Yevgeny Prigozhin grew up in Putin’s home city of Leningrad. He spent nine years in jail after being convicted by a Soviet court of robbery and other crimes. When he emerged from prison he decided to go into business, first opening a hotdog stall and then founding an elite restaurant.
The man behind Russia’s push into Africa is a former hotdog seller who went on to become a billionaire and global Kremlin action man thanks to his close relations with Vladimir Putin.
The venture on a docked boat was a success. In 2001 Prigozhin personally served two guests who had stopped by for dinner: Russia’s new president, Putin, and Japan’s prime minister, Yoshirō Mori. Soon Prigozhin was doing the catering for Kremlin banquets and for Putin’s 2003 birthday party, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.
On good terms with Russia’s elite, Prigozhin branched out. He won lucrative state contracts to supply food to Russian schoolchildren and to its soldiers. With money came an oligarch lifestyle: a palace in St Petersburg, a yacht, a private plane, a helipad.
It is Prigozhin’s activities on behalf of the state that have made him notorious. According to the US special counsel Robert Mueller, Prigozhin’s trolls working out of the Olgino area of St Petersburg interfered in the 2016 election. Prigozhin, senior employees and his company, Concord Catering, are all under US indictment.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serves food to Vladimir Putin at his restaurant in 2011. Photograph: Misha Japaridze/AP
Prigozhin is believed to be a funder of the Wagner group, a private military contractor. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries, some tied to Wagner, were reportedly killed in clashes with US forces during a doomed attempt to seize an oil refinery in Syria in February 2018. Other mercenaries have fought for Wagner in Ukraine.
Critics including the opposition leader Alexei Navalny have described Prigozhin’s rise as a parable of Russia under Putin. Prigozhin has grown rich because of his proximity to Russia’s forever ruler, Navalny alleges. He has nicknamed Prigozhin the “king of dislikes”.
Leaked documents paint a portrait of Prigozhin as a hyperactive businessman and micro-manager with a flair for logistics. As well as dispatching undercover political consultants to Africa, Prigozhin-linked companies have sent supplies of tea, coffee and pasta. These fuel the growing number of Russian personnel and military experts on the continent.
Prigozhin, 57, refuses to give interviews. He has denied that Wagner exists or that he ever ran a troll farm. Of the US indictment, he said last year: “I am not at all disappointed that I appear in this list. If they want to see the devil, let them.”