Governor of the grey zone: a portrait of PMC Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin

How did Prigozhin go from selling hot dogs in St. Petersburg to leading a band of mercenaries?

Governor of the grey zone: a portrait of PMC Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin

Illustration: Novaya Gazeta Europe

An explosion rocked St. Petersburg’s Street Bar on the evening of 2 April. Pro-Putin “war correspondent” Vladlen Tatarsky was killed in the explosion, and at least 33 people were injured. The terrorist attack occurred during a meeting of the discussion club Cyber Z Front. The cafe for the meet ups was provided to the club by its owner and founder of PMC Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin. Terrorising Prigozhin and war correspondents affiliated with him could have been the main goal of the explosion, the US Institute for the Study of War speculates. According to the analysts of the institute, the blame lies with the businessman’s political ambitions.

The proof of Prigozhin’s political ambitions is in his increased appearances in the media since the start of the war, the experts who talked to Novaya-Europe think. The businessman ranked in the top 10 of the most mentioned people in Russian media for the first time in January 2023. Creation of political projects with his involvement has been forecasted by the media since last autumn.

Novaya-Europe’s correspondent has taken a closer look at Prigozhin’s biography in search of an answer to one specific question: does Prigozhin really possess power as part of Russia’s political elites and should we be expecting “Putin’s chef” to become the systemic leader of the “party of war”?

Meeting high-ranking officials and getting his projects approved by the government is a defining turn in Prigozhin’s career that he has been building up to since the end of the 1990s, either by opening prestigious restaurants or organising the “troll factory” in Russia on state orders. However, despite all of his efforts, Prigozhin’s habitual radicalism and his criminal past never allowed him to take up a place in the official governmental institutions or public political elites, something other acquaintances of Putin’s from St. Petersburg were able to do. Still, Prigozhin found his niche in a non-public field — where the official state institutions wouldn’t want to act openly.

The war gave Prigozhin an opportunity to finally become a public player. His criminal past that he used to try and hide behind the persona of a hospitable restaurant owner now served as a fertile ground for recruiting convicts for his PMC. It also helped the media turn “Wagner fighters” from unprincipled half-marginalised mercenaries to some of the protagonists of the Ukraine war.

However, it seems that Prigozhin is better at working on his image or the image of the projects affiliated with him than at trying to take up his own space in among Putin’s elites, out in the open. In the last year, Russian and international media dubbed Prigozhin “the demon of war”, the night-time boss of St. Petersburg, and all but the second man in the country.

But the events of the last months — for example, Prigozhin’s conflict with Russia’s Defence Ministry due to the “munition famine” and the prolonged fight for Bakhmut in Ukraine — demonstrate that it’s just a persona that Prigozhin would like to match up to.

My main profession is a chef

“When one speaks about Prigozhin, one always has to distinguish between the real weight he carries and what he is pretending to be in the media,” is how Andrey Zakharov, former journalist for BBC News Russian, who spent several years investigating how the organisations belonging to “Putin’s chef” work, describes the businessman. “In reality, the Kremlin has always treated Prigozhin as a man to go to for special requests — for example to head PMC Wagner. All of his businesses are tied to the state, while his only actual assets still are the restaurants in St. Petersburg.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin was born in 1961 in Leningrad. He graduated from an Olympic reserve boarding school, he skied professionally. However, he never ended up committing to sports. In 1979, a Leningrad court slapped Prigozhin with a suspended sentence for theft. But in 1981, the future businessman was sentenced again — to thirteen years behind bars for assault and home burglaries. Prigozhin didn’t end up serving the entire sentence — he was pardoned in 1988 and released in 1990. However, almost ten years in a Soviet prison did leave an impact on both the man and his future career.

Boris Spektor. Photo:  HMS Group

Boris Spektor. Photo: HMS Group

Once out of prison, Prigozhin began building a business. At first, he and his father-in-law sold hot dogs, but then Prigozhin went into food and gambling businesses. He got help from his former classmate and businessman Boris Spektor, one of the co-founders of Konti, the first and largest casino in St. Petersburg. He also headed a popular chain of shops.

When his shops stopped bringing in money, Prigozhin became a restaurateur. In 1995, he and his ex-colleague Kirill Ziminov founded Concord Catering and in 1996 he started opening the first elite restaurants in St. Petersburg. That same year, he launched the ship restaurant New Island on which at the beginning of the 2000s Vladimir Putin met with Presidents of France and US Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush. Prigozhin served the leaders personally.

