‘We fight for justice’ Russian mogul bankrolls action movie about his mercenary troops in Africa amid allegations of war crimes
On May 19, the pro-Kremlin channel NTV premiered the film “Tourist” during a not-so-prestigious late-night time slot. It was billed as a “dynamic” action flick about Russian military instructors officially sent to the Central African Republic (CAR) to help “the country’s legitimate government to resist rebel fighters.” As Meduza discovered, the film not only owes its funding to the catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin but also its plot to the exploits of Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner PMC. At the same time, “Tourist” mentions neither the private military company itself nor the war crimes that Western journalists have accused its combatants of committing. Meduza special correspondent Lillya Yapparova spoke with the filmmakers to find out how many real mercenaries were in the final cut — and why Prigozhin needs a propaganda film in the first place.
Please note. This feature was originally published in Russian on May 19, 2021, and has been abridged for length and clarity.
Almost like combat
“Tourist” tells the story of Grisha Dmitriev — a “Russian instructor” (that’s exclusively how he’s referred to in the film) who arrives in the Central African Republic (CAR) for the first time. Known by the call sign “Tourist,” Dmitriev came to the African country “to teach the basics of tactics to local military personnel,” writes RIA FAN, an online publication linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, about the film. During his trip, “Tourist” becomes a witness to a coup attempt “organized by foreign intelligence services.”
What’s actually happening in the CAR?
The Russian Foreign Ministry first announced the dispatch of Russian military instructors to the CAR in 2018: the delegation’s official task was peaceful settlement and the training of the Central African Republic’s army, which at that point had been embroiled in a civil war with several armed groups for six years.
According to the Foreign Ministry, there were 175 Russian instructors in the CAR in October 2018; in late 2020, Russia sent in another 300 people. The fact that most of the members of this contingent aren’t Russian Defense Ministry employees, but rather mercenaries from the Wagner PMC, has been brought up by representatives of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), as well as in a recent journalistic investigation based on UN documents by Radio France Internationale (RFI, you can read Meduza’s summary in English here).
The official size of the Russian group is also disputed: according to RFI, the number of mercenaries could be up to 2,000. And they aren’t limited to their formal role as “instructors” — for example, in April 2021, the French newspaper Liberation found that PMC combatants are now fighting on the front lines, “relegating the Armed Forces of the CAR (the FACA) to the role of auxiliary troops.”
Citing eyewitnesses, the journalists reported that the mercenaries are involved in war crimes including looting and rape, and are establishing their own “occupation regime.” “The mercenaries grab everything, using as an argument low wages, poor logistical support, and the impunity they enjoy,” Liberation’s journalists wrote.
The “Tourist” trailer begins with the new recruit being explicitly told that “instructors” don’t conduct combat operations in the CAR — the rest of the screen time is taken up by action shots. The Russians exchange fire with rebels, who are armed with machine guns and even RPGs; locals are killed when a grenade goes off in front of them; helicopters soar through the air behind the main characters, who are frozen in a combat stance. “The Russians know how to fight,” a rebel leader laments. “The Americans fight for democracy. But we fight for justice,” one of the fighters says, thirty seconds into the trailer, as he takes a drag on a cigarette.
The most remarkable moment is when the trailer cuts to a shot of an actor who bears a striking resemblance to Dmitry Utkin, the alleged commander of the Wagner PMC. “There, at the 15 second [mark] it was like I glimpsed Dmitry Valeryevich [Utkin] himself!” a veteran of the PMC, who’s personally acquainted with Utkin, told Meduza. “The actor is very similar — even his diction. Too similar.”
Immediately after the shot of actor Gleb Temnov, who plays the role presumably based on the alleged PMC commander, real mercenaries appear in the frame. “They used real PMC guys as extras, damn, two of my acquaintances were exposed there,” a former employee of Prigozhin’s organizations, who’s personally acquainted with the Wagner Group’s fighters, told Meduza with a laugh. “You can see one of them in the trailer: he’s there with a machine gun [...] And the second one called me himself and asked me to watch him on the big screen.”
These same frames show Wagner Group military equipment exported from Syria. In particular, Ural-brand off-road vehicles with very recognizable modifications. “Everything is painfully similar! They just took [them] from our fleet and used them on set,” a PMC veteran who took part in the Syrian campaign told Meduza. “The equipment was manufactured on our base in Syria, and then it was transferred to Africa. For example, in the [movie] trailer, a Ural crosses the road — and you can obviously see that our specialists made alterations to it. There are metal sheets sewn onto the body with what look like shooting holes — this is very different from the factory model.”
