Who Was Yevgeny Prigozhin and Why Was He Influential in Russia?

Who Was Yevgeny Prigozhin and Why Was He Influential in Russia?

Yevgeny Prigozhin was an influential and controversial figure in Russian politics and Russian business setting. He rose to prominence and was considered a Russian oligarch when he became involved in several business interests across different industries and sectors. These included restaurants in Saint Petersburg. The most notable is the Concord Catering which landed numerous government contracts beginning in 2003 and enabled him to become close to Vladimir Putin. He also ventured into private military contracting with the establishment of the notorious Wagner Group in 2014. Nevertheless, months after his group staged a rebellion in June 2023, he was presumed dead in a plane crash on 23 August 2023.

Yevgeny Prigozhin Profile: The Russian Oligarch Who Built a Restaurant Empire and Became the Founder and Leader of the Wagner Group Private Military Company

It is interesting to note that Yevgeny Prigozhin started as a delinquent who served time in prison and later tried his luck in entrepreneurship. His earlier business ventures allowed him to gain the experience and capital needed to launch himself as a restauranteur and a notable Russian business oligarch with various business interests. He further expanded his career and influence when he evolved from being a restauranteur to an impactful figure in Russian politics as the leader of an infamous private military contractor.

Background and Early Business Ventures

Prigozhin came from an ordinary family. He was born an only child on 1 June 1961 to Violetta Kirovna Prigozhina, a hospital nurse, and Viktor Yevgenyevich Prigozhin, a mining engineer. His association with government-related affairs was only limited to his paternal grandfather Yevgeny Ilyich Prigozhin who served as a captain Red Army during World War II and his paternal uncle Yefim Ilyich Prigozhin who was a Soviet scientist.

He had a rough teenage and young adult life. He was specifically caught stealing in 1979 and was given a suspended sentence of two years and six months at the age of 18. He served his sentence working at a chemical plant. He became a member of a gang in 1980 that was involved in a neighborhood burglary and robbery spree. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for robbery, theft, fraud, and involving minors in criminal activity.

The Supreme Court of the Soviet Union reduced his sentence to 10 years due to good behavior. He served a total of nine years in detention and was a free man in 1990. Prigozhin began selling hot dogs alongside with his mother and stepfather in an open-air market. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in an era of entrepreneurship in Russia. He began venturing into several business interests either as a founder or an associate.

He was heavily involved in the grocery retail business from 1991 to 1997 and had a 15 percent stake and served as the manager of Contrast through his linkage with his former classmate Boris Spektor. Contrast was the first retail chain in Saint Petersburg. Furthermore, around the same time, he also ventured into the gambling business and was brought in as the chief executive of Spectrum which founded the first casinos in Saint Petersburg.

Some speculations have noted that Prigozhin might have first met Putin through the gambling business. Putin served as the chairperson of the supervisory board for gambling beginning in 1991. Nevertheless, together with Contrast and Spectrum figureheads Igor Gobenko, he ventured further into various industries which included construction, marketing research, and foreign trade. Prigozhin also entered the restaurant business in 1995.

Establishment of Restaurant Businesses

Concord Group is one of the legacies of Yevgeny Prigozhin. It also established him as an oligarch. At the heart of this group of companies is Concord Management and Consulting which owns and operates several restaurants. It is also the parent company of Concord Catering which made Prigozhin a regular figure in Russian political affairs due to its involvement in various government contracts and association with Vladimir Putin.

Take note that Prigozhin specifically ventured into the restaurant business in 1995 when earnings from his other businesses started to dwindle. He opened his first restaurant called Old Customs House in 1995 with Contrast director Kirill Ziminov. Concord Catering was also founded in the same year. A second restraint was opened in 1997 and it was called New Island. It became one of the most fashionable dining places in Saint Petersburg.

New Island was created to elevate the dining experience of Saint Petersburg residents and visitors. It took inspiration from the waterfront restaurants on the Seine River in Paris. The restaurant gained prominence further. Prigozhin personally served food to Putin and then-French President Jacques Chirac in 2001. He hosted then-United States President George W. Bush in 2002. Putin celebrated his birthday on New Island in 2003.

The business career of Prigozhin took off further when he grew closer to Putin throughout the new millennium. Specifically, after leaving his business partners in 2003, he established his own independent restaurants. His Concord Catering began landing several government contracts. Prigozhin even earned the moniker Putin’s Chef due to his association with Putin and the fact that his company has been serving food for the government.