Prigozhin’s restaurants soon became frequented by members of Russian elites. The restaurant business helped Prigozhin get closer ties with the country’s political elites, which eventually ensured his quick successful rise.


A growing businessman

Becoming acquainted with the political elites opened all the roads in St. Petersburg for Prigozhin. During the entirety of the 2000s, his elite catering business was quite successful: his company provided catering for big events, including the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and the reception after Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration.

He was also involved in development business. Prigozhin rented out a historic building in the centre St. Petersburg, the Eliseyev Emporium. His wife Lyubov Prigozhina later privatised part of the building to open a shop.

Lyubov Prigozhina. Photo:  Spa & Management

Lyubov Prigozhina. Photo: Spa & Management

In the 2010s, Concord was finally able to go beyond elite catering: the businessman’s company started providing food for schools and the army. Concord received its first state contracts to supply school meals in St. Petersburg and the region (according to Prigozhin, Alexander Beglov, who at the time was Deputy Head of the President’s Administration, helped him with that). But for a lot of reasons, Prigozhin had to abandon the city. According to Novaya-Europe’s interlocutors, that decision could be due, among other things, to parents complaining about the food and his turned-sour relations with the St. Petersburg elites (including Valentina Matviyenko, the current Russian senate speaker).

Instead, the businessman began supplying food to Moscow schools, and then to kindergartens. Parents in Moscow complained about the food, too, but Prigozhin still managed to establish himself in the city; several years later, he was basically controlling the entire Moscow school meal supply market. In 2015, he controlled 90% of all meals supplied to Moscow schools and kindergartens. The total of contracts given to the companies affiliated with “Putin’s chef” amounted to 26.8 billion rubles (€322 million).

Despite these huge sums, Concord wasn’t doing all that well with supplying meals to schools. The companies affiliated with Prigozhin were accused of being the reason for a dysentery outbreak, and that scandal lasted for almost all of 2019. A criminal case was initiated, with class action lawsuits filed by parents of children who got sick tried in Moscow courts.

Vladimir Putin visiting a Concord Company facility. Photo:  Wikimedia Commons , CC BY 3.0

Vladimir Putin visiting a Concord Company facility. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Starting from the 2010s, Prigozhin was supplying food not only to schools and not only in Moscow. The geography of his business became broader: the companies affiliated with him were responsible for providing food in Krasnodar, Kaliningrad, Pyatigorsk, the Khabarovsk region, Yekaterinburg, the Zabaykalsky region, and the Yaroslavl region. The journalists were able to locate the regions where Prigozhin’s companies operated by tracking cases of poisoning and complaints about the food. In ten years, over 1,000 lawsuits for the total amount of 4 billion rubles (€48 million) were filed against the companies affiliated with “Putin’s chef”.

At the same time, Prigozhin was also feeding the military. At first, he opened several catering points in the General Staff and Defence Ministry. But in 2012, two years after meal supply in military units had been outsourced to businesses, 90% of all orders in the sector suddenly went to the companies affiliated with Prigozhin. Leonid Teyf, former deputy general director of Voentorg (the company charged with contracting caterers for the military), helped Prigozhin secure the orders. Teyf would later be accused of receiving bribes related to the Defence Ministry contracts that amounted to $150 million. Allegedly, the two men had a trusting relationship. Novaya Gazeta reported that it was Teyf who oversaw the passing of Voentorg’s assets related to food supply and army maintenance to Prigozhin.

The total sum of the contract signed for 2013-2014 amounted to 92 billion rubles (€1.1 billion). The contract was signed by head of Voentorg Vladimir Pavlov, who was appointed by Russia’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu.

However, Prigozhin’s connections with the Defence Ministry didn’t end there. In summer 2014, the media were discussing that the companies affiliated with the businessman would begin servicing military towns, providing meals, cleaning, barracks maintenance, heating, and water supply. The businessman went to the defence minister with the idea. At the end of 2014, the companies affiliated with Prigozhin began providing cleaning services at the Defence Ministry facilities. And in 2015, they actually received orders for maintenance of military towns. According to media outlet The Bell, from 2014 to 2019 the alleged volume of state orders on meal supplies to schools and hospitals, as well as services provided to the Defence Ministry, could have amounted to 149.8 billion rubles (€1.8 billion), with all of that money allegedly going to the companies affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin.

