Evgeny Prigozhin's right to be forgotten What does Vladimir Putin's favorite chef want to hide from the Internet?
The businessman Evgeny Prigozhin has filed 15 different lawsuits against the search engine Yandex, hoping to utilize Russia's new law instituting a “right to be forgotten” and make the Internet company delete search results linking to articles that he believes tarnish his reputation. Prigozhin is a man with an impressive biography. He spent nine years in prison; he opened St. Petersburg's most elite restaurant (where Vladimir Putin likes to entertain foreign dignitaries and celebrate his birthday); he's received multibillion-ruble state contracts; and his name has featured prominently in investigative reports about Russia's so-called Internet “troll factories.” Meduza's special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev looks back at some of the most colorful episodes in Evgeny Prigozhin's storied life.
Prison, hot dogs, and the restaurant business
Evgeny Prigozhin was born in 1961 in Leningrad. In 1977, he graduated from an athletics-focused boarding school, and tried to make a go of ski racing, but soon gave up. In 1979, just after turning eighteen, a Leningrad court gave Prigozhin a suspended sentence for stealing. Two years later, he was back before a judge, this time for a more serious offense: committing robbery as part of an organized criminal group, fraud, and involving minors in prostitution. He got twelve years behind bars, and served nine.
Prigozhin went free in 1990 and immediately embraced the spirit of the times: together with his stepfather in Leningrad, he set up a network to sell hot dogs, and soon became the manager of “Contrast,” St. Petersburg's first chain of grocery stores, which was opened by the entrepreneur Boris Spektr, Prigozhin's old classmate from boarding school. Prigozhin owned 15 percent of the business. By 1995, when revenues started to fall, Prigozhin convinced his friend, “Contrast” commercial director Kirill Ziminov, to go into the restaurant business with him. The next year, the two opened one of St. Petersburg's first elite restaurants, “The Old Customs House” (Staraya Tamozhnya).
In 1997, inspired by the ideas of the waterfront restaurateurs on the Seine in Paris, Ziminov and Prigozhin tracked down and bought a rusty old ship docked on the Vyatka river. Then they spent $400,000 remodeling and converting it into a restaurant, which they called “New Island.” It soon became one of the most elite locations in St. Petersburg, immediately attracting businessmen and officials from the city and federal government.
In the summer of 2001, President Vladimir Putin decided to have dinner at New Island with French President Jacques Chirac. Prigozhin personally served the food to the two heads of state. “Vladimir Putin saw how I built up my business from nothing. He saw how I wasn't above serving two crowned heads. They were my guests, after all,” Prigozhin said in an interview with the St.-Petersburg-based publication Gorod 812. He always served his distinguished guests himself—and he still does it today.
Prigozhin gained credibility with Putin, having made inroads with his staff—from the president's drivers to his security guards. In 2013, the magazine Forbes reported that Prigozhin had become close to Viktor Zolotov, who recently became the head of Russia's new National Guard. Prigozhin also got to know Roman Tsepov, who served as one of Putin's bodyguards when he was still deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. (After Putin left for Moscow, Tsepov provided security to a handful of crime bosses, including the family of the infamous mobster Alexander Malyshev.)
In May 2002, Putin dined with US President George W. Bush aboard the “New Island.” The next year, Putin celebrated his birthday here. By this point, Prigozhin had parted ways with his business partners and established himself independently in the restaurant and catering business. Prigozhin was so successful serving elite clientele that in May 2008 he won the contract to feed the guests at Dmitry Medvedev's presidential inauguration. Surrounded by the top leaders of the Kremlin, the charming Prigozhin was welcomed as “one of the boys.”
Feeding children and soldiers
In the fall of 2010, Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony of Prigozhin's “Concord Culinary Line” factory outside St. Petersburg. The factory was built specifically to supply schools with food. Construction costs were roughly $53 million—$43 million of which were borrowed from the state-owned Vnesheconombank, which only granted credit in such generous proportions to construction projects tied to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Already by 2011, as soon as they realized their kids were eating semi-processed food, the parents in St. Petersburg were in full revolt against “Concord.” They also grew concerned that all the food from Concord claimed to have such a long shelf life: it could only mean that the stuff was packed full of preservatives. In September 2011, the news show “Vesti” on the television network Rossiya aired a segment about several schools in St. Petersburg going without any food at all, thanks to Concord. After this, Prigozhin mothballed his new factory, just a year after welcoming Putin to Opening Day.