Some of the notable activities of Concord Catering included hundreds of millions of government contracts for feeding school children and government workers. The business was also paid about USD 1.2 billion in a single year for supplying food to the Russian Armed Forces. The supposed unaffiliated company Msk LLC was the caterer of several high-profile events. These contracts made Prigozhin one of the wealthiest people in Russia

Founding and Leading the Wagner Group

The evolution from a restaurateur to a founder and leader of a notorious paramilitary group was an interesting accomplishment. PMC Wagner or the Wagner Group is a private military contractor. Prigozhin earlier denied his association with the organization. The Russian government also denied that it was a state-funded private military contractor and that it had no association with the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Armed Forces.

However, in September 2022, Prigozhin explained that he founded it in May 2014 to support the Russian government during the Donbas War. He added that he played a personal role from the start. He used his experience in prison to recruit former inmates. The organization also has paramilitary activities in different regions in Africa and the Middle East or countries aligned with the foreign policy and international relations interests of Russia.

Media organizations have branded the organization either as a Russian state-funded private military company or a paramilitary group that receives contracts from the Russian government. Observers have noted that the Russian government has used the group to have plausible deniability for military operations and foreign interventions abroad. It was involved in civil wars in Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.

The Wagner Group also participated in the Annexation of Crimea in 2014. It had an important role before and during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the overall Ukraine-Russian Conflict. The organization specifically provided armed support through its mercenaries. These mercenaries carried out frontline combat operations and undercover operations. Prigozhin stated that he was both the financier and leader of the Wagner Group.

However, around 2023, Prigozhin became vocal with its displeasure with how the Russian Ministry of Defense had handled the invasion of Ukraine. He also commended the Ukrainian Armed Forces for mounting a defense. Nevertheless, on 23 June 2023, Prigozhin said in a video that the rationale for the invasion was based on lies. His group staged a rebellion following alleged Russian missile strikes targeting Wagner forces.

Awards and Criticisms of Yevgeny Prigozhin

Yevgeny Prigozhin received several awards from the government of Russia itself. These included the Hero of the Russian Federation in 2022 for his leadership at the Wagner Group and the involvement of his organization in the invasion of Ukraine. He also received awards earlier from foreign governments. These included the Order of Republic in 2018 and the Order of the Two Niles in 2020 from the Sudanese government.

Several international observers and organizations have scrutinized the activities of Prigozhin. Some believed that he used some of the earnings from Concord Catering to finance the Internet Research Agency. This organization has been accused of running a troll farm together with Concord Management and Consulting that attempted to influence political events outside Russia such as the 2016 United States Presidential Elections.

The government contracts of Prigozhin and his lavish lifestyle also opened investigations into his business affairs and linkages with unaffiliated organizations. The Anti-Corruption Foundation accused him of corrupt practices. Estimates in 2017 suggest that his illegal wealth had amounted to more than USD 10.5 million. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project also declared him the Corrupt Person of the Year in 2022.

Prigozhin also received numerous sanctions from foreign governments and criminal charges. One of the most notable ones was a 2018 indictment by the U.S. grand jury in which he was charged with funding and organizing operations for the purpose of interference with the U.S. political and electoral processes and other crimes such as identity theft. He was added to the wanted list of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2022. Prigozhin admitted in November 2022 that he had interfered in U.S. affairs and would continue to do so.

He might seem a favored persona in the Russian political landscape but his strained relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense and an attempt to oust Vladimir Putin watered down his social and political position. The failed rebellion of the Wagner Group ended in Putin branding their actions as an act of treason. Some Russian opposition groups praised the organization while others noted that Prigozhin was no different from Putin.


  • Breazeale, S. 2021. “Prigozhin’s Criminal Past, Straight From the Source.” Meduza. Available online
  • Eltagouri, M. 2018. “The Rise of Putin’s Chef: The Russian Oligarch Accused of Manipulating the U.S. Election.” The Washington Post. Available online
  • Harvey, B. 2022. “Sanctioned Putin Ally Says He Created Russian Mercenary Group.” Bloomberg. Available online
  • Preussen, W. 2022. “Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin Admits He Created the Mercenary Wagner Group.” Politico. Available online
  • Walker, S. and Sauer, P. 2023. “Yvegeny Prigozhin: The Hotdog Seller Who Rose to the Top of Putin’s War Machine.” The Guardian. Available online

Photo Credit: Government of the Russian Federation / Adapted / CC 3.0