But this wasn’t the end-all of the businessman’s ambitions. And of course, they did not only include Russia.


In 2021, by order of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a movie was filmed and released, titled 16th — the businessman financed more than one movie to promote his projects. The plot is as follows: hackers establish the Internet Research Agency; their office is located in an abandoned kindergarten in a village near St. Petersburg. They’re trolls who want to change the world — out of curiosity, they try to control the American public opinion. Their experiments go so far that they attract the attention of the FSB.

The poster for the film “16th”. Photo:  Kinopoisk

The poster for the film “16th”. Photo: Kinopoisk

The beginning of the movie is accompanied by these subtitles: “In 2016, the presidential elections took place in the US. Donald Trump’s victory shocked the entire world. And only 16 people in the Olgino village of St. Petersburg’s Primorsky District knew why the result of the elections couldn’t have been any different. To avoid another criminal case, all names have been changed. Out of respect to the world history, the way the events had occurred hasn’t been changed.”

Only, everything happened differently in real life.

The fact that Yevgeny Prigozhin owns a real “troll factory” in the St. Petersburg region village of Olgino became public knowledge in 2013, after the publication of Novaya Gazeta’s investigation.

Novaya Gazeta’s journalist was able to get hired by the Internet Research Agency. The applicants were offered money to write 100 comments on the subject of politics and business per day. Among other things, they had to slam Alexey Navalny and the US.

The Oxford Computational Propaganda Research Project later found that the first experiments on manipulating the public opinion on social media were conducted by Prigozhin’s empire all the way back in 2009 during the municipal elections in several Russian cities. In 2013, the “troll factory” was already attempting to influence the US elections on Twitter.

Andrey Mikhaylov, who worked with Prigozhin to establish the media empire, previously told Novaya Gazeta that at the beginning of the “Olgino” project, about 200 people worked for the “factory”. The “trolls” were divided in two groups — the first one focused on Ukraine and the second on the US. Gradually, the campaign started including other social networks, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram among them.

During the 2016 US presidential elections, Russian “trolls” attempted to sway the conservative voters towards Donald Trump. In 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller brought charges against Yevgeny Prigozhin and another 12 Russian citizens under the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

“Troll factories” operate on the basis of computational propaganda — as in, bots spreading certain messages. They are geared towards social media algorithms that enhance the views of the most popular opinion. By actively commenting, liking, and sharing certain messages, the bots make them more noticeable for other users. Using people in the process of creating the messages helps make them appear closer to authentic opinions.

Prigozhin denied his connection to the creation of the “factory” for a long time, but in February 2023 he stated that he was its founder. According to the man, he came up with the idea to defend the Russian Internet from the “boorish aggressive propaganda via anti-Russian theses by the West”.

Political scientist and founder of analytical project R.Politik Tatiana Stanovaya thinks that the “troll factory” was born out of Prigozhin wanting to find a weakness in the government and be able to offer a service to Putin that official institutions wouldn’t be able to provide effectively. Acting in the “grey” and “black” zones where the government can’t operate is exactly the niche that Prigozhin mastered in the 2010s.

Together with the “troll factory” was also born the “media factory”. Prigozhin’s former employee Andrey Mikhaylov said that the first project of this kind was Newspaper about Newspapers. The concept of the project was to make real media post fake news and then blast them for doing so. It wasn’t successful, but at the beginning of 2013 Nevskiye Novosti and Kharkov News Agency were registered. In several years, Prigozhin’s media network grew significantly — in 2017, at least 16 outlets that had multiple millions of readers were part of it.

“Why try doing something and spinning it to the media when you can create your own media and do anything you want with it?” Dossier Centre journalist Denis Korotkov explains, rhetorically, the reasons for creation of the “media factory”. Korotkov himself has been attacked by Prigozhin-affiliated media several times.

“In the past, the media that were part of the ‘factory’ alone had millions of readers [in 2018 the total audience of the media affiliated with Prigozhin was 72 million people — editor’s note]. Not just bots, but actual readers,” is how Andrey Zakharov describes the influence of “Prigozhin’s media”. “Not everyone knew that Prigozhin was behind them.”

