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Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin’s entrance into public politics was swift and unexpected. In just a few years, his name has become associated with numerous myths, both in Russia and the West.
Prigozhin is considered a powerful figure exceedingly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Widely known as “Putin’s chef,” he is seen as a man entrusted with the most delicate operations: creating a private military company, building an internet troll factory to interfere in foreign elections, and strengthening Russia’s influence in Africa.
At first, Prigozhin shied away from this notoriety. However, he soon recognized the power of his reputation. His most recent actions—including an alleged meeting with opposition activist Alexei Navalny—clearly indicate that Prigozhin intends to complement his reputation as Putin’s influential courtier with real political weight in the eyes of the Russian public.
Until very recently, the words “Prigozhin” and “public exposure” were antonyms. Less than a year ago, I published an article about Russian political strategists conducting research financed by Prigozhin in Africa. The article was widely quoted in both the Russian and Western media. According to one of my sources, the article angered the businessman and his closest associates. But, strangely enough, Prigozhin later came to like this new fame.
The Western media is fascinated by Prigozhin, whom it sees as a mysterious and almost omnipotent figure. His troll factory in St. Petersburg’s Olgino district has been accused of interfering in U.S. elections, and Prigozhin is also connected to the Wagner private military company, which fought in the Ukrainian, Syrian, and African armed conflicts. Prigozhin’s moniker, “Putin’s chef,” only serves to further emphasize his closeness to the Russian president. Whom does a ruler trust more than his chef?
Myths about the mysterious culinary specialist blended well with general perceptions about how the Russian authorities operate: they stir up trouble in other countries, shape public opinion with the help of internet trolls, and secretly deploy troops, mercenaries, and political consultants to all corners of the earth.
Prigozhin became a symbol of this hybrid state conducting hybrid war. His name is shorthand for the Russian government’s lack of transparency. According to this logic, if a Russian footprint is discovered somewhere, Prigozhin likely left it. And if Prigozhin left it, then the Russian government is involved.
But despite his boundless reputation, Prigozhin’s role has been grossly exaggerated and mythologized. Now, some even claim he engages in his main business—state food procurement—as a token of gratitude to the Kremlin for allowing him to make money on other shadowy deals.
In reality, the opposite is true: the “Kremlin chef” earns serious money through food procurement, but this privilege came with an obligation to create a private military company. Initially, Prigozhin wasn’t happy about having this project foisted on him, Russian news site The Bell suggested in a convincing article on the businessman.
We also cannot call Prigozhin an individual particularly close to Putin: he didn’t serve alongside the president in Germany, didn’t work with him in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, didn’t practice judo with him, and wasn’t a shareholder in the Ozero dacha cooperative. The two men only met in the early 2000s. Prigozhin started catering Kremlin events in St. Petersburg, then moved on to Moscow, and then took over mass food procurements for government agencies. It’s serious business, but it cannot be compared to the companies tied to Putin’s closest friends.
Yevgeny Prigozhin did indeed try to get closer to the president, anticipating the regime’s wishes and offering his services accordingly. He spent his own money doing that. The Olgino troll factory was created to counteract the opposition’s social network activities. But its workers operated rather crudely, posting identical comments and using accounts without avatars.
“Prigozhin never paid a lot for work—not the Olgino people, not the journalists in his media outlets, not the political strategists working on his projects,” a journalist who used to work for Prigozhin told me. A political strategist who worked on the businessman’s projects also mentioned his boss’s penny-pinching proclivities: “The philosophy was: it’s great if the project succeeds and the Kremlin takes note, but if not, we won’t need to regret the money spent.”
So, measurably effective work wasn’t the object. Troll factory employees hardly had any clear impact on U.S. elections: to influence the American voter, one needs a strong command of English and deep knowledge of the political climate. Such employees cost a lot.