Prigozhin had better luck with students and their parents in Moscow, where he won school catering contracts, including a three-year deal with the mayor's office worth more than 10 billion rubles ($154 million).
But he made his biggest money feeding soldiers.
The idea to outsource food and cleaning services to private firms belongs to former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (who was in office from 2007 until 2012). Until 2010, military units prepared their own food, using conscripts to do the work. When Serdukov's reforms rolled through, they decided to give this job to catering companies, creating a new industry worth roughly 50 billion rubles ($768 million) a year. At first, Prigozhin made a deal to organize a handful food courts in the military's General Staff and the Ministry of Defense.
By 2012, Vladimir Pavlov, the head of Voentorg (the agency charged with contracting caterers to feed Russia's soldiers), signed an agreement awarding more than 90 percent of all food orders for soldiers to businesses affiliated with Evgeny Prigozhin. The contract lasted two years, and it was worth 92 billion rubles (still $1.4 billion—even converted in today's depreciated ruble).
This was the peak of Prigozhin's career. He flew in private planes and paid for it in cash. In letters, Prigozhin referred to himself as an advisor to the presidential administration and a knight of the “For Merit to the Fatherland” order, though there's no official record of him ever winning this honor.
In the fall of 2013, Russia's new defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, put an end to the military's outsourcing of food services. The government didn't renew its contract with Prigozhin, and he received just 46 billion rubles ($704 million) for part of 2013.
On February 26, 2012, Moscow witnessed “White Circle,” one of the last major demonstrations in the so-called “Winter of Discontent” that followed contested parliamentary elections in December 2011. Uniting under the slogan “For honest elections!” participants held hands and stood side-by-side, forming a human chain around Moscow's Garden Ring road. It was a peaceful rally, and police didn't detain a single protester. But one strange incident did catch the attention of law enforcement: As soon as the demonstration began, a minivan pulled up to the curb at Sakharov Prospekt. Men jumped out of the vehicle, set up a table on the sidewalk, and started serving “White-Circle” participants hot tea and cookies. When asked what organization they represented, the men laughed and said, “We're on our own.” Police officers arrived immediately and asked them to leave the sidewalk: it wasn't allowed.
But the men managed to convince the police to leave them alone, and they calmly finished handing out the rest of the tea and cookies. And then they drove off. Demonstrators guessed that these people might have been former employees at Yukos, who simply didn't want to advertise their ties to the oil company once owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (Nearby, there was a building owned by Menatap, Yukos' main shareholder.) It later turned out, however, that the men and their tea and cookies came from another company altogether, organized by Dmitry Koshara, the director of development for the Prigozhin-owned business Concord-Catering. The company sent three trucks with tea and cookies to “White-Circle” demonstrators. Koshara then reached an arrangement with the organizers of the “For Honest Elections!” movement: at the next opposition rally, on March 5 in Pushkin Square, security guards from Concord would be in the crowd.
From all appearances, Prigozhin was absolutely unsympathetic to the political opposition. Koshara was working for him to gather information about future rallies and about the leaders of the protest movement. According to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, it turns out he was also collecting materials that would later be used in “Anatomy of Protest,” a controversial documentary that aired on the television network NTV that accused the opposition of plotting a coup. Koshara now says that every fifth account registered on the “White-Circle” website, 26feb.ru, was one of his bots.
In September 2013, journalists discovered that Prigozhin owned the infamous “troll factory” in the Olgino region of St. Petersburg. Officially, the founder and CEO of the “Internet Research Agency” was the retired police colonel Mikhail Bystrov, but the agency was created with the help of several people close to Prigozhin. For example, Maria Kuprashevich, who worked in the PR department at Concord, played an important role at the “troll factory” in Olgino.
The Internet Research Agency worked like this: people were hired and paid specially to write posts and comments on social media (praising the Russian authorities, and criticizing the anti-Kremlin opposition). One typical phrase conceived and disseminated by the troll factory in Olgino read, “Alexey Navalny, who calls himself a ‘truth seeker’ and a ‘freedom fighter,’ has earned himself a reputation as a liar, a fraud, and a traitor to Russia. Meeting with representatives of foreign intelligence services, Navalny once again proves that he's on the West's payroll.”
