Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary leader, has died in an aircraft crash, according to Russian officials, marking the violent end of a savage career that took him from selling hot dogs on the streets of St Petersburg to the corridors of power under Vladimir Putin.
As a catering magnate turned notorious mercenary boss, Prigozhin became one of the most visible faces of Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. His rise mirrored the modern history of his country, from the decline of the Soviet Union, through the gangster capitalism of the 1990s, to the reassertion of the supremacy of the state under Putin.
A warlord who forged a private army that served for years as a shadowy and deniable tool of Kremlin foreign policy in Africa and the Middle East, Prigozhin came to epitomise a new breed of state-backed modern criminal entrepreneur seeking to profit from chaos around the world.
The man who would become infamous as the founder of the Wagner mercenary group was born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in 1961 to a hospital nurse mother and mining engineer father, who died when Prigozhin was nine.
As a boy he showed promise as a skier, and attended a boarding school specialising in sport before his nascent career was cut short by an injury, according to a biographical note he later submitted to his lawyers.
By his late teens Prigozhin had become drawn into a life of petty crime. He received a suspended sentence for theft aged 18 and two years later was sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet prison after joining a gang that robbed a woman at knifepoint.
After his release in 1990, Prigozhin enrolled in the Leningrad Chemical & Pharmaceutical College but left without completing his degree. It was shortly afterwards that he started his first food business, setting out on the path that would eventually earn him the sobriquet “Putin’s chef”.
In 1993, inspired by a visit to the United States, he opened a network of hot dog kiosks. As vast fortunes were being made around him in the Wild West capitalism of the early post-Soviet years, Prigozhin expanded his interests. He opened a string of restaurants and went on to establish Concord Management and Consulting company, a sprawling corporate entity that years later would serve as a cover for his foreign mercenary activity.
In 1995, Prigozhin opened the Old Customs House, a fashionable restaurant in St Petersburg for the city’s elite.
The establishment attracted the attention of a St Petersburg native, Putin, then deputy mayor.
Prigozhin’s fortunes picked up further after he opened New Island, a floating restaurant on a boat, that Putin, elected Russia’s president in 2000, later used for state dinners and other events.
The early 2000s, during which Prigozhin hosted Putin’s birthday party and several dinners for assorted world leaders, was critical in solidifying the personal connections that would take him close to the centre of power.
Prigozhin’s catering businesses were subsequently awarded lucrative state and military contracts that would make him wealthy enough to join the elite to whom he had previously served dinners. As his connections with the Kremlin and the ministry of defence deepened, he began to serve as a sort of covert fixer furthering Putin’s aims abroad.
It was in 2014 that the mercenary fighters that would come to be known as Wagner began to attract global attention.
Some of the non-official combatants active in the separatist conflict that Russia fuelled in the Donbas, an industrial region of eastern Ukraine, were initially believed to have been led by Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer with SS-insignia tattoos whose call sign was believed to be “Wagner”. For many years Prigozhin denied it existed and the Kremlin admitted it existed but denied a connection.
But in the period immediately following the annexation of Crimea, Prigozhin began to capitalise on the profits that his new mercenary group could generate, while at the same time serving the interests of the Kremlin. Wagner fighters were dispatched to Syria to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, whose regime Putin had vowed to defend from a bloody civil war. In return, Prigozhin was granted lucrative oil and gas concessions.
He also expanded Wagner’s activities into fragile countries in Africa, where strongmen seeking assistance were eager clients. A network of front companies began to profit from mining and other natural resources assets in Sudan and Central African Republic, and Wagner was linked with numerous atrocities and alleged war crimes.
Prigozhin continued to deny any connection to the group. He hired expensive western lawyers to attempt to overturn sanctions imposed on him and sue journalists who reported on his activities. Three of them were murdered in the Central African Republic by unknown assailants in 2018.
It was only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 that he finally reversed a years-long policy of distancing himself from Wagner and acknowledged his leadership of the group. Towards the end of last year a video emerged of him personally recruiting convicts in a Russian prison to fight in Ukraine. He admitted to founding Wagner, began posting regular social media updates with his thoughts on the war and opened an official corporate headquarters.
He also started to play up his growing international notoriety, celebrating a video that appeared to show a defector from the group being murdered with a sledge hammer.
As Putin’s bloody war went on, Prigozhin’s convict army became one of the most chilling symbols of its brutality. It was estimated that tens of thousands of his fighters died taking the small Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.
Prigozhin’s growing involvement began to sow the seeds of his own downfall. The Wagner boss started to launch vocal attacks on Russia’s defence ministry, accusing it of incompetence and failing to provide adequate munitions. These tirades culminated in a social media rant against Russia’s minister of defence and military top brass filmed as he was surrounded by piles of dead bodies, supposedly those of his own men.
In June 2023, in apparent revolt against attempts by the defence ministry to take control of his fighters, Prigozhin stunned the world by marching a group of Wagner troops towards Moscow. This was the most brazen domestic challenge to Putin’s authority since he took power.
Although Prigozhin stopped his insurrection, and was later believed to have been banished to Belarus, many believed it would be impossible for Putin to allow his actions to remain unpunished.
Prigozhin will be remembered, and vilified, for the thousands of victims claimed by his violent army. He was an ominous and trailblazing disrupter — a pioneer of asymmetric, parastatal warfare in an era of disintegrating global order.