The shaven-headed man spits obscenities into the camera. Thrusting his head forward and glaring at the viewer, he unleashes a volley of abuse at Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu. The man is Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of brutal Russian mercenary outfit the Wagner Group — and he is desperate.
Prigozhin is at war on two fronts. On the ground, his forces are dying in ever greater numbers on the frontline in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. On video and in print, he is taking on the Russian elites he so despises.
And recently he escalated his campaign to an unthinkable level in a new video. We have a ‘happy Grandpa’, he says, snarling into the camera. ‘But how do you win a war,’ he asks sarcastically, ‘if it turns out that this Grandpa is a complete d***head?’
‘Grandpa’ is a name Russians often give to their president, Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin, it seems, is now turning his fire on his own modern-day tsar. It is astonishing behaviour from a man who, until recently, was seen as one of Putin’s most trusted lieutenants. But who exactly is he?
Yevgeny Prigozhin on Friday 5 May threatened to pull out Wagner forces from the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut amid a dispute over ammunition with the regular military command
Prigozhin (L) assists then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner with foreign scholars and journalists at the restaurant Cheval Blanc outside Moscow on November 11, 2011
Yevgeny Prigozhin has been a malignant part of my life for almost a decade. I first encountered his ‘work’ in 2014, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, when I was reporting from a position near the occupied city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Russian news reports claimed the Ukrainian army had tortured and then publicly crucified a three-year-old boy in a square in Sloviansk.
It was all lies of course. But the consequences were real enough.
The Russia-backed ‘separatists’ who controlled much of the region were outraged and visited ‘punishment’ on local populations in response: real atrocities in retaliation for a fake one. Ukraine was then, as now, a land blanketed in Russian lies. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter on my phone, my feeds were full of Russian reports about the situation on the ground that I knew to be utterly false. There was so much disinformation and it was all so regimented that I knew it had to be orchestrated.
It was. As I revealed in my book War In 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict In The Twenty First Century, much of this propaganda or disinformation came from an organisation called the Internet Research Agency that ran so-called ‘troll farms’, the most notable of which was in an office block in St Petersburg where rows of laptop warriors pumped out disinformation 24/7.
It was a factory of lies and its owner was Yevgeny Prigozhin. When I asked around about him, everyone was a bit vague. As one source told me: ‘Prigozhin is the man from nowhere, he is part of no institution or agency. It’s just strange’.
Prigozhin’s story is fascinating because it mirrors almost perfectly the story of post-Soviet Russia, and the rise of its most powerful man, Vladimir Putin.
Like Putin, Prigozhin comes from St Petersburg. He grew up a street thug and, after being convicted of robbery and ‘involving minors in criminal activity’ in the 1980s, he served around nine years of a 12-year sentence.
Polina Prigozhina, 30, the daughter of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin
As Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors at Konstantin Palace June 16, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
It must have been a horrifying experience. In 2022, a video circulated on social media showed a man claiming that Prigozhin had been his prison ‘b***h’.
The fellow inmate claimed Prighozin had been a member of a community called ‘The Shamed’, who live appalling lives being raped and brutalised by their fellow prisoners — often on camera.
Even if this account was part of a smear campaign by his enemies, the reality would have been almost as grim. Russian prisons are notoriously brutal and the 29-year-old man who came out of prison would have been a very different individual to the youth who had been locked up nine years earlier.
But over almost a decade of untold misery, he will have learned what he would most need to thrive: the will to survive at any cost.
If Prigozhin was changed, so was his country. Post-USSR Russia was opening up to the world with a vengeance. As Russia embraced hypercapitalism, it was nicknamed the ‘Wild East’ and, as a prison-hardened hustler, Prigozhin was well-equipped to exploit the many and varied opportunities it offered.
He set up a hotdog stand in St Petersburg’s Aprashaka flea market and gravitated towards the grocery and restaurant business.