About 400 people worked around the clock in Olgino, sitting at computers and writing on Russian social networks according to pre-prepared scripts. After the February 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, for instance, the trolls were given the following assignment: “The main idea is that we're cultivating the view that Ukrainian players might have been involved in the death of this Russian oppositionist. [...] That now Russia has once again become a country that faces the West's hostility. This is an obvious provocation, and an effort to create a surge of discontent among the opposition's leaders, who will begin calling for protests and demonstrations with the aim of overthrowing the government.”
According to Lyudmila Savchuk (an activist who's written about the Internet Research Agency from the inside, after working for the firm for two months), the troll factory pays higher salaries than most typical PR companies.
In October 2014, the agency moved from Olgino to Savushkin Street on St. Petersburg's outskirts, cutting its staff from 400 to 250. The next summer, Savchuk sued the company, demanding compensation pay for the early termination of her employment contract. The agency's representative, Konstantin Chernyshov, told the court that the firm no longer had an office or any employees.
In 2014, hackers from the online group “Anonymous International” further corroborated that Prigozhin's company Concord was involved in financing the Internet Research Agency.
It would seem that Prigozhin and his people provided the Russian authorities with other propaganda-related services, as well. In November 2013, three months before the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a news agency called “Kharkov” was founded in Ukraine, and it opened a branch office in Crimea. The agency advocated a pro-Russian position in its news reports, using the term “Novorossiya” well before violence began in eastern Ukraine. (Novorossiya is a historical term of the Russian Empire denoting a region north of the Black Sea that suddenly re-entered the political lexicon when Moscow-backed separatists took up arms against Kiev in 2014.) According to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Evgeny Prigozhin financed Kharkov. (Journalists later discovered that Prigozhin's mobile phone number—listed as “Evgeny Viktorovich”—was among the contacts of Konstantin Kobzar, one of Viktor Yanukovich's assistants.)
In September 2013, US President Barack Obama arrived in St. Petersburg to attend the G20 summit. Obama was greeted by a “demonstration of gay activists” who stood with signs reading, “Obama is with us” and “Obama is our president.” The police dispersed the rally, but the demonstration (according to Novaya Gazeta) was actually the work of people linked to Prigozhin. (Later, these same people spread information about the rally on the Internet.)
Everybody's for sale—especially the stupid journalists
In March 2015, President Putin met with the chief editors of Russia's biggest mass media to talk about the current state of the news media. They ended up discussing Prigozhin specifically. Several people in attendance knew Prigozhin, and they weren't thrilled about him. His relationship with independent newspapers was especially tense.
Not a single serious Russian news outlet wrote about the “demonstration of gays who greeted Obama.” The incident was reported, however, by the newspaper Gazeta o Gazetakh, a publication that claimed to have 60,000 readers in St. Petersburg between 2013 and 2014. The newspaper's chief editor, Maria Maiorova, told Meduza that the paper's purpose was to “cleanse the media of untruths and facilitate the unmasking of lies and planted stories.” Maiorova refused to say who financed the newspaper, which curiously ran almost zero advertisements.
In 2012, a future employee of the Internet Research Agency, Maria Kuprashevich, applied for an internship at Novaya Gazeta. It wasn't long before the newspaper learned that Kuprashevich worked for the PR department at Concord. Her employment records showed that she was a sales manager for the Petersburg firm “Printsipum”—a company whose general manager was Maria Maiorova, the chief editor of Gazeta o Gazetakh.
In February 2013, the poet and writer Dmitry Bykov received an invitation to speak in the Sverdlovsk oblast before supporters of the businessman and Kachkanarskaya city councilman Sergei Soloviev, who was allegedly running for reelection. Bykov was offered a 500,000-ruble honorarium. The poet agreed, appearing and reading some of his work to the audience, but it later turned out that Soloviev wasn't running to keep his city council seat. In an interview with Gazeta o Gazetakh, Soloviev said he wanted to show that “Bykov is for sale and ready to appear for big money before any audience.” Not long afterwards, Gazeta o Gazetakh also published a letter written by Soloviev, where he bet his friends that “you can buy off anybody in this country with enough money—especially the stupid journalists.”