The trolls’ clumsy work soon attracted unintended attention. But, paradoxically, that served the intended purpose: suddenly, everyone was talking about Russian trolls and hackers. The Kremlin liked this information too, since it meant that the country was wielding influence.
In 2017 and 2018, Prigozhin was reportedly affiliated with two political strategy projects. During the lead-up to the 2018 Russian presidential election, experts thought to be members of the businessman’s team helped the presidential envoy to Russia’s northwestern district, Nikolai Tsukanov, study public opinion.
The research had no practical significance, since governors and presidential administration officials were responsible for the local presidential campaign. But both Prigozhin and Tsukanov, an obscure former governor of the Kaliningrad region, wanted to showcase their zeal and ability to the Kremlin. That’s why they found each other and came up with this idea. The limited scale of this project and Tsukanov’s involvement both suggest that the Kremlin chef’s enormous influence is nothing but an overhyped myth.
In spring 2018, virtually the same team of political strategists studied public opinion in African countries. Russian diplomats were likely helping the project participants to some extent. However, Russia lacks clear strategic goals on the African continent. And given that the research took place in countries that would soon hold elections, it’s possible that purely commercial motives drove the project.
Currently, these same political operatives are helping acting St. Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov’s election campaign—and that is important for the president. Prigozhin is again making himself useful to stay on the radar.
The recent news that Prigozhin allegedly met with opposition activist Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg indicates that the “Kremlin chef’s” strategic operations have reached a new level. Now, the mysterious Prigozhin has materialized publicly in politics—and apparently he’s not planning to leave.
A popular channel in the Telegram messenger app published photos of Navalny and Prigozhin exiting the same St. Petersburg building. The two were not pictured together, but the implication was clear. The news made waves in top media. Prigozhin’s team had made an airtight PR move by juxtaposing two famous names.
Navalny denied that any such meeting took place. Still, virtually everyone interested in politics was now discussing the likely fictional event.
After that, the press service of Prigozhin’s Concord company secured his success with a statement to the BBC. It claimed that Navalny offered to halt attacks on the quality of school lunches produced by Concord in return for Prigozhin supporting the Navalny team this September in the St. Petersburg municipal election.
“Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] answered, ‘I won’t exchange a soldier for a marshal,’” the company claimed.
Thus, the shadowy businessman has revealed his new incarnation: a full-fledged participant in political discourse with the most prominent opposition activist in the country. Prigozhin is now a politician in his own right. The pseudo-meeting has institutionalized his political role in the public sphere. Moreover, the businessman was able to test whether he interests the media and the public. The answer was crystal clear: yes, very much so.
It is quite difficult to debunk the myth of Putin’s omnipotent aide. Prigozhin’s role blends well with the stereotype that the Russian regime has been building about itself. The veiled allusions to “polite people” in Crimea and volunteer hackers have created the impression that Russians are indeed to blame for everything. The Kremlin enjoys playing the role of the sly trickster whom everyone knows but no one can catch red-handed.
As a result, Prigozhin has tried to anticipate the wishes of the Russian authorities and respond to their signals. His actions resemble something the Kremlin would sanction or even direct, but that isn’t always the case.
And demonization in the West benefits Prigozhin. Journalists ask Putin about him. The president again hears his name and the stories of his activities. That accomplishes Prigozhin’s goal.
Public exposure, which Prigozhin previously considered a problem, now works to his advantage. Hence the unprecedented openness—his press service answers journalists’ questions and quotes the boss’s provocative statements. Prigozhin doesn’t conceal his participation in Alexander Beglov’s gubernatorial campaign and even highlights it. Previously silent political strategists working for Prigozhin offer their opinions and agree to interviews.
“Putin’s chef” has accepted the role the Russian and Western media assigned him and is now playing it openly. He is the personification of all the myths and stereotypes about the Russian regime’s dark side. This notoriety has literally forced Yevgeny Prigozhin into the president’s inner circle, and he will now do everything he can to secure his place there.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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