In 1990s St Petersburg you couldn’t run a business without involving the Mafia, who worked hand-in-glove with politicians and the security services: three arenas in which Putin — at that time based in the city as an officer in the FSB, the successor to the KGB — was becoming a figure of importance.
Prigozhin branched out into running a chain of restaurants and fast-food joints, which he would use to launder dirty money.
According to Ukraine’s former Deputy Minister of Information Policy, Dmytro Zolotukhin, Prigozhin’s restaurants often served as venues for Mafia meetings and parties. At one of his restaurants Putin regularly conducted meetings, with Prigozhin in attendance as his personal chef and waiter.
St Petersburg has always been important to Putin. The people he trusts most are his cronies from his hometown and, after he moved to Moscow, many of them went with him. One was Prigozhin, who used the opportunity to further expand his catering business.
He hit the big time when he was awarded a contract to supply meals to the Russian military, which was worth a staggering $1.2 billion for one year. He is alleged to have used part of this booty to fund the Internet Research Agency.
He also won a contract to supply food to Moscow’s schools. In 2019, a dysentery outbreak was tracked back to his produce. By all accounts, Prigozhin was siphoning off so much money hygiene standards were sacrificed.
His pathological desire for cash trumped the health of children.
However, there was one thing the man from nowhere wanted more than cash and that was to rid himself of the stain of the streets.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on 20 September 2010
Prigozhin’s yacht – St Vitamin – has six bedrooms, a dining room, a terrace, a kitchen, rooms for the staff, two decks and a terrace
When his businesses also began to cater for state visits to Moscow, Prigozhin got what he most craved: the chance to mix with the global elite.
Presidents and heads of state, including former French president Jacques Chirac, were entertained on his floating restaurant ‘New Island’. In 2002, he hosted U.S. President George W. Bush there. It was a dream come true.
His rise continued when Putin asked him to become the Kremlin’s chef. The Russian leader is notoriously paranoid — and one who has seen many enemies die by poisoning. By entrusting Prigozhin with his food, the president made clear that his chef was now a member of his innermost circle.
It was Russia’s first incursion into Ukraine in 2014 that provided Prigozhin with his chance to diversify into the mercenary business.
With the Kremlin keen to have plausible deniability when it came to the presence of armed men on Ukrainian territory, Prigozhin’s private army Wagner — named after Hitler’s favourite composer — was the perfect cover.
In the early days, the group took great care to recruit professionals. It hired from the cream of the Russian special forces and paid well.
During the illegal annexation of Crimea in February that year, Wagner troops were among the so-called ‘little green men’, soldiers wearing green uniforms without identifying insignia, who walked in and took the peninsula with barely a shot being fired.
Having tasted wealth and glamour and earned a place in the corridors of power, Prigozhin was now the leader of a group at the very centre of Russian foreign policy.
With that came even more riches. By now, Prigozhin was thought to have a net worth in excess of $1 billion. His wife, Lyubov Prigozhina, described as a pharmacist and businesswoman, owned many companies that have now expanded to a chain of boutiques in St Petersburg, as well as a wellness centre in the Leningrad region and a boutique hotel.
He was living on a $105 million St Petersburg estate, which included a house for his daughter Polina, who boasted on social media that the family’s yacht — named St Vitamin — had ‘six bedrooms, a dining room, a terrace, a kitchen, rooms for the staff, two decks and a terrace’. Selling hot dogs was a distant dream.
And his mercenary operation was continuing to expand, with forays as far afield as the Middle East and Africa. In Syria, Wagner’s forces helped to prop up genocidal dictator Bashar al-Assad, while in Africa the group hoovered up mineral resources in countries such as Sudan, Central African Republic and Mali.
Then came the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year. And Wagner was at its very heart. Indeed, the worse the war got, the better things went for Prigozhin. The more Russian troops the Ukrainians killed, the more Moscow needed Wagner’s mercenaries. Things got so bad that Prigozhin even went back to the institution that formed him more than any other: prison.
