Yevgeny Prigozhin, the brutal owner of the Wagner private military contractor that has called for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu, is a former hot dog salesman-turned military chief who has played a vital role in his country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prigozhin posted a series of angry video and audio recordings in which he accused Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, where his troops are fighting on behalf of Russia, and has said his troops would now punish the defence minister in an armed rebellion and urged the army not to offer resistance, calling it a “march of justice” rather than a military coup.
But who is Prigozhin and where does he hail from?
Born in the same city as Vladimir Putin, St Petersburg, in 1961, Prigozhin’s father died when he was young and he was sent away to a sporting academy, where cross-country skiing was very popular.
A sporting career did not materialise and he fell in with a bad crowd of petty criminals, being convicted of theft in 1979 when he was just 18 and receiving a suspended two-and-a-half year sentence.
Two years later, though, he was sent to prison for 13 years for robbery and theft, after carrying out a string of crimes with his gang of friends, getting released nine years through his term.
After he got out of the clink, Prigozhin set up a chain of stalls selling hot dogs in his home city and it was this move into the food business that eventually ensured he caught Putin’s eye.
The hot dog business proved a success and he was then able to open a few expensive restaurants and a wine shop in St Petersburg,
“We made $1,000 a month, which in rouble notes was a mountain; my mum could hardly count it all,” he told the St Petersburg news portal Gorod 812 in 2011.
One particular eatery, New Island, proved a hit with some important people in the city. The restaurant was on a boat that sailed up and down the Neva River and it became a particular favourite with Putin, who took his foreign guests there after becoming the president.
“Vladimir Putin saw that I had no problem serving plates to dignitaries in person,” said Prigozhin in an interview years ago. “We met when he came with Japanese Prime Minister Mori.”
Putin even celebrated his birthday on the boat in 2003, while at other engagements with fellow dignitaries, Prigozhin helped with the catering for the visits as such luminaries as the then Prince Charles and Queen of Spain, as well as the younger George Bush, when he was the US president.
Years later, Prigozhin’s catering company Concord was contracted to supply food to the Kremlin, earning him the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’.
As well as earning huge government contracts throughout the 1990s and beyond, he then was given more than £200m to supply food to Moscow’s schools in 2012, before Prigozhin turned his attentions to the military and conflict two years later when Russia annexed Crimea.
Prigozhin set up his private military company, Wagner (named after the call sign used by one of its key early commanders), which like other similar operations, co-ordinated their actions with the defence ministry, but could also operate at arm’s length – Russia have always dismissed speculation that Wagner was a project of their GRU military intelligence.
They were first reported to be fighting Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region in 2014, while they have operated across Africa, including in Syria and Mali.
He was also alleged to have meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, but this time through keyboard warriors, setting up many social media accounts to spread pro-Kremlin views.
Prigozhin denied having any links to Wagner for years and even sued people who suggested that he did, but then in 2022, he said he had created the group in 2014, while admitting his group were fighting in eastern Ukraine, after being supplied with fighter jets, helicopters and tanks.
Prigozhin has recruited thousands of convicted criminals from jail on the premise that they agree to fight for him in Ukraine, while the mercenary group have gained a fearsome reputation for brutality and torture.
He has of late, though, been critical of Russia’s military leaders, even accusing Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of treason.
And now he is embarking on his ‘march of justice’.