Wagner, the Russian paramilitary organization, is setting up recruitment centers in dozens of martial arts gyms and children’s sports clubs across Russia.

The Presnensky District contains some of the more affluent neighbourhoods in the Russian capital of Moscow. It is home to the Moscow Zoo, the city’s bustling financial district, and the Patriarshy Ponds, site of Mikhail Bulgakov’s legendary novel, The Master and Margarita.

Apart from its impressive sites, the district is also home to the Grusha Martial Arts Club—a popular combat sports training facility that moonlights as a recruitment center for the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary unit made up of mercenaries actively participating in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Grusha Martial Arts Club, which offers classes to children as well as adults, was Wagner’s first attempt at recruiting mercenaries for the ongoing war from local MMA gyms.

However, Bloody Elbow has since uncovered recruitment centers in more than 50 gyms across Russia.

“To recruit new fighters in Wagner who will defend our homeland, we have already opened recruitment centers in a number of cities. These centers are located in sports clubs where you will come, you will be checked how physically strong you are, and then they will tell you how you will get to us,” read a statement on the Wagner Group’s official Telegram channel.

“We fully trust these centers. They are our supporters.”

Founded in 2014 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin, the group first came to prominence in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. Mercenaries associated with Wagner fought alongside pro-Russian separatist forces in occupied eastern Ukraine. Since then, its contracted soldiers have reportedly been involved in various Russian military operations around the world, including the civil wars in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. Most recently, the group has been involved in Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.

The Wagner group was originally made up of experienced former soldiers from Russia’s elite regiments. However, the unit began recruiting troops drawn from prisons to feed Russia’s war machine in Ukraine. The group registered as a company in 2022 and inaugurated headquarters in St. Petersburg despite the fact that mercenary forces remain illegal in Russia.

Over the past few months, Wagner has been openly recruiting throughout Russian cities. It put up billboards and advertised with flyers in local businesses. Earlier this week, a giant recruitment advert appeared on the facade of a 17-storey building in Moscow. The ad featured a picture of a masked man along with slogans such as “Join the winning team!” and “Together we will win.”

The group even launched a youth club at their headquarters with the intention of preparing young Russians for military service.

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About the author: Karim Zidan is an investigative reporter for Bloody Elbow focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. His is also a contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian. (full bio)

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