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Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin: Criminal, cook, troll and Russia's troublemaker-in-chief

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, looks out from a military vehicle on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, looks out from a military vehicle on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023 Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Euronews
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Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin: Criminal, cook, troll and troublemaker

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The rise and apparent spectacular fall of Yevgeny Prigozhin, and its ramifications, will be the talk of Russia for weeks or even months to come: from St. Petersburg to Vladivostock.

But who exactly was Prigozhin? It's not clear whether even he knew how to answer that question directly. 

He's recently hit the headlines on an almost daily basis amid the Ukraine war, pouring scorn on the Russian military establishment and openly challenging Kremlin narratives about the conflict.

This earned him respect among some Russians, but he made enemies in the halls of power.

A former ally of the Russian president, Prigozhin sent his mercenary army into some of Ukraine's grittiest battles, playing an integral part in capturing the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in a months-long bloody struggle.

Before this, he ran a troll farm meddling in US elections – landing him in hot water with the FBI – and used his private militia fighters for shady business across the African continent.

“Prigozhin is a deeply disreputable character,” Professor Mark Galeotti, an analyst of Russian politics, told Euronews in April. “This is a man who has risen by doing whatever Putin and the Kremlin want – and obviously doing very well for himself in the process.”

Prigozhin's power rested on Wagner – with no other Russian politician commanding such military force – and his massive fortune was "accrued protecting weak African regimes in exchange for their gold mines", Mark Beissinger, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, also told Euronews in April.

Buoyed by his successes in Ukraine, he picked fights with the governor of St. Petersburg and attacked the military establishment over their campaign against Kyiv.

He openly defied the Kremlin’s claim it was fighting Nazis in Ukraine, a false argument it has used repeatedly to justify the invasion. That same month the mercenary boss seemingly called on the fighting to stop.

“Prigozhin is... someone who can figure out ways to work the system, but always to some extent on the edge of that system, on the boundaries of what is acceptable, and pushing those boundaries,” Beissinger said.

“He does not identify with the oligarchic elite but is an outsider to it, as wealthy as he now is.”

AP
FILE: Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian President Vladimir Putin around his factory which produces school meals outside St. Petersburg. Sept. 20022AP

Things came to a head when Prigozhin led an armed mutiny in Russia on 24 June, which saw Wagner mercenaries march on Moscow.

At the time, President Vladimir Putin denounced the rebellion as “treason” and a “stab in the back”, vowing to avenge it. These charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped in a secretive deal that exiled the mercenary force to Belarus.

Since then he has kept a low profile, though was reportedly still coming to Russia.

Analyst Galeotti told Euronews in March that Progozhin was “not appreciating that he was playing with the big boys” when lashing out at the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defence.

He suggested the “thuggish ex-con” may have gone too far "throwing his weight around" and "pouring vitriol" on Russia's power brokers.

“This is a man with a very strong streak of malice, I'm tempted to say that vendettas are his main hobby," Galeotti added.

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Believed to hail from a working-class background, Prigozhin is thought to have spent nine years in prison for theft, as the Soviet Union unravelled during the 1980s.

He went on to found the Concord Catering company, which won billion-dollar contracts to feed Russia's schools and military and host the Kremlin's banquets.

This is widely believed to be where he first got access to Putin’s ear - and where he picked up the alleged nickname "Putin's chef."

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