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In Death, Prigozhin Becomes the Face of Late-Stage Putinism
The Wagner chief’s (likely) demise speaks to a much larger, troubling reality for the future of the Russian state.
ON TUESDAY, YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, the ex-convict turned Putin-favored restaurateur turned pro-Kremlin warlord turned anti-Kremlin rebel, was buried in St. Petersburg with all the mystification that accompanied his life. Likely fearing that the funeral of the mercurial chief of the Wagner mercenary group could become an occasion for unrest, the authorities used decoys, with security measures and apparent funeral preparations at three different city cemeteries; the actual burial was conducted as a private event at a fourth, the small and obscure Porokhovskoye Cemetery. (One exiled Russian pundit recalled an old Odessa joke in which a grave inscribed “Here lies so-and-so, the famous shell-game artist” is flanked by two other graves inscribed “Or maybe here.”) Prigozhin’s erstwhile patron and widely presumed murderer, Vladimir Putin, did not attend, and the former hotdog vendor was buried without the military honors to which his Hero of Russia award entitled him. Meanwhile, rampant speculation continued that Prigozhin, formally identified as one of the ten people killed in the still-unexplained crash of his private jet on August 23 during a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was alive and possibly hiding in Africa, where the Wagner Group has had extensive military and business operations.
Prigozhin’s spectacular end comes almost exactly a year since he first stepped into the spotlight after years of shadowy operations as a gangster/businessman/Kremlin operative. Whatever the answer to the questions about his death—mainly “Is he really dead?” and “Did Putin do it?,” the answer to both of which is a virtually certain “yes”—his brief public career turned into an extraordinary “mask-off” moment for the Putin regime. As St. Petersburg opposition politician Maxim Reznik told Radio Liberty, “Prigozhin is the face of late-stage Putinism in its most brutalized form.”
Indeed, even Prigozhin’s coming-out as the chief of the Wagner group was an unmasking of sorts, since he had strenuously denied any connection to the mercenary army for years and had even sued people for mentioning his links to it. Then, in September 2022, a video most likely leaked by Prigozhin himself showed him recruiting convicts in penal colonies to fight in the “special operation” in Ukraine with a promise of a full pardon and a warning that the wrong move would mean execution without trial. In November, another video was released apparently showing such an extrajudicial execution: the sledgehammer killing of ex-convict, Wagner recruit, and would-be defector Grigory Nuzhin. Prigozhin praised it in jocular, trollish comments and defiantly adopted the sledgehammer as his emblem. (A decorative sledgehammer with the gilded inscription “For important negotiations” was found in a search of Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg residence after his mutiny in June.)
With only a brief and perfunctory investigation into Nuzhin’s murder, it’s hard to imagine a more blatant demonstration that Russia had devolved into a gangster state in which the rule of law was not even a pretense. But the final chapter of Prigozhin’s life managed to top that. On June 24, after months of escalating conflict with the Russian Ministry of Defense and the army brass, the Wagner chief led a column of several thousand men to within 125 miles of Moscow in a mutiny in which his fighters shot down a Russian communications plane and several helicopters, killing more than a dozen servicemen. Then, after a deal with Putin, the leader of this rebellion walked freely around St. Petersburg and Moscow, collected the money and guns confiscated from his residence during the rebellion, and got his photo taken with guests at the official Russia-Africa summit in Moscow. Then, after two months of speculation about why Putin hadn’t just killed him, Prigozhin’s life officially ended in a fiery crash some 30 miles away from Putin’s Valdai residence. Whodunit?
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While Putin certainly wasn’t the only person with a motive to do away with Prigozhin—expatriate Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulman even brought up the “everyone’s a suspect” scenario from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express—Putin’s revenge still seems the most obvious scenario. It’s also one that makes Putin look less like a dictator exercising his power than a mob boss arranging a one-way ride for the henchman who crossed him. Another exiled Russian dissident, satirist and former TV producer Viktor Shenderovich, pithily summed up the evolution of Putin’s image over the past quarter-century. When some accused Putin of orchestrating the apartment-building bombings in Moscow in 1999 which became the rationale for a new war in Chechnya, “Maybe it was Putin who blew up the buildings” was a conspiracy theory. In 2023, Shenderovich said, “the conspiracy theory is ‘Maybe it wasn’t Putin who blew up Prigozhin.’” Even Putin’s ostensible ally, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko—who brokered the deal with Prigozhin in June—offered an oddly backhanded defense, saying that Putin couldn’t have been behind Prigozhin’s assassination because it was “such a hack job, so unprofessional.”
PRIGOZHIN’S FIFTEEN MINUTES OF FAME offered many other notable moments of truth. Even before he crossed over into full-fledged rebellion, he made some notable statements in May and June that went beyond criticizing incompetent military bureaucrats and amounted to a frontal attack on the Kremlin’s justifications for the “special operation.” In a lengthy interview in May, the Wagner boss blamed Russia’s heavy-handed tactics for the conflict with Ukraine and all but openly admitted that Russia was the aggressor; spoke dismissively of the “Ukrainian Nazis” bogeyman and of Russia’s professed goal of “denazification”; and explicitly acknowledged that Russian forces had suffered massive losses and brutalized Ukrainian civilians. (“While we were looking for Nazis, we beat the crap out of everyone we could.”) A June 23 interview, on the eve of the mutiny, was even more shocking: This time, Prigozhin bluntly rejected claims that NATO was planning to use Ukraine to strike at Russia and that the Ukrainian government was terrorizing ethnic Russians in the Donbas region. The war, he asserted, was the doing of corrupt high-level officials who were using the Kremlin-controlled “people’s republics” in Eastern Ukraine to line their own pockets and sought profit in escalation. While he exempted Putin himself from blame and ostensibly argued that Russia still needed a win as a matter of honor, he was also dismantling the entire Kremlin propaganda narrative.