Yevgeny Prigozhin told inmates they would be pardoned if they survive six months in the war against Ukraine. They should take their own lives instead of being taken prisoner, he said
In a now famous video, Prigozhin can be seen telling prisoners — including ‘The Shamed’ — to sign up to fight in Ukraine. If they serve six months, they will be pardoned but, he warns them, most won’t survive that long.
Bakhmut was where Prigozhin calculated he would win his ultimate glory. Handing the eastern city to Putin would be his lasting triumph. The street boy would, finally, deal with his tsar almost as an equal. But the Ukrainians had other ideas. For almost a year they held out as the Russian army and Wagner pounded the city.
Recently, they have even begun to take back ground. As they have advanced, Prigozhin has imploded — in real time and on video.
His growing battle with Shoigu and Gerasimov — members of the hated elite that has never accepted him — has become an obsession that verges on monomania. He now rages against anyone and everyone: the Russian army whom he accuses of cowardice; those in the Russian state he holds responsible for not adequately supporting his mercenaries; and now even Putin, whom he mocked after his derisory Victory Day parade last week.
After two Russian jets and two helicopters were shot down in Russian territory in what appeared to be a spectacular military coup for Kyiv, Prigozhin said they were in fact victims of friendly fire. And according to a sensational U.S. intelligence leak, Prigozhin is reported to have said that if Ukraine’s commanders withdrew troops from Bakhmut, he would give them information about Russian army positions elsewhere.
This claim he has, understandably, vigorously denied because to have done so would have been an unforgivable act of treason.
Is the puppet finally turning against his master? It’s clear Prigozhin is trying to position himself as the only person brave enough to tell Russians —including Putin — the truth from the front.
In so doing he is becoming for the Kremlin what many of Russia’s elite have always sniffly said about him: a vulgar embarrassment.
What we are seeing is a desperate man facing ruin. Prigozhin is desperate to get the attention of the tsar who made him everything he is today; desperate for the recognition that his men are dying in the field for Mother Russia.
Modern Russia is a gangster state and Putin is its top gangster. Putin holds the Obshchak — the gang’s budget — to which those underneath contribute. But when the top gangster starts to make mistakes, the others start to worry about the Obshchak and think about seizing their chance.
Prigozhin is now implying that, through his disastrous invasion, ‘Grandpa’ has made a terrible error. The Obshchak is under threat. And only he is strong enough to tell ‘Grandpa’ the truth and solve the problem — if only he had the tools.
Another video appeal from 10 May saw Prigozhin (centre) threaten to leave the frontline city
Putin (right) and his ‘Chef’, Yevgeny Prigozhin, pictured together on 20 September 2010
But Prigozhin may have miscalculated — badly. If the Kremlin believes he has become a liability, things are likely to get nasty. In recent months, there have been several terror attacks on far-Right bloggers with links to Prigozhin, including one bombed in a cafe he owns. The Russian government blamed Ukraine; Prigozhin claimed it was intra-Russian warfare.
It may now be safer for him to stay in Bakhmut than return to Moscow. For Prigozhin, who has made it his life’s mission to escape the poverty of his youth and enter the Kremlin’s inner circle, it must be devastating to think everything he has stolen and murdered for may be coming to an end.
His attacks on ‘Grandpa’ must be seen as the outbursts of a man terrified that it’s all falling apart. And if he thinks he can topple Putin, he has almost certainly lost his mind. There is only one rule to observe if you want to take on a tsar: win. If not, you are finished.
If his words are sincere and not yet more lies from the master of disinformation, and his relationship with Putin is truly over, his options are both limited and bad.
Returning home would be a death sentence. Staying in Bakhmut could be fatal, too. He could fly to Mali or the Central African Republic to join his soldiers there. But there will be no more luxury yachts or floating restaurants.
As it stands, things look bleak. Unless he can deliver on his promise to take Bakhmut, he looks finished. The man from nowhere may finally be heading back to oblivion. But if that is to be his fate, one thing is clear: he will fight it every step of the way.
David Patrikarakos is UnHerd’s foreign correspondent and the author of War In 140 Characters.