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

Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2016. Photo. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

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.

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