Prigozhin’s rebellion brought with it new revelations. Among other things, it showed how weak Putin’s vaunted domestic support in Russia really was. No one took to the streets in defense of the government when it faced a serious enough threat to make the president and other top officials flee Moscow. When Prigozhin and his men took over Rostov-on-Don, the locals cheered. The Wagner rebels’ sojourn in Rostov also left a visual that provides a striking metaphor for the state of Russia in 2023: a tank stuck in the entrance gates of a circus.
Another unexpected truth bomb came from Putin himself. The Kremlin autocrat was evidently so piqued by his “chef’s” betrayal that he publicly confirmed something investigative reporters such as those at Bellingcat had long said and Russian officialdom had long denied: that the Wagner group was not a “private military company” but an outfit fully funded by the state, to the tune of nearly $1 billion in just the past year. (In other words, Wagner was the Kremlin’s instrument for what Bellingcat called “deniable black ops.”)
In turn, former Russian faux president and current deputy national security chief Dmitry Medvedev was sufficiently spooked by the rebellion not only to hightail it to Turkey but to also make a de facto admission that Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling was a bluff. “In the history of the human race there has never been a situation where the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons was controlled by bandits,” Medvedev told the Russian news agency TASS. “Such a crisis will obviously not be limited to a single country. The world will be brought to the brink of annihilation.” Never mind that Medvedev himself had been the Kremlin’s point man for threats of nuclear apocalypse if Russia were thwarted in its quest to destroy the “Nazi” regime in Kyiv. Indeed, he made such a threat again ten days after the rebellion. At that point, one could legitimately ask whether “bandits” were currently in charge of Russia’s nuclear arsenal—or whether Medvedev’s panicked outcry during the aborted coup shows that he knows the current Russian leadership won’t risk an apocalypse.
And, assuming that Putin did order Prigozhin’s death after offering him guarantees of personal safety in exchange for calling off the march on Moscow, the ending of the Prigozhin story confirms another obvious truth: no agreement with Putin can be trusted.
WHILE OFFICIAL RUSSIAN TELEVISION NEWS CHANNELS have either ignored or only briefly covered Prigozhin’s funeral, there are many reports of spontaneous expressions of mourning in Russian cities, including makeshift memorials with flowers, candles, plush toys, and photos of the deceased. It’s hard to say what this means. Are people mourning a war critic or a war criminal? A Putin friend or a Putin foe? A rebel and a perceived speaker of truth to power, or a political thug who had won their admiration by out-thugging Putin? As Reznik put it in his Radio Liberty interview, “The great thing about Prigozhin is that people can see him as whatever they want. . . . On the one hand, the state was beating up on him; on the other hand, he also worked for the state. People have mush in their brains, and Prigozhin is an ideal character for this mush.”
Meanwhile, many Russians (and not just Russians) still insist that Prigozhin is alive and having the last laugh, perhaps somewhere in Africa where Wagner operations have continued. These rumors will no doubt get more fuel from a startling video clip that surfaced Thursday in which Prigozhin, wearing camouflage fatigues and seated in the back of a moving car, says, “For those discussing whether I’m alive or not, and how I’m doing—it’s a weekend in the second half of August 2023, I’m in Africa. So, those who love discussing my elimination, my love life, my earnings or whatever, everything’s fine.”
It seems clear that the video was shot before Prigozhin returned from Africa to Russia on August 22, and even the timing of the statement is not as uncanny as it might seem, considering that there really was a lot of speculation about Prigozhin being dead. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that in death, Prigozhin is still trolling. The same goes for one of the displays on Prigozhin’s grave: a framed excerpt from Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Nature Morte” in which, in George Kline’s translation, the resurrected Christ tells Mary, “Whether dead or alive, / Woman, it’s all the same.”
Given that fake news about his death has been circulated twice before, perhaps with his own connivance—he was reported to have been killed in a plane crash in Congo in 2019 and in military action in the Luhansk region of Ukraine last year—and that hoaxes were his habitual modus operandi, the possibility that Prigozhin is somehow still alive cannot be ruled out entirely. The DNA identification of his remains comes from Russian authorities, which are not exactly trustworthy. On the other hand, if Prigozhin wanted to disappear, a jet bombing that killed several of his top associates seems an extremely risky and complicated way to do it, especially when his sojourns in war-torn regions of Africa offered a perfect opportunity to play dead. Interestingly, expatriate Russian pundit Stanislav Belkovsky has suggested that it’s in the Kremlin’s interest to keep “Prigozhin lives!” stories afloat because every version of his death is damaging: an accidental plane crash looks like a blatant cover story, while a bombing means that the Russian government either carries out terrorist attacks on its own soil or is powerless to prevent them.
One thing is certain: The Prigozhin myth with its many facets will live on, with no shortage of material to feed it. It turns out, for example, that Prigozhin’s interview with pro-war blogger Semyon Pegov at Bakhmut in May has lines that read like an eerie last testament. “We’ll all end up in hell, but we’ll be the best in hell,” Prigozhin says at one point, laughing as he discusses his “cynical” attitude toward death. (The bravado may have been as much of a show as so much else about Prigozhin’s public persona, given the elaborate security measures he took.) And there’s also this: “Kill me if you will, but I’m not going to lie, I have to honestly say that Russia is on the brink of catastrophe. If those cogs aren’t adjusted today, the airplane will fall apart in midair.”
The words proved prophetic for Prigozhin. They may also prove prophetic for Russia in the grip of late-stage Putinism.