Often, employees of Prigozhin’s establishments not only spread propaganda but also attacked journalists of independent media and opposition politicians.

However, Prigozhin’s media activity didn’t end with social networks and his own outlets. In recent years, Prigozhin financed several feature films. The majority of them focuses on events in Africa: the plot centres on either Russian soldiers taking part in the combat in the Central African Republic or Russians being taken hostage in Libya. These movies were made to promote another endeavour of Prigozhin’s — private military company (PMC) Wagner.

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In Russia, mercenarism is prohibited by law: those charged with “organising an illegal arms formation or participating in it” may face up to 18 years in prison. But that did not stop the political elite from establishing their own “state” private military company in the early 2010s.

Russia’s General Staff had the idea of organising a Russian PMC after a talk by Eeben Barlow at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Barlow is a former member of the apartheid-era South African Defence Force and is currently head of Executive Outcomes, a PMC. At the forum, he talked to Russian generals about the benefits of mercenarism, sources of The Bell said. At the time, the Russian military leadership had been considering setting up a team of retired servicemen for over a year at that point. Head of the General Staff Nikolay Makarov expressed support for the idea.

Initially, the General Staff did not plan to use PMCs to expand into other countries: the mercenaries were needed for special missions. Due to possible issues with arms trafficking, the generals wanted the paramilitary group to remain in the “grey” zone — that is, they did not want to legalise it.

The “Wagner Center”: PMC Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV

The “Wagner Center”: PMC Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV

The idea was greenlit by Putin only in 2012. It was then that the General Staff offered Prigozhin a job overseeing the financial and economic management of the PMC. His relationship with Putin worked in his favour: Prigozhin knew the Russian president personally, but their ties were unknown to the general public.

“The actions of the military are restricted by an entire range of international norms. Meanwhile, PMCs can act more freely,” Ilya Shumanov says. “I think the Defence Ministry was very interested in using this proxy to achieve its goals. At the same time, it was important that the founder could not be accused of any ties to the Russian special services. A regular businessman would do just fine.”

According to Fontanka, PMC Wagner takes root from the Slavonic Corps, a private military company which recruited fighters back in 2013. The Slavonic Corps was led by managers of Russian PMC Moran Security Group, Vadim Gusev and Yevgeny Sidorov.

After the first unsuccessful operation in Syria, Gusev and Sidorov were detained, and later sentenced to three years behind bars for mercenarism.

However, by 2014, former fighters of the Slavonic Corps were seen in south-eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The team got together again under the leadership of Dmitry Utkin, former Russian military intelligence operative who goes by callsign “Wagner”.

In August 2015, fighters of the PMC were sent off to Syria, where they had some success at first: after Palmira was seized in 2016, Utkin and several other PMC fighters were invited to the Kremlin. Their photos with Putin later leaked online.

However, in 2018, the PMC had a massive blunder that put the existence of the organisation at risk. In February, during a battle with US servicemen at Deir ez-Zur, which involved heavy US aircraft, from several dozens to over a hundred PMC Wagner fighters were killed. This is a number that is several times higher than the entire losses of the Russian army and the PMC for 2017 (back then, 40 people were killed). The scale of the losses even forced Russia to recognise some of the deaths officially. Although the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the Russian citizens ended up in Syria on their own account.

The battle that killed so many Wagnerites was over oil. In 2016, Euro Polis, a company tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, signed an agreement with the Syrian government that allowed them to participate in the liberation, defence and development of Syrian oil and gas deposits. In return, Prigozhin was to receive a quarter of all oil and gas extracted from the territory they liberated for Bashar al-Assad.

Sources in the Russian Defence Ministry told The Bell that the Deir ez-Zur attack was not sanctioned by the Russian leadership: the PMC was acting on the orders of an unnamed Syrian businessman. The Russian military was “flabbergasted” by this willfulness. Prigozhin was forced to vow that this would not happen again and those responsible for it would undergo “corrective measures”.

Despite the fact that it was not easy for Prigozhin to convince the Kremlin to keep PMC Wagner around, its fighters were soon seen in other countries, mainly in Africa. In late 2017, Yevgeny Prigozhin became interested in African states. According to Proekt, he managed to sell this idea to Vladimir Putin. Soon, reports of Prigozhin’s activity in the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Kenya and Chad started trickling in.