“In general, the conditions they filmed in there were close to combat [conditions]. Everyone is playing themselves!” Meduza’s source who used to work for Prigozhin’s structures said. “They even filmed local FACA [soldiers].” (The film’s director, Andrey Batov, has specified that local civilians played the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) troops).
The involvement of a secretive Russian PMC in shooting a film for the public is easily explained, according to three of Meduza’s sources. A consultant on the film (who asked to remain anonymous), a former commander from the private military company, and a former employee of Prigozhin’s business structures all asserted that “Tourist” was bankrolled by Evgeny Prigozhin, who tasked the film with whitewashing the Wagner PMC’s reputation.
‘We’re actors, we don’t ask unnecessary questions’
“Tourist” isn’t the most ambitious film: “no more than $150,000” was spent on it, a source close to the project told Meduza.
Actor Vladimir Petrov, who played the newcomer with the call sign “Tourist,” told RIA FAN that it was his first major role in a feature-length film. “I’m very thankful to the director for hiring me for this project,” the actor said. “As for the various subtleties that my character was supposed to be able to do, I learned those from our professionals.” What “professionals” helped the film crew understand the military life of Russians in the CAR, Petrov didn’t say.
Despite the apparent modesty of the film, the cast and crew behaved as though they were working on a much-anticipated blockbuster, keeping the details strictly confidential. For example, actor Alexey Shevchenkov enthusiastically answered questions from Meduza’s correspondent until he heard the word “Tourist” — then he cut off the conversation: “Ah! No, no, I won’t say a word about this — sorry, but all the best!”
The film’s director, Andrey Shcherbinin — who uses the pseudonym Andrey Batov, — didn’t answer Meduza’s calls.
In an interview with RIA FAN, he expressed concerns about the future that awaits Central African children. “Nature can’t stand a vacuum. If we’re not in the CAR, others will be. I saw them there. These are absolutely materialistic people, pursuing their own interests. They don’t care deeply about Africa or about these children,” Shcherbinin insisted. “When the local population sees a white man and hears [him] speaking French, you can see the distaste on their faces. But as soon as they hear Russian, they begin to smile, they come over and greet [you].”
In addition to “Tourist,” Shcherbinin has filmed nearly two dozens projects about submariners, snipers, Soviet-Afghan War veterans, retired special forces officers, and even one about a “group of mercenaries” working “under cover for the Russian intelligence services.”
Stuntman Sergey Vorobyov worked with Shcherbinin on several of these films; in “Tourist,” he played the role of “Yenisei” — the commander whose unit the newcomer joins.
“For my character, ‘Tourist’ [the main character] is simply a subordinate at first, nothing more,” Vorobyov explained in conversation with Meduza. “A subordinate who’s untrustworthy. But then, on the job, he shows that he’s a real man, a real warrior — he commands respect.”
Vorobyov only spent a few days on set in the CAR. “It’s simply a different world,” he recalls. “The logistics [were] difficult, the climate: we came from the cold to the heat and wild humidity. A movie hasn’t been made there before, transportation was problematic. One thing I can say is that after my trip there, I fell ten times more in love with St. Petersburg and Russia!”
Vorobyov hadn’t heard anything about Evgeny Prigozhin’s personal involvement in the film, or the involvement of actual mercenaries. “We’re actors, you understand? We don’t ask unnecessary questions — especially there!” Vorobyov told Meduza. “We arrived, we worked, and we left. Nobody updated me on whose money they were drawing on. I can only say that for me it was a great honor to work on this project.”
Two of Meduza’s sources familiar with Evgeny Prigozhin’s film projects said that “Tourist” is actually the fourth movie he has sponsored (the first one he bankrolled was the military drama “Rzhev”). Some of the creators behind “Tourist” were also involved in other Prigozhin-linked films; in particular, screenwriter Vladimir Izamailov and producer Genrikh Ken both worked on “Shugaley” and “Shugaley 2.”
The “Shugaley” movies were based on the true story of Russian political strategist Maxim Shugaley, who was imprisoned in Libya in 2019 while working on Prigozhin’s “African projects” (Shugaley, who acted as a consultant for seemingly pro-Russian political candidates in a number of African countries, was formally in Libya to conduct sociological research on behalf of the Foundation for National Values Protection, another organization close to Prigozhin). These two films were released months apart in 2020 — in fact, they both came out while Shugaley was still imprisoned in Libya.
