On Sunday, the Investigative Commission which had been tasked with analyzing the remains of the private jet that crashed on Wednesday in Russia confirmed that among the bodies found at the crash site was that of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group. The crash of his plane took place just under two months after the armed uprising carried out at the end of June by a few thousand of his men from the Wagner group. The uprising has been considered the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s power in recent history.
The story of Prigozhin’s rise from entrepreneur to oligarch to head of Russia’s largest private army — to insurgent and fugitive — is highly remarkable. Like so many of Russia’s personalities of the past two decades, Prigozhin had achieved success and power through his close association with Putin.
Prigozhin was born in 1961 in St. Petersburg, and in his youth he was a petty criminal who committed numerous thefts and petty scams: he was released and returned from prison several times, staying there for a total of nine years. As the Economist wrote in a portrait of a few months ago, in the 1980s there wasn’t much to steal in St. Petersburg: on one occasion he and some accomplices entered an apartment but only took away a vase, a napkin holder and six wine glasses. However, Prigozhin also committed violent crimes: in particular he was convicted of a robbery in which he knocked a woman unconscious before stealing her jewels.
Prigozhin was released from prison in 1990, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union: at the time, Russian society and the economy were collapsing. But it was also a time when those who were ruthless enough and well connected were able to get big opportunities.
Released from prison, he began working as a hot dog peddler. In various interviews he said that he was immediately successful, and that in a short time he began to earn considerable sums: «We used to prepare mustard in the kitchen of my apartment. My mother kept track of the takings. I was making [the equivalent of] $1,000 a week. There were mountains of rubles, more than my mother could count.
From a hot dog stand, Prigozhin quickly rose through the ranks and within a few years managed a string of upscale restaurants in St. Petersburg. This is one of the first unclear points in Prigozhin’s life: how as a street vendor he managed in a very short time to manage numerous restaurants frequented by the entire Russian establishment. Many Russian-savvy people suspect that he achieved this thanks to connections with organized crime, which was particularly powerful in St. Petersburg at the time: his business partners in some restaurants, for example, were also the owners of casinos, meeting places of the crime of the time.
In one of his restaurants Prigozhin met Putin, who was then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg (and he too, among other things, has always been suspected of links with Petersburg organized crime, never confirmed). The two bonded immediately.
When Putin became president of Russia, Prigozhin began organizing gala dinners with dignitaries invited by the president in Moscow: there are photos of Prigozhin with George W. Bush, with the then Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and so many others. It was during this period that Prigozhin became famous as “Putin’s cook” or “the Kremlin’s chef”. Some of these events became famous for their excessive and almost caricatured pomp: it seems that at the birthday dinner of Sergei Ivanov, an important official in Putin’s administration, “Somalian ostrich meat, crocodile, gray shark and piranha” were served.
At the same time, recalled the Economist, being “Putin’s cook” is a role that is anything but trivial, for two reasons. The first is that poisonings are very common in Russia, and the person preparing dinners and banquets for the president must be extremely trusted. The second reason, connected to the first, is that precisely because of the trust Putin placed in Prigozhin, he managed to emerge and become one of the richest and most important people in Russia.
Thanks to Putin’s support, Prigozhin obtained numerous extremely advantageous public contracts: his companies obtained the license to supply the canteens of Russian public schools, hospitals and the army. Thanks to these contracts, Prigozhin became one of the richest people in Russia, although the precise amount of his fortune is unknown.
But above all, in addition to being “Putin’s cook” Prigozhin also became a person the Russian president could trust for risky and not always legal operations.
In 2014 he founded the Wagner mercenary paramilitary group, which operated in numerous conflicts around the world, often to support Russian national interests, and just as often committing violence, atrocities and war crimes. Furthermore, in 2018, the US government accused Prigozhin of having financed and created the “troll farm” that allegedly attempted to influence the presidential election won by Donald Trump by spreading false news on social media.
The Wagner group began fighting alongside the Russian army in Ukraine shortly after the invasion began. Over the last year he had assumed a fundamental role in several battles, such as that of the town of Bakhmut, where in fact Wagner’s mercenaries had faced the bulk of the operations and suffered most of the losses. Thanks to his military contribution, Prigozhin had gained exceptional influence in Russia and during the months of the war he was considered the second most powerful person in the country after Vladimir Putin.
This influence had in fact vanished after the armed uprising carried out by the Wagner group at the end of June, when a few thousand mercenaries had occupied the city of Rostov, in southwestern Russia, and had begun to march towards Moscow, reaching 200 kilometers from city. That day, Putin called Prigozhin a traitor. The revolt ended with an agreement, of which not too many details are known even today.
Initially it had seemed that Prigozhin and his men had taken refuge in Belarus, and for weeks it had not been entirely clear – it still is not, in fact – to what extent the mercenary group remained active and united. A couple of weeks later Prigozhin met Putin in Moscow, and for a moment it was even thought that he and his soldiers would be rehabilitated.
It is unclear what will happen to the mercenaries of the Wagner group now that Prigozhin’s death has been confirmed: after the uprising the Russian army had tried at least in part to assimilate the soldiers loyal to Prigozhin, but it is not known how many men had agreed to join .
In addition to Prigozhin, Dmitri Utkin, who was the military leader of the Wagner group, was also on board the plane, while Prigozhin was primarily the public face and political leader. Utkin, a neo-Nazi militant and great admirer of Adolf Hitler (he had chosen the name of the group, for his passion for the composer Richard Wagner and his opera The Ring of the Nibelung) had been in charge of all military operations for years most important. Without him, the Wagner group loses its most important operations officer.
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This article is originally published on ilpost.it