Just like in Syria, the presence of Wagner PMC was often tied to natural resources in the area: for example, in the Central African Republic and in Sudan, Prigozhin-affiliated companies got permits for developing gold, diamonds and other natural riches in return for mercenary services. In February 2023, Financial Times revealed that in 2018-2022, Yevgeny Prigozhin benefited from the extraction of natural resources in Africa and the Middle East, earning up to $250 million.

However, the activity of Wagner PMC in the African states was not limited to mercenary services in return for natural resources. According to the internal documents of Prigozhin’s structures (that ended up in possession of Politico), the group signed deals with local governments promising their help in subduing protests and ensuring the safety of high-ranking officials. Besides, the Russian mercenaries held disinformation and propaganda campaigns in African states and organised protests that they paid locals to attend.

Up until 2022, Yevgeny Prigozhin denied any ties to the PMC, often citing the fact that such a notion simply does not exist in Russia. Their existence in the “grey zone” exempted the mercenaries from any responsibility. They were accused of war crimes numerous times — killings of the local population, rape, executions.

Investigating Prigozhin’s network of organisations could even cost journalists’ their lives. On 30 July 2018, reporters Alexander Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko were killed in the Central African Republic while preparing a report on PMC Wagner’s operations in the country. According to the Dossier Centre, Prigozhin-affiliated companies were behind their murder. However, in 2020, Russia’s Investigative Committee ruled that the murders were part of a robbery.

Kirill Romanovsky. Photo: social media

Kirill Romanovsky. Photo: social media

In January 2023, Kirill Romanovsky, a war correspondent of RIA FAN, a media outlet forming part of Prigozhin’s “media factory”, died from a brain tumour. It was Romanovsky who sent the journalists who were on their way to the Central African Republic the contact of Martin, a fixer. Martin, whose existence was not even proven, was allegedly supposed to help them shoot a video report in the country. The journalists were killed when they were on their way to meet the fixer.

Prigozhin recorded a video message after Romanovsky’s death, calling the reporter his “comrade” and “the greatest war correspondent”.

Army of prisoners

The day before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin tried and failed to reach his contacts in the General Staff’s Main Directorate. He only managed to get hold of them after the invasion. According to Meduza, the businessman was on the outs with the Russian leadership prior to the invasion. Prigozhin’s relationship with Putin somewhat soured; there was an ongoing conflict with Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and the presidential administration. As a result, the war started without Yevgeny Prigozhin and his PMC.

While other mercenary units were already in Luhansk and Donetsk, Wagner PMC was not even planning to go to Ukraine. On the day of the invasion, the company did not even scale up recruitment of new fighters. Mercenaries of PMC Redut, an organisation tied to Putin’s long-time friend Gennady Timchenko and fully controlled by the Defence Ministry, were seen in Ukraine instead of the Wagnerites at first.

PMC Wagner’s mercenaries in Ukraine. Photo:  VK

PMC Wagner’s mercenaries in Ukraine. Photo: VK

Wagner Group units arrived in Ukraine only in late March. Under the control of the Defence Ministry, Wagner head-hunters launched an emergency call-up of new fighters.

In April, a number of experienced Wagner fighters were called in from Africa and Syria to the Ukraine frontline. Others were summoned from leave. It happened because the newcomers were suffering significant losses. They were used as a strike force and were killed en masse (Meduza reported on that, too). But there were some successes, to: in June, after two months of fighting, Wagner soldiers took over Popasna, a small town in the Luhansk region.

After this win, Prigozhin was awarded the Hero of Russia star for sending mercenaries to the frontline and for the successful offensive in the Luhansk region. By the summer of 2022, the Russian leadership no longer feared mentioning PMC Wagner in the media: state news agencies and TV started showing reports about the organisation, despite the fact that mercenarism remains illegal in Russia.

However, the fact that PMC Wagner is mentioned in the media does not mean that it has been legitimised at a state level, Tatyana Stanovaya says. The legal status of the company stays the same, and all the bills seeking to change that have been overturned. The political analyst is confident that this is tied to the fact that PMC Wagner’s legalisation has never even been a topic of discussion.