Maxim Shuglaey was released a few months after the second film premiered, in December 2020. He now heads the Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC). And it was in this capacity that he even attended the African premiere of “Tourist,” which took place in Bangui (the CAR’s capital) on May 14. The political strategist gave a lecture on the topic of hybrid warfare, “after which bright fireworks blossomed in the sky over the city,” RIA FAN wrote about the premiere .
“Tourist” is set in 2020, but the idea to make a film designed to “raise the ‘Orchestra’s’ ratings” was born several years beforehand, a Meduza source close to the project claims. Apparently, plans for the film had been in the works “since late 2018.”
At that time, the Wagner PMC’s mercenaries in Africa were facing an increasing number of accusations in connection with the murder of three Russian journalists in the CAR. Russian President Vladimir Putin even had to answer direct questions about the private military company’s connection to the triple murder.
Journalist Orkhan Dzhemal and his colleagues — cameraman Kirill Radchenko and documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguev — went to the CAR to shoot a film about the Wagner PMC’s activities. All three were shot dead on July 30, 2018.
In January 2019, the Dossier Center — an investigative-journalism nonprofit founded by exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who funded the Russian journalists’ reporting trip to Africa — revealed that Dzhemal, Radchenko, and Rastorguev were under surveillance from the moment they arrived in the CAR. And the person carrying out the surveillance was in constant contact with a “instructor” employed by a local company, allegedly connected to Evgeny Prigozhin himself.
However, it’s not just events in the CAR that have ruined the Wagner Group’s reputation.
“The image of [the PMC] had to be laundered somehow, because a lot of negative information had accumulated,” the Wagner Group veteran told Meduza. “Including the stunt against the deserters in Syria and information about violations by the firm in Libya. Well, you can find fault with everything there.”
Two weeks before the “Tourist” premiere, Radio France Internationale (RFI) published a major investigation based on UN documents about the activities of mercenaries in the CAR: the journalists reported that “Russian military instructors” were carrying out extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, and lootings.
Commenting on the film’s premiere date, Meduza’s source who worked for Prigozhin’s business structures said “it could have been a response to the [RFI] investigation — but maybe they just screwed up again and now some other story will emerge.”
Around the same time, the Prigozhin-linked RIA FAN and the Patriot media group — whose board of trustees is headed by the catering magnate — launched a small media campaign leading up to the “Tourist” premiere.
Contrasting the forthcoming action flick with “American agitprop,” Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov told RIA FAN that he “wanted the film to make a splash.” Producer Genrikh Ken made similar comments to the publication; underscoring that Western media coverage of the situation in the CAR is biased, he invited everyone “to watch the movie and draw their own conclusions.” RIA FAN also spoke to filmmaker and Mosfilm studios head Karen Shakhnazarov. “It’s good that such films are being made,” he said. “Among other things, this reflects Russia’s role in the world.”
In lieu of answering questions
Rather than answering Meduza’s questions about the film “Tourist,” oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin sent the following response to our special correspondent Liliya Yapparova:
“I’m replying to an anti-Russian journalist, an employee of a foreign-agent media outlet.
Citizen Yapparova, in Soviet times there were enemies of the people. They were shot. You belong to a similar category. As far as I understand, your main task, like all employees of anti-Russian publications, including Meduza, is to denigrate all the great and good that Russia and Russians create, and whitewash the crimes of the West. The Russian instructors who work in the Commonwealth of Officers for International Security, together with the Central African army, liberated the republic’s territory, which, by the way, is twice as large as the territory of France, [and] located in impenetrable jungles, among hordes of bandits, including ones who engage in cannibalism. Glory to the Russian instructors.
This film is about those very heros. They are Russians and we are proud of them. Don’t forget, citizen Yapparova, that you are a foreign agent and an enemy mouthpiece. The instructors didn’t commit any crimes. If this is not the case, say it loud and clear. The Central African authorities will conduct an investigation and if these facts aren’t confirmed and turn out to be fictitious, then I will ‘dismember’ you in court, like other anti-Russian maggots. Anyway, watch the film and be ashamed of your life while other Russians enjoy themselves.
As for your questions, for each of Russia’s achievements a huge amount of fecal mass spews from the mouths of her enemies, so it’s not surprising that the same thing happened with you.”
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart