discovery for me when I learned that there are professional soldiers who spend time reflecting. It sounds naive, but it seemed to me that if a professional soldier can self-actualize like that without doubting himself, it’s also my job as a publisher to carry out my professional responsibilities.”
Despite what happened with Gabidullin’s first publication deal, it didn’t take Biserov long to make the decision to publish the memoirs. “We had concerns, of course — I knew we were pulling material out of the grey zone. I’m perfectly aware whose interests might be affected,” said Biserov. “But the book is honest with regard to its subjects. And as far as I understand, it doesn’t contain any highly classified information — on the contrary, it’s a text about a poorly-understood profession, and Marat presents the mercenaries not as friends from hell but as simple hardworking soldiers. The book even taught me more about the Afghan war than anything else has. I realized for the first time what modern warfare means.”
Biserov isn’t planning to take any security measures to protect the book’s first published copies, which will number thousands. “I’m just a regular publisher, and it’s not in my power to take any special measures,” he said. “We understand that if the decision is made not to let the book be released, there’s nothing we can do. I hope the people this book reaches will find it useful and won’t try to prevent its existence. We’re planning on distributing it like we always do: through our wholesale partners — through booksellers.”
Gabidullin is convinced that if In the Same River Twice successfully reaches readers, it could lead to a “boom in mercenary prose.” “I had the opportunity to read some excerpts written by my former colleagues who also worked for Wagner PMC and are now writing [about their experiences] — writing pretty openly and expressively,” he said. “But none of them have made the decision to publish yet. I would really like people to stop being afraid. Because the truth about this topic should be exposed. People have been lied to enough.”
Gabidullin admits, however, that there’s no telling what reaction his book might provoke. “All of them [the PMC and Russian security forces] together… I won’t even try to guess,” he told Meduza. “I see that this is a valuable book — and this time I won’t back down. I’ll see it through, no matter how they try to persuade me. The book has come out — it’s time to worry not about how to smear its authors and publishers into the pavement but how to how to simply have a productive discussion about the topic. It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses. And how the other interested parties will react is not for me to predict. Russia is a complicated country. It’s unlike all the others.”
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Translation by Sam Breazeale