Putin and Prigozhin, Two Diminished Men

We are in St. Petersburg, in 1996. Two men enter the luxurious restaurant Staraya Tamozhnaya (Old Customs House), sit down and order some blini with caviar. The restaurant owner himself waits on them and, with the dishes and the wine on the table, sits down to keep them company. Five years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s Russia. Although it’s becoming more democratic, it’s increasingly falling into the hands of the “novye russkie”, the corrupt businessmen who know how to exploit legal loopholes. The three men who are talking business in the restaurant are the mayor of the city, Anatoly Sobchak, one of his advisors, Vladimir Putin, a former high-ranking KGB officer, and the owner of the restaurant, Evgeni Prigozhin. All three have one thing in common: the desire to profit from the post-Soviet chaos. Putin’s story is well known: he has become one of the richest men in the world. How about Evgeni Prigozhin?

Born in 1960, he is eight years younger than Putin. When he was in his twenties, the Soviet state sentenced him to thirteen years in prison for fraud, theft and the use of minors in organized prostitution. When he was released from prison, the Soviet Union was collapsing and Prigozhin realized that the time was ripe for unscrupulous people: it was his moment. He started the first hot-dog fast food joint in post-Soviet Russia and then went on to set up luxury restaurants for oligarchs like him. In one such restaurant in Moscow, located on a boat on the Moskva River, Putin, already promoted by Yeltsin to president of Russia, received two important visits: Jacques Chirac (in 2001) and George W. Bush (in 2002). Prigozhin, who was nicknamed “Putin’s chef”, was making headway in the circles of power. He was never called to account for anything, even when hundreds of children in the Moscow region were poisoned by food from his company, because he enjoyed the protection of the Russian president.

Putin had made him a prosperous and powerful man, and the oligarch paid him back with considerable favors. In St. Petersburg he opened a troll factory

which still spreads disinformation all over the world. In the four-story building called the Internet Research Agency, an army of trolls works in shifts, seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day. These online agitators/bloggers/propagandists devote themselves to praising Putin and his government in some 135 posts, articles and responses during 12-hour shifts. The goal is to flood the Internet with messages portraying Putin as a benefactor and Western leaders as bloody dictators. Nothing new, this is a propaganda factory similar to the one that already existed in the Soviet Union, only in a digital version. The FBI accused Prigozhin of launching a campaign of interference in the 2016 US elections. Washington is still offering 250,000 dollars for his capture, but Prigozhin, despite broadcasting several videos of himself, has made himself invisible.

And he mocks everyone. He joined the neo-Nazi Dmitry Utkin, whose military call name was Wagner, and his army of mercenaries: a drawing of Richard Wagner’s head is the symbol he uses on the Internet. The soldiers call each other “musicians” that are led by a “composer” and all of them give “concerts” around the world. In this way they disguise their real identity, that of soldiers who wage brutal, merciless, medieval wars. In this warmongering company, Prigozhin, their manager and financial source, felt invincible. The performance of the Wagner army in the Syrian war, moreover, made him indispensable to Putin.

There are many similarities which link Prigozhin and Putin, but one stands out above all the others: both crave more power without knowing how to measure their own strength. Just as the Russian president, greedy to grab more territory, invaded Ukraine – so far without success – Prigozhin, seeking power at the state level, staged a coup d’état, and has also failed.

This week we have witnessed a public quarrel between two powerful men, both wanted by international justice. Both have emerged from it as losers. But while political and military power in Russia has been weakened, the Russians could see that all is not lost because there are ways to revolt. Hopefully, this may encourage dissidents and Putin’s rivals to take determined action.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)