03/18/2023, 09.51
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Prigožin, the 'chef' of extreme Putinism

by Stefano Caprio

For years he denied being the founder and commander of the "Wagner Company," which he now glorifies as the "best army in the world." His biography - from prison to catering to today's railings against the rest of the Kremlin elite - is a synthesis of late and post-Soviet history.

The Bakhmut challenge, a desperate battle to win an extra 0.02 percent of territory in the increasingly devastated Donbass, is becoming a key juncture not so much for the fate of the Russians' military adventure in Ukraine, but for shaping the future of Putinism, which is taking on increasingly bleak and satanic overtones, and consequently of many geopolitical balances in the world order.

Supplies of arms and ammunition on either side, in view even of a new mass confrontation in the spring, highlight the more extreme dimensions of military strategies, and in Russia increasingly exalt the figure of Evgenij Viktorovič Prigožin, ex-convict, Putin's "cook," oligarch and military leader, ideologue and politician, now even a self-candidate for the presidency of Ukraine.

Prigožin's biography is a synthesis of late and post-Soviet history. Sixty-one years old, born in Leningrad like Putin and Patriarch Kirill, orphaned at an early age by his father (a cross-country skiing instructor), Evgeniy grew up with his nurse mother.

He won a few ski races, which enabled him to attend a special school for sportsmen, and classmates also remember him as someone "who liked to read a lot." His sports career was soon interrupted, however, when at 18 he was sentenced to two years for theft, to be served in community service. Before he zas released, however, he was charged for several acts of vandalism, resulting in another 13-year prison sentence.

Prigožin's entrepreneurial career began in the camp, as he became "brigadier" of the inmates' self-management teams (usually made up of the most violent mugs), forcing all comrades to prepare souvenirs to sell outside, amassing a not-insignificant first nest egg for the late Soviet years. Again according to the accounts of fellow inmates, "every day he swelled his muscles with exercises, and he did not stop reading books." He managed to get a discount on his sentence, getting out of prison in the fateful 1990 Gorbachev turnaround.

He did not pursue a criminal career, and enrolled in the Leningrad Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute but failed to graduate and instead threw himself into the unbridled business world of the early post-Soviet years. His fame as a "chef" began from street stalls where he prepared hot-dogs, a symbol of the Americanization of Yeltsin Russia. Soon, in 1995, he opened his first restaurant, Staraja Tamožnja ("Old Customs House"), in the former Kunstkamera building of the re-named St. Petersburg, the first elite restaurant in the northern capital, frequented by prominent Petersburgers. Prigožin later experimented with various other restaurant formats: Russkij Kitsch, the Jewish network Set Sorok, Blin!Donalt's ("Gosh!Donalt," a parody of Mac Donald's) and others.

The apogee of "chef" fame was reached in 2001, at a new restaurant of his on the water, New Island, where new President Vladimir Putin organized a meeting with his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, and the following year with Georges W. Bush. In 2003 Putin even held his birthday party there, solidifying the privileged connection with Prigožin and his cuisine.

The business expanded by leaps and bounds with catering, in which he became Russia's leading entrepreneur with the Konkord company, serving in particular Kremlin honor luncheons and even presidential inaugurations. School canteens in Moscow and Petersburg were also organized by Prigožin's firm, until a giant exclusive contract was signed with the Defense Ministry in 2010 to feed soldiers and officers.

The transition from pots and pans to automatic weapons is actually quite obscure; for years Prigožin denied that he was the founder and commander of the "Wagner Company," which he now instead glorifies as the "best army in the world." His activities are linked to the beginning of the "hybrid war" in the Donbass, following the Kiev Maidan uprising and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The first public reports appeared on the Petersburg-based website Fontanka. ru in 2015, which reported that two years earlier, in 2013, two managers of a private security agency, Moran Security Group, Vadim Gusev and Evgenij Sidorov (de facto Prigožin's front men) had registered the "Slavic Corpus," Slavjanskij Korpus, in Hong Kong for the defense of commercial ships from pirates, hiring about 300 guards for the "defense of mines and oil wells" in Syria, where they actually took part in the ongoing civil war.