“For Putin, Prigozhin isn’t just a state instrument. He’s a true iteration of civil society. This is why [Putin] greenlit certain activities of PMC Wagner, gave them an area of responsibility and an opportunity to get support from other institutions,” Stanovaya says.

In the summer, Prigozhin’s influence rose significantly: in July, reported that PMC Wagner was recruiting convicts to send them off to the frontline. Soon after that, this report was confirmed by Russian prisoners: according to them, Prigozhin was going around prisons himself, sometimes accompanied by PMC commander Dmitry Utkin, offering the convicts to sign a contract and be granted amnesty after six months.

The Wagner Group gave preference to murderers, robbers, as well as those accused of battery and theft.

In September, a video showing a man very similar to Prigozhin offering convicts to join the PMC went viral.

“Do you know anyone who can get you out of here even if you’ve got a 10-year sentence? There are just two options. God and Allah — but that would be in a casket. I’m taking you alive. But I’m not always returning you alive,” the man said.

According to Mediazona, by late September, the number of convicts at Russian prisons went down by 23,000 people. This drop happened over the two months of recruitment. Olga Romanova, head of Russia Behind Bars NGO, said in January 2023 that up to 50,000 convicts could have been sent to the war. She added that only 10,000 were in active combat at the time. The rest had either deserted or died.

In December, a second round of recruitment started at Russian prisons. Those who refused were threatened with new criminal charges. According to Olga Romanova, in February 2023, the Russian Defence Ministry got directly involved in convict recruitment.

The increasing number of convicts fighting in the war has had an effect on the situation on the frontlines. In October 2022, the Wagner Group got control of a large area from northern Horlivka to Soledar. In the winter, the PMC started an offensive on Bakhmut, where fighting has been underway since August. The PMC seems to be staging a more effective offensive than the Russian army. This is largely due to the fact that the mercenaries use a tactic of storming Ukrainian positions that leads to huge losses — likely among former convicts.

The PMC is losing not only people, but also large amounts of ammo. In February 2023, the PMC reported a shortage of ammunition. A few weeks ago, Prigozhin stated that the Wagnerites need 10,000 tonnes of munitions monthly. In comparison, during the heavy fighting in Donbas last spring, Russia spent up to 2,000 tonnes of munitions daily, according to Forbes Ukraine.

The Wagner Group is also experiencing a lack of new recruits: in early February 2023, Prigozhin was forced to end his convict recruitment campaign.


In mid-March, two similar videos were posted by a Telegram channel affiliated with the Wagner Group. In the videos, fifteen men wearing military uniform, body armour, helmets, and holding firearms, stand before an abandoned building, their faces covered. One of them says: “Today our fighters are to be buried. The administration of Goryachy Klyuch is trying to not let this happen. Wait until we get to you scumbags, and deal with you, because you cunts bring more harm than the Ukrainian army, than the Nazis.”

Apart from the “shell hunger” and the de-facto ban on recruiting new convicts, Prigozhin faced another issue this spring: people in certain towns and settlements are not willing to bury Wagner’s fighters with honours, the military way. The address posted on the Telegram channel was referring to the administration of Goryachy Klyuch, a town in Russia’s Krasnodar region, that refused to bury the combatants at the graveyard in Bakinskaya. The reason behind the refusal was, however, not moral principles but the grave count: the cemetery has been used to bury hundreds of Wagner fighters over the past two months.

The local authorities were no competition for PMC Wagner, however: despite the ban, the funeral took place on 19 March, with wreaths and carnations present.

Yevgeny Prigozhin managed to win this battle, his fighters threatening the local official. Few people in Russia’s politics are allowed to act this way.

“In terms of Russian legislation, Prigozhin’s private military company is a quasi-public system used to reproduce legitimised violence. Basically, those are outsourced armed units. [Chechnya head] Kadyrov and [head of Russia’s National Guard Viktor] Zolotov used to have such troops before,” Shumanov says. “It is important that they are allowed to use weapons inside ‘Russian territory’ (from Russia’s POV the occupied territories are new regions of the country). Prigozhin was not allowed anything like it in the past as his troops used to operate abroad only, if we put attacks on opposition politicians aside. With this new permission to use arms he has turned into some sort of a warlord.”