In March 2013, Forbes magazine published an investigation on Prigozhin's various activities. A month later, someone came to the offices of Axel Springer Russia, which was then Forbes' publisher, and bought advertising space that was used to run an interview with Sergei Soloviev, the Kachkanarskaya city councilman. Five days after the piece ran in Forbes' print edition, Soloviev sued the magazine, saying he'd never given the interview. In the advertisement, he'd been presented as the owner of a subcontracting firm that remodels homes and cottages. In his lawsuit, Soloviev argued that his wife filed for divorce after seeing the interview, apparently accusing him of leading a “double life” and hiding multi-billion-ruble earnings. The case never went anywhere.
In June 2013, this story got a new chapter, when the television network NTV ran a report where Soloviev called himself an ordinary middle manager, accusing Forbes of libel. NTV also spoke to a man named Andrei Mikhailov, who took credit for placing the advertisement in Forbes, claiming like Soloviev had with Bykov that he did it to “prove that the media is for sale.”
At no time did NTV mention that Soloviev's “interview” was published as an advertisement, and the TV network didn't even get a comment from Forbes. The only media outlet to cover this story as evidence of Forbes' reporting being “up for sale” was the Prigozhin-connected newspaper Gazeta o Gazetakh. Today, that paper has ceased publication, and its website has closed down.
In the fall of 2015, the companies Nordenergo, Teplosintez, Teplosnab, TCS, and Proftehuslugi (all associated with Prigozhin's business Concord) won procurement contracts issued by a Russian Defense Ministry subsidiary. The contracts were to provide housing and communal services to military communities in the Moscow, Bryansk, and Tver regions. The business was worth 26 billion rubles ($395 million).
Prosecutors in Russia's Central Military District soon took an interest in the procurement contracts, finding that the companies—created less than six months earlier—didn't have the licenses necessary to work at military sites. Prosecutors didn't find any formal grounds to revise the results of the procurement decision, however, so the contracts are still in force today. But the Defense Ministry subsidiary that issued the contracts, JSC “GU ZhKKh,” is now under investigation.
In late March 2016, a Moscow arbitration court granted prosecutors' request to sue one of the Prigozhin-connected companies (Nordenergo) for conducting business without the proper license. Prosecutors in Byansk and Tver have filed similar lawsuits.
According to Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, there were actually eight—not five—firms in this group that won procurement contracts from the military worth 40 billion rubles ($607 million). Prosecutors, however, are only looking at five companies. For these businesses, at best they might lose their government contracts. At worst, these companies' managers could be held responsible for violating Russian business laws. Former police officers sit at the heads of all five of these companies. According to the news website Fontanka, they're all connected to the firm “Megaline” (whose founders include Prigozhin's “Concord Management and Consulting”).
On May 30, 2016, Evgeny Prigozhin was suddenly implicated in a major scandal: St. Petersburg police stopped his motorcade as part of a planned raid on illegal misuses of state license plates and blue sirens (used in Russia by the authorities to pass through traffic). After the motorcade pulled over, one of Prigozhin's bodyguards laid his hands on a federal police officer who was recording the raid on a video camera. The police responded by literally ripping the siren speakers from the vehicle, and charging Prigozhin's guard with using violence against a representative of law enforcement—punishable by five years in prison. Top officials in St. Petersburg's police infrastructure made the decision to bring these charges.
The next day, on May 31, Prigozhin filed 15 different lawsuits against the Internet search engine Yandex, seeking to utilize Russia's new law on “the right to be forgotten,” which obliges search engines to respond to citizens' requests to remove results linking to “illegal, inaccurate, or irrelevant information” about that individual. In particular, Prigozhin has demanded that Yandex delete its links to Novaya Gazeta's report about the “troll factory,” Fontanka's report about Prigozhin's “business empire” in military communities (specifically, his state contracts with the Defense Ministry), and an article about military communities published on the Ukrainian news website Apostrof, with the headline “On Putin's Thieving Chef.”
Yandex refused to censor its search results, arguing that Prigozhin offered no reasons, and neither did he give any proof that the published information is inaccurate. Technically speaking, it's still unclear why Prigozhin wants these hyperlinks removed from his search results on Yandex. Prigozhin has refused to speak to journalists for many years now.
Incidentally, Prigozhin brought his lawsuit against Yandex in the same St. Petersburg court that gave him a suspended sentence for theft, almost 37 years ago in November 1979.
This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.