Members of the group then returned to Russia, where they were initially arrested for "illegal mercenary activities." One of the leaders was Dmitry Utkin, the now 52-year-old "colonel," who shortly thereafter appeared in action in Lugansk, defending the Russian-speaking population from the Ukrainian army. He was first associated with the name "Wagner Company," Utkin's nickname for his evocation of the musician who inspired the Third Reich, of whom the former Spetsnaz was apparently a great admirer.

The company's symbol bears the Soviet star in the center, with two intertwined swords on a red-brown background, the colors of "fascio-communism," and the words "Blood, Honor, Fatherland, Courage" on the outline. Other sources attribute the start of the operation to an agreement between Russian defense officials with a security agency in South Africa, Executive Outcomes, which was recruiting formally retired but still fully effective military personnel.

In fact, the war in Ukraine was waged for eight years by Wagner, with hundreds of members taking turns flanking the separatists in town and neighborhood fights, under the command of one of the mercenary leaders, Igor Girkin known as Strelkov (the Archer), who became the public face of pro-Russian militants in Donetsk.

The group also captured the Lugansk airport, and was responsible for selecting local figures most palatable to the Kremlin, putting others out of business with brutal methods. As late as June 2022, Moscow courts were still condemning those who attributed the leadership of Wagner to Prigožin, such as the notorious journalist Venediktov, but as of September last year, the same "cook" and oligarch began publicly going to the various places of detention to enlist soldiers to join his mercenary group, breaking the deadlock.

It is difficult to quantify the number of Wagner mercenaries, which of course has never been published in any way. Certainly two to three thousand inmates have been pulled out of prisons, many of whom have died in battle, and the group's headcount could reach 15 to 20 thousand people among the many places in the world where the company is active, with constant rotations of new recruits.

Prigožin himself recently spoke of aggregate foreign members in various countries, including from the hated European and American West. It is also unclear how much funding it enjoys, between public and private, at a level estimated at around 200 million euros annually, secured in part by Prigožin's restaurants and shopping malls. The founder himself said that "Wagner is financed by the money earned from selling the tears and suffering of Western democracies."

In addition to Ukraine and Syria, the two wars in which Wagner is officially engaged, the company is active in several African states - South Sudan, Libya, Central Africa, Mozambique, Mali, and Burkina Faso - supporting conflicting parties in various ways in civil wars and power struggles. Therefore, it is not unlikely that European politicians who accuse Prigožin of also acting on the flows of migrants to be sent across the Mediterranean, via Libya and Syria itself, to get enemy governments in trouble may be right.

Prigožin's most sinister reputation is linked to the execution of a Wagner member, Evgenij Nužin, in Kiev by the Ukrainian army last November. Nužin, of Kazakh origin, was a convicted criminal and murderer sentenced to 25 years in prison, enlisted by Prigožin and became one of the field commanders in Ukraine, where he had become very popular among the soldiers.

Photos were circulated of his execution with a kuvalda, the heavy-duty mace, and since then the menacing tool has become the new symbol of Wagner and Prigožin himself, who sends eloquent specimens to his worst enemies. In addition to military actions, the "cook" is also famous for the "troll factory," that is, hacking attacks and meddling in election campaigns in Western countries, starting with the United States in the one for the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and in the same year also in the British Brexit referendum. Recently Prigožin admitted that "we interfered, we interfere and we will continue to interfere ... thoroughly and surgically, in our own way."

In many quarters, Prigožin is being compared to Rasputin, the monk who conditioned the policies of Tsar Nicholas II, who today seeks to condition Putin against the rest of the Kremlin elite, in his view "a mass of incompetents, who do not really want to win the war."

Rasputin was assassinated, with great effort, by the noble conspirators in 1916, partly because he wanted to advise the Tsar against going to war. One hundred years later, the spirit of the monk with a similar name to the new czar seems to want to take revenge, this time inciting the most extreme violence. Putin means "the man of the road" (Put), Ras-putin "the man of the crossroads," where Russia must choose its destiny.



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