The one year of the war turned Prigozhin into a high-profile political player in the public domain. Although the businessman has not made any specific political demands, he has an understanding of what Russia should look like. This is evident from his criticism of the Defence Ministry or calls for certain officials to be laid off. However, he might simply not get his chance to achieve his ambitions. Experts Novaya-Europe spoke to are of the opinion that he has fallen out with almost the entire political elite after one year of the war.

The first conflict that really stood out on a national level was Prigozhin’s standoff with the Defence Ministry. Last autumn, the founder of PMC Wagner, same as the Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov, began to criticise the agency every now and then for its defeats on the battlefield and the retreat from the regions of Kherson and Kharkiv.

There were confrontations between Prigozhin and Shoigu before as well. In addition to the food that Prigozhin was supplying to the military being hardly better than the one he had for the schools, both sides have had mutual issues due to the occasional lack of coordination between Russia’s regular military and mercenaries in Syria. Their relations reached a new level with the onset of the “shell hunger”: in February 2023, Prigozhin accused Defence Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of intentionally driving PMC Wagner to extinction and blamed the death of dozens of fighters on the two, posting photos of combatants’ dead bodies.

But the Defence Ministry was not the only party Prigozhin has fallen out with.

“Prigozhin found himself in a conflict with almost the entire political elite, including numerous state bodies, governors, and security officers. They are all trying to squeeze him out of Ukraine, he has been deprived of access to prisons, so it is much harder for him to recruit new men now. It appears he will have to leave Ukraine and return to what he was doing before. That is, Africa, Syria, the “troll factory”, and so on,” Stanovaya believes.

However, Prigozhin is not alone in the political arena, and there are people who support him. However, officials he is in touch with can hardly be considered his allies, Stanovaya notes. Those relations are more like situational agreements and include Prigozhin’s cooperation with both high-ranking state officials, like vice PM Denis Manturov, and regional leaders, such as Sergey Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor.

“Prigozhin got into Ukraine hoping that it would only take a couple of weeks, same as the rest of the country, and that he would be able to demonstrate his military victories to Putin. But everything turned out to be different, and now he is in an ambiguous situation,” Tatiana Stanovaya sums up. “On the one hand, Prigozhin’s PMC has become known nationwide, and he announced that he has political ambitions and began to gain political capital. On the other hand, he failed to achieve any significant success in the war and did not fundamentally change the situation at the front.”

Prigozhin vs. Beglov

The real influence of Prigozhin is evident on the civilian battlefield where he has been fighting against the St. Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov for the past few years. Now that Prigozhin’s chances of participating in federal politics are shrinking every day, one way to gain additional influence for him is to finally establish a foothold in the businessman’s native city.

Despite the fact that St. Petersburg was where Prigozhin started his first projects, people Novaya-Europe spoke with agree that he did not take part in any local politics for a long time. In 2017, Prigozhin’s political engineers were working on a study of the local opposition movement, but it was only in 2019 that his presence truly became evident when the businessman supported Alexander Beglov in the gubernatorial elections.

“In 2019, all Prigozhin’s media worked for Beglov and poured mud on his opponents, including me,” says Boris Vishnevsky, a local lawmaker. “In addition, although there was no official confirmation, it was clear that some of the candidates for municipal deputies were running under his approval, they were in complete harmony. But later we saw that Prigozhin’s assets started to assail Beglov with criticism instead of chanting the praises. Soon enough Prigozhin himself started to criticise Beglov.”

The confrontation between Prigozhin and the governor of St. Petersburg started in 2020 and became especially evident in 2021, says a Novaya-Europe source close to the city administration. Our source believes that the businessman was expecting to get certain benefits in St. Petersburg in exchange for his assistance in the electoral race: for example, that his companies would be able to provide meals in city’s schools and hospitals, and receive development projects. It turned out, however, that Prigozhin was virtually pushed aside here.

His projects were facing issues in the city: even the opening of PMC Wagner Centre was postponed when it turned out that the office building had not been put in commission.

One way or another, the confrontation resulted in Prigozhin’s media empire running a war of words against Beglov. The situation became especially tense after the war had started.

“In psychological terms, Prigozhin is totally a destabilising factor for the city officials,” a source close to the administration of St. Petersburg tells Novaya Gazeta Europe.

At the same time, the governor pays no attention to Prigozhin’s public rhetoric. Our source says the businessman attacks the governor at two levels: via regional and via nationwide Telegram channels.

