The war in Ukraine has highlighted many absurdities within Russian society. These range from divisions strong enough in the Russian military command to cause Russian tanks to shoot ally checkpoints or the appointment of US movie actor Steven Seagal as martial arts instructor for the Russian armed forces. While these stories all carry an absurdist flair, none are quite as shocking as the unexpected rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a criminal who rose from the bottom to become an arguably significant stakeholder in Russia’s mission to exert global influence.
Pic. 1. Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serving Vladimir Putin in 2011
Yevgeny Prigozhin was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), in 1961, to working-class parents. Prigozhin’s childhood and teenage years were defined by financial difficulty, which led to the abandonment of his education in school to become a chef. Shortly after, Prigozhin began his criminal activities and is reported to have been engaged in the perpetual theft of various valuables, including furs, electronics, and small valuables. These activities landed him in a Russian prison, where he is believed to have made several connections that would later be relevant to his success in business. This is due to the interconnectivity of the criminal and business world in Russia after its economic liberalization following the fall of the Soviet Union. After his release from prison in the early 90s, Prigozhin maneuvered the minimally regulated market of Saint Petersburg to kickstart his first legal enterprise: a hot dog shop in the city’s flea market. This business saw immense success, and Prigozhin went on to apply his culinary expertise to a number of enterprises, be it in the management of the first grocery store chain in Saint Petersburg, or the founding of its casinos. Additionally, he opened several luxury restaurants in the city, where he had the privilege of meeting Vladimir Putin.
One of Prigozhin’s restaurants, New Island, is reportedly a favorite of President Putin due to being housed in a boat sailing along the Neva River. Prigozhin met Putin in the early 2000s, at the advent of his domination of the Russian political sphere. In this context, he proved himself as a potential collaborator of the Kremlin after hosting French President Jacques Chirac and his delegation during his 2001 visit to Russia. Due to Putin’s predilection towards hosting visiting dignitaries at Prigozhin’s restaurants, the relationship between them developed, earning Prigozhin the nickname of Putin’s Chef. During the following years, it is likely this connection made Prigozhin a multitude of business opportunities that have led to him amassing as much as hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2012, Prigozhin was offered the chance to heighten his involvement with the Russian government apparatus as a provider of food for schools and the military through his company, Concord Catering. It is theorized that a number of Prigozhin’s businesses are involved in money laundering operations conducted by the Russian government and are heavily integrated within the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Pic. 2. Visiting dignitaries at Prigozhin’s New Island restaurant in Saint Petersburg
This leads us to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict of 2014, where unmarked Russian troops started to appear in Crimea and the Donbass region, and were colloquially denominated as “little green men” due to their simple, conventional uniforms. The deployment of these troops marked the beginning of the Wagner Group, a loose collaboration of different companies that communally operate as an unofficial military arm of the Russian Federation. Around this time, Prigozhin began a company in his home city that was simply called Internet Research Agency. His own statements indicate that this firm has meddled in US elections through its team of professional internet trolls involved in online psyops and disinformation campaigns. However, Wagner remained Prigozhin’s primary endeavor, despite his involvement with the group only being confirmed in 2022. Initially, Dimitry Utkin, Prigozhin’s head of security, was believed to be Wagner’s founder.
The Wagner Group, while headquartered in a futuristic Saint Petersburg building, has allowed Russia to avoid the legal consequences of operations across the globe due to its unclear financial and operational ties to the Russian government. Wagner presence has been confirmed in Venezuela, Mali, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Syria, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Ukraine, at the very least. In some of these countries, Wagner is deployed to facilitate the survival and stability of Russian allies, be it fighting in Syria in the name of Bashar Al-Assad’s government or applying force to control protests against President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. Since 2018, Wagner has turned its attention toward CAR due to its disillusionment towards Western economic policy, unstable state structure, and rich deposits of gold, diamonds, and uranium. Here, Wagner is reported to have set up natural resource extraction contracts with the local authorities that benefit Putin’s regime and Prigozhin’s wealth and influence in Russian politics. The group’s troops have reportedly been involved in numerous human rights violations, including mass executions, and are suspected to have become deeply integrated into CAR’s government structure. For instance, reports from the country during Wagner’s peak involvement communicate that if one were to contact local emergency services, they would be connected to a Wagner operative.
Pic. 3. Leaked photo of Prigozhin’s trip to recruit convicts for the Ukrainian invasion
From 2022 onwards, Wagner troops have seen extensive front-line activity in Ukraine, and are credited with earning Russia some of its biggest victories in the recent months of the war. This includes the capture of Soledar in January and a number of successful offensives in the Bakhmut area. Unexpectedly, he has overtly praised the Ukrainian resistance’s capabilities despite the overall negative depiction of Ukraine in the Russian narrative. In a bid to gain political influence in Russia, Prigozhin came forward to declare his leadership of Wagner in September of last year. Soon after, videos surfaced of Prigozhin in military dress, recruiting convicts to fight for Wagner and the Russian armed forces, or delivering motivational addresses to his troops. However, recent critical comments against the Russian military command and Putin’s parliament, where Prigozhin made harshly honest comments on the state of the invasion, may hurt his influence on Vladimir Putin’s side. It is yet unknown whether Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Rasputin of the modern age, amassing incredible political influence through his tricks and charms. However, his rise from a lowly criminal to a wealthy business tycoon, to the commander of the Wagner group now exerting transcontinental influence, speaks volumes about the unconventional pathways one may take to rise through the ranks of corrupt Russia. We will never know the exact methods and motivations behind Chef’s ascension to Russian society, but for anyone interested in modern geopolitics, Yevgeny Prigozhin is someone to look out for.
Pic. 4. Prigozhin pictured at the funerary rites of Dmitry Menshikov, Wagner group fighter, at the Beloostrovskoye cemetery near Saint Petersburg