Idol of the Z-patriots. Next to him, Putin seems to be a respectable leader.

A criminal who spent nine years in a penal colony, founder of a chain of hot dog stands, a troll farm and a private army—the career of Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin.

"Contract with the Motherland". This is the title of a fictionalised documentary aired by RT TV (formerly Russia Today) at the beginning of December 2022, dealing with Wagner's Private Military Company. Content in brief? There is no better patriot than a mercenary, especially from a company run by a man who has permanent access to the ear of Vladimir Vladimirovich.

In Russia, nothing happens without a reason. So why was this movie released? Is Kremlin deliberately exaggerating the importance of Yevgeny Prigozhin? Do they want to show the West that now - in Russia - we may have people coming to power, who will wreak havoc not only in their own county? Against his former cook, Putin stands out as a respectable leader, authoritarian but able to save the state from collapse and chaos.

Theft and assault

A little earlier, at the end of November last year, a video appeared on the Internet in which a man with tattoos on his body, introducing himself as Sasha “Kurara”, said that he had been in prison with Prigozhin for many years. He revealed that the current owner of the Wagner Group had belonged to the lowest caste of prisoners - the so-called “петухи” (roosters or cocks), who provide sexual services to other prisoners.

It is yet to be known whether the information is accurate. However, the tattoos visible on Kurara's body indicate that he is an important person in the prisoners’ world, belonging to authorities in this environment, i.e. one of the leaders of the criminal underworld - “thief in law”.

It is speculated that Yury Valentinovich Kovalchuk, the co-owner and president of the Rossiya Bank, is behind the recording, as he does not like the ambitions of the Wagner Group owner in St. Petersburg.

But Prigozhin, once operating in the shadows, has recently become a public figure and has turned many influential people against himself. Undoubtedly, the disclosure of his “jail cell” status was calculated to undermine his credibility. Recalling his criminal past is not accidental, especially in the light of the businessman's recent activity in penal colonies, where he recruits people for war. After all, how a правильний зек (respectable criminal) is going to go under the orders of a “cock” ”петух”?

The accusation made by Sasha Kurara is dangerous for Prigozhin, because everyone knows that he spent many years in prison in his youth. He was charged with theft, assault with intent to steal someone else's property and involving minors in criminal activity. In 1981, a Leningrad court sentenced him to 13 years in a maximum security penal colony. He was released after nine years; When the Soviet Union collapsed, new opportunities opened up for determined people.

The “Old Customs House” and the “New Island”

He started with a hot dog stand; soon there was a whole chain in the city. At that time, Vladimir Putin - after returning from the GDR as an officer of the active reserve of the KGB - gained influence in the authorities of Saint Petersburg, enjoying the trust of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. So Prigozhin became friends with one of Putin's bodyguards, Roman Igorevich Tsepov. This way, he found access to the then-omnipotent official of the mayor's office. Tsepov was Putin's main contact with the St. Petersburg criminal underworld. That's probably why he lived only until 2004 when he was poisoned by a radioactive substance.

But let's go back to the 1990s. Prigozhin develops his business and opens more chic restaurants. One of them is the “Old Customs House”, a favourite pub in the city council. But Putin liked the “New Island” restaurant more. There he celebrated his birthday and there - when he became president - he invited such guests as Jacques Chirac or George W. Bush.

When Vladimir Putin moved to Moscow, became prime minister and finally president, a cohort of associates and friends followed him from the Neva River. The names of Patrushev, Kovalchuk, Shamalov and Timchenko were mentioned. They were the people who took the most important positions in intelligence services and business.

Yevgeny Prigozhin was patient and slowly built his business empire in the shadows. As he was active in gastronomy, he catered for state institutions, mainly for the army, but he also did not turn away from schools and kindergartens. He had no problem winning contracts. Prigozhin's companies received government settlements worth $3.1 billion within five years.

Trolls and mercenaries

Money is essential, but even a former Leningrad street thug can have political ambitions. So he began to diversify his business by opening the “Olgino Troll Factory” on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The whole world heard about the Internet Research Agency when the US imposed sanctions on it and Prigozhin himself for influencing social media during the American Presidential Campaign in 2016 and the campaign for American Congress in 2018.

At that time, Yevgeny Prigozhin not only launched Internet trolls but also organised squads of heavily armed mercenaries. First of all, in Donbas, they killed not only Ukrainians but also disobedient rebel commanders in 2014-15. Then, straight after that, in Syria. There, the Wagnerians helped Bashar al-Assad - in close cooperation with the Russian military government forces and Tehran's Shiite militia – defeat the ISIS jihadists and more moderate rebels.
The Wagner Group Center in St. Petersburg was opened in November 2022. Photo. IGOR RUSSAK / Reuters / Forum
But it was still the time when Prigozhin did not want to be associated with trolls from Olgino or - even more so - with Wagnerians. He reacted nervously to media publications on this subject. He took journalists to court, some of whom even passed away ... For example, Maksim Borodin from Yekaterinburg. He fell off the balcony and died on the spot. And in the Central African Republic, three Russian journalists who went there to make a documentary about the Wagnerians were murdered.

  In the media, he was called "Putin's cook". When asked about Yevgeny Prigozhin's political influence in December 2018, the Russian president replied: "All my cooks are officers of the Federal Security Service(FSB). They are officers of various ranks. I don't have any other cooks.

Flights to Africa

Nevertheless, four years later, Prigozhin announced to the world that, yes, he was the owner of the Wagner Group. He came out on September 26, 2022. Then, in the social media profile of his company Concord Management and Consulting (specialising in food supplies for the army), a statement appeared: "I cleaned the old guns myself. I sorted the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who helped me with that job. On May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, later known as the Wagner Group.”

The Wagner Group was established because Kremlin needed an armed formation to pursue its political interests where the troops could not officially be sent. This is how that formation was created, organised and financed by Prigozhin - approved by the FSB - and at the same time dependent on cooperation with the state army, when you consider their logistics, supplies, and intelligence.

The time for Black Continent has finally come, which was associated with the Kremlin's political plans as in Syria. The model was known, and it’s always the same. Prigozhin sends mercenaries to act in the interests of the Russian state, helping local governments and displacing French influence, and in return, his companies are rewarded with contracts and concessions, even for the exploitation of gold and diamond deposits – as it is done in Sudan or the Central African Republic.< br>
Starting from the turn of 2017-18, Yevgeny Prigozhin's private jet has constantly been flying to Africa. Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo. "Putin's cook", as an unofficial envoy of Kremlin, offers everywhere his military support (Wagnerians) or political support (Olgino trolls, the so-called political technologists). All of this is offered in exchange for the authorities’ favour towards Russia and the companies associated with Prigozhin. Naturally…

War with the army

In recent months, Yevgeny Prigozhin has become a celebrity and the subject of analysis by various Western think tanks. Because he wants to show that he is actually the greatest fighter on the Ukrainian front, unlike the generals. He openly criticises the military command, and at the same time, his Wagnerian supporters receive heavy equipment, artillery and even planes and helicopters from the army. The same happens with logistics, hospitals, ammunition, and intelligence information. Because that's the order from the Kremlin.

At the same time, the media emphasise that the Wagnerians fight better than the regular army forces. Such reports cannot do anything but infuriate Sergei Shoigu - a Minister of Defense for general Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff. The frustration is all the greater because Shoigu and Gerasimov lost a large part of the best troops in the first phase of the invasion, and they had to agree to bring the Wagner Group to the front. This private army was intact, so even after entering the fights in Donbas, it often fared better than the regular troops.

Good cooperation with the army collapsed already in 2017. Apparently, it started with two reports about the capture of Palmyra, which landed simultaneously on Putin's desk. According to the first notification, one of the most important Islamist strongholds was captured by the official Russian military forces; the second report attributed the victory to the Wagnerians.

Shoigu was furious. The Wagnerians in Syria have been cut off from any possible arms supplies. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense began refusing to repay liabilities arising from contracts with Prigozhin's companies for catering and cleaning at military facilities. Four of his companies have filed lawsuits against the Ministry of Defense. Three of them won.

The military retaliated in February 2018 when it allowed the Wagnerians to march on oil installations controlled by the Kurds. Instead of capturing the facilities quickly, the mercenaries were greeted with a heavy hail of missiles from American planes and helicopters. The Russian command in Syria did not lift a finger to help out. It neither tried to stop the US firing nor supported the mercenaries.

The rivalry between the leadership of the Wagner Group and the state army has been known for a long time. But it wasn't until last fall that the conflict was revealed outright. Prigozhin, speaking about the need for personnel changes in the Ministry of Defense, proposed brutal methods of generals’ re-education: "All these bastards - with machine guns barefoot to the front."