An investigation by the Dossier Centre reveals that Prigozhin’s “troll factory” received permission from the Kremlin to create pseudo-opposition channels in 2020. There is a regional network of Telegram channels managed from St. Petersburg under Prigozhin’s leadership.

“Regional channels have small audiences, but there are so many of them, and they are tied to different areas of the city. They post nasty stuff about [Beglov] every now and then, mixing up facts and speculation, which eventually turns out pretty plausible,” Novaya-Europe’s source says.

Although Prigozhin keeps the St. Petersburg administration on their toes, experts Novaya-Europe spoke to are certain that no changes in the political landscape of the city should be expected in the near future. Andrey Zakharov believes that Prigozhin’s attitude towards Beglov is a sort of an indicator of the businessman’s real influence. Prigozhin did not just criticise Beglov, but he did accuse his opponent of treason. And nothing happened to Beglov after this.

Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photo: screenshot from the video

Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photo: screenshot from the video

‘Archetypal evil’ 

There might be another explanation behind Prigozhin’s growing publicity. Meduza wrote last November that the growth of Prigozhin’s media profile is no accident: the St. Petersburg businessman is thinking of setting up a conservative movement that might eventually develop into a political party. Meduza’s sources say that this movement will be focused on “patriotism and statesmanship” and criticise Russian officials. This rhetoric will go hand in hand with revanchism, i.e., it is going to cultivate willingness to take revenge for past military losses.

Prigozhin’s leadership over Wagner that he admitted last year also works towards this political image despite this fact being denied for years.

PMC Wagner Centre was opened with a flair last November, on the Day of National Unity. This project was supposed to be accommodating patriotic projects free of charge.

It might appear that there must be a lot of things going on inside, but this is a deceptive impression. Bumaga media outlet has found out that the venue stands empty, with only two storeys opened.

Videos claimed to be recorded from the front lines and other clips that are being often posted by various Telegram channels also contribute to Prigozhin’s political image, same as the image of his PMC. For example, the execution of mercenary Yevgeny Nuzhin that remains uninvestigated has turned sledgehammer into a new informal symbol of the Russian state: this tool is being sent to the European Parliament, and security officers take sledgehammers with them as they search the office of Memorial or Moscow bars.

Prigozhin’s efforts are clearly not in vain: as of January 2023, Prigozhin hit the top 10 list of Russians that are most often discussed in the media for the first time, surpassing Sergey Shoigu.

“Prigozhin is trying to be the coolest of all Russian patriots. While others only speak of patriotism, he enforces it with his own hands,” Abbas Gallyamov says as he describes the political image that PMC Wagner’s leader is creating for himself.

However, Gallyamov is certain that other components of Prigozhin’s image are unlikely to attract any real voters. The political scientist says that there is no way of making up an image completely since there are basic archetypes that voters get a grasp of subconsciously. In terms of ideology, Prigozhin indeed might be perceived as a true anti-Westerner and a patriot, but typologically he is no more than a crime figure desperate for power. The Kremlin used to scare Russia’s population with this image in the 2000s, justifying its political crackdown.

“He is revolting on an emotional level. He symbolises chaos and total breakdown,” Gallyamov continues. “He will never win a campaign in a competitive environment; this is my view as a political strategist. He is too odious; he is archetypal evil.”

Some other experts insist that Prigozhin will hardly be able to act in a systemic political framework. As a man who has always been on the fringes of the law, he will simply lose himself in a red tape system. Zakharov believes that Prigozhin’s public statements seek no other purpose than to attract as many resources for PMC Wagner as possible, and political ambition is not the case. At the same time, Prigozhin will not be able to show any real competition within the political elite: his empire is almost entirely based on public procurement and requires support from the state. If the Kremlin decides to close down all opportunities for him, this would not be a difficult thing to do.

Political scientist Konstantin Kalachev believes that Prigozhin should not be expected in any halls of power anytime soon, even if he has the required charisma and desire to take someone’s position. Kalachev reminds us that nobody is allowed to do politics in Russia without the Kremlin’s permission. Prigozhin is unlikely to get this permission, since nobody expects politics from him. Moreover, he is too self-sufficing for a conservative system.

Novaya-Europe filed an inquiry with Yevgeny Prigozhin, asking questions about how his organisations function. By the time this article was published, there was no response from the businessman.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.