Cannon fodder

Prigozhin's condottieri depend on the infrastructure and support of the Ministry of Defense. And they are not as important on the front as they are sometimes portrayed. For example, only one in ten of the Russian soldiers -taking part in the fights with the Ukrainians - are the Wagnerians.

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The military significance is even smaller. Most of the experienced Wagnerians (some 6,000 to 7,000 mercenaries from the period before 2022), are residing now in Africa and Syria. More than 80 percent of the troops fighting in Ukraine are recruited prisoners, who largely play the role of cannon fodder.

Criticism of the army generals and the way in which the war against Ukraine was conducted brought Prigozhin and the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov closer. But this is only a tactical alliance against a common enemy to strengthen their position in Russia's ruling elite. On the long run, their cooperation is impossible, because they are too similar.

Both of them are the loyal soldiers of Putin; they rely on brutal rhetoric and aspire to the role of Macho No. 1. They both have private armies wanting to prove themselves during the war. There is no room for two such characters in the Russian political system.

In addition, it is worth mentioning their long-standing animosities, such as the fact that inhabitants of the North Caucasus - with Chechens at the forefront – were certainly not wanted in the Wagner Group.

Three circles

In fact, only Prigozhin's conflict with Shoigu and his generals is written about. Meanwhile, "Putin's cook" cannot complain about the shortage of other enemies. Even in the Kremlin itself.

Let’s recall that the Russian president based his entire career in Moscow on his colleagues from St. Petersburg. More precisely, on three groups.

The first one is the famous cooperative Ozero. Local business people who - together with the then-high official of the St. Petersburg mayoralty Vladimir Putin - in the mid-1990s took up the construction of an exclusive housing estate in the village of Solovyovka on the shore of Lake Komsomolskoye. The key person in this group is Yuri Kovalchuk, today the head of The Rossiya Bank

The second circle consists of friends from the FSB in that region, such as the head of the FSB of The Republic of Karelia - Nikolai Patrushev, later the director of the entire FSB, and today the all-powerful secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation.

The third circle is made up of people from the criminal world. Putin would like to forget about these today, for obvious reasons. That is why the aforementioned Roman Tsepov is dead; in the St. Petersburg times, he was supposed to be an intermediary in transferring bribes from casino owners to the current president. Vladimir Kumarin, aka Barsukov (former head of the Tambov Gang - Tambov brotherhood) stays in prison and keeps his mouth shut.

To which circle does Prigozhin belong? This is the borderline between the business circle and the criminal circle.

Fight for St. Petersburg

The war in Ukraine changed a lot in Russian politics. People like Yevgeny Prigozhin rose to prominence through the general brutalisation of language. However, the former cook, as an independent player close to Putin and having an impact on the media, raises concerns of the Kremlin administration, because it cannot control him. He is even more dangerous because he wants to take over the initiative in the occupied Donbas. But this region is supervised by Sergey Vladilenovich Kiriyenko - the Kremlin's First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia. This is the first reason for their conflict. The second is the struggle for influence in Saint Petersburg. There, Prigozhin stepped on Kovalchuk's toes and declared an open war on the governor, Alexander Beglov, who was supported by Kiriyenko.

Prigozhin directly urged the people of St. Petersburg to turn to him with problems that Beglov overlooks. He demanded that the General Prosecutor’s Office of Russian Federation and the FSB check the governor and his entourage for corruption. Earlier, he financed music videos of the "Leningrad" band, which criticised the city's management.

The background to the conflict is blocking - by the governor's office - all of the Prigozhin's business projects in St. Petersburg, such as plans to redevelop the area in Gorska at the cost of the Gulf of Finland. The city authorities were also reluctant to issue permission to open a business centre built by "Putin's cook".

This dispute shows the weakness of Yevgeny Prigozhin - the founder of the Wagner Group is unable to undermine the position of people as powerful as the Governor of St. Petersburg. Similarly, he is not strong enough to influence personnel changes in the Russian army during the current war.

Like Rasputin

The conflict in Ukraine certainly strengthened Prigozhin politically, because he became an icon for the Z-patriots thanks to the involvement of the Wagner Group. However, his growing popularity and the fact that because of him the Russian state is losing its monopoly on the use of force must worry the Kremlin’s officials. That is why those who see Prigozhin as a possible future president are mistaken. Wrong shoe size..

Russian independent political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov compares Prigozhin's role in Putin's Kremlin to Rasputin's in the court of Tsar Nicholas II. And we all know how Rasputin ended up.

– Grzegorz Kuczyński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2016. Photo. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
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