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What he leaves behind Yevgeny Prigozhin owns and controls a vast network of ‘trolls,’ media outlets, and profitable businesses. This was his empire before he bet the farm on Wagner Group.

Source: Meduza

Yevgeny Prigozhin isn’t just the founder of the Wagner Group mercenary organization, and he’s not only the man who staged an armed rebellion last weekend. Prigozhin is also a billionaire who owns a variety of businesses — a fact that Vladimir Putin emphasized on Tuesday, June 27, when telling a group of Defense Ministry officers about Prigozhin’s vast earnings on state catering contracts. Journalists from the news outlet Bumaga in St. Petersburg, where most of Prigozhin’s assets are based, spoke to the billionaire’s local business partners to find out what is now happening with his non-mercenary companies. Meduza shares the following English-language adaptation of Bumaga’s story.

Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t always advertise his leadership at Wagner. In fact, he denied any direct involvement in the mercenary group until well after it became Russia’s most visible fighting force in Ukraine. According to journalists at The Bell, the original idea for the organization belongs (ironically, in light of last weekend’s rebellion) to several high-ranking officers in the Defense Ministry. 

It’s believed that Wagner Group cut its in teeth in eastern Ukraine, fighting alongside Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas. Later, the mercenaries reportedly assassinated several prominent field commanders in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” when they refused to align with Moscow’s power vertical. Next, Wagnerites shipped out for operations in Syria and the Central African Republic. 

In November 2022, after the veil slipped from Prigozhin’s leadership at Wagner Group, the “PMC Wagner Center” opened in St. Petersburg, in a 23-story building on Zolnaya Street. With apparent aspirations to become a sprawling incubator for pro-invasion projects, the center announced plans to make office space available at no cost to “patriotic” creators, designers, and IT specialists. 

Over the next six months, the center welcomed dozens of new residents, including “z-bloggers,” a drone aviation school, the “Cyberfront-Z” movement, which coordinated writing pro-war comments on social media, and others. One group staged “master classes” in military education for orphans and “troubled teens,” using “trainers” with established ties to neo-Nazi groups, according to investigative journalists at The Insider.

A day of raids

On June 24, as Prigozhin’s armed convoy closed in on Moscow, multiple police groups raided the PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. State investigators and officers from SWAT, the National Guard, and the Interior Ministry searched the center’s offices and confiscated office equipment. But, as of this writing, not one resident in the building has publicly severed ties with PMC Wagner Center (though the “Wagnerenok” youth club has since changed its name). 

Anna Zamaraeva, who oversees PMC Wagner Center’s media and blogger production, also confirmed to Bumaga that no residents have terminated their membership at the center. “Since Monday [June 27], we’ve been working as usual in accordance with the Russian Federation’s applicable laws,” she said, adding that her colleagues will appeal to the authorities with an inventory list of everything seized over the weekend. Zamaraeva explained that the center believes it’s still perfectly legal to keep its ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin and his operations.

In April 2023, Prigozhin announced the opening of Wagner Group recruiting centers across St. Petersburg to be housed at one shooting range and four martial arts clubs. Sayd Tikhonov, the founder of one of those sports clubs, told Bumaga that neither Prigozhin’s rebellion nor Saturday’s police raids affected recruitment across the city. “Until the order comes down, of course, [we’ll keep recruiting at gyms],” he said. “So far, there’s been nothing. After all, nothing serious happened. They haven’t dissolved the organization [Wagner Group], and they haven’t banned it.”

Send in the trolls

A native of St. Petersburg, Yevgeny Prigozhin has deep ties to the region. Before he became the infamous mercenary leader who captured Bakhmut and staged an insurrection against Russia’s own military, Prigozhin gained notoriety abroad for his ties to the so-called Internet Research Agency. Better known as Russia’s “troll factory,” this group was responsible for the online interference in U.S. politics that led to the first Western sanctions against Prigozhin. 

In 2019, Prigozhin’s “troll factory” empire expanded with the Patriot Media Group — an umbrella outfit for dozens of websites with names like “Economics Today,” “Politics Today,” and so on. Over the years, Patriot courted friendly ties to hundreds of small regional projects nationwide. Yevgeny Prigozhin headed the media group’s board of trustees until late May 2023, when he transitioned to a role as a deputy board member to focus more on the war in Ukraine.

Naturally, the “troll factory” also invested in promoting pro-invasion narratives. In March 2022, by Prigozhin’s own admission, he helped launch the Cyberfront-Z Telegram channel — a project devoted to bullying celebrities who criticize the war in Ukraine and demanding the cancelation of their performances in Russia. The group also spams comment sections online with pro-invasion remarks. Journalists at Fontanka have tied the channel’s employers to legal entities connected to Prigozhin.

An investigative report last fall published by the Dossier Center found that roughly 400 companies make up Prigozhin’s entire “troll factory.” These groups have received hundreds of millions of rubles in funding to flood social media with fake comments, to buy promotions on popular news and blogger channels, and even to plant bogus reports in legacy news outlets like the newspaper Kommersant.

An aspect of the “troll factory” schemes that receives very little attention abroad (perhaps because it is a local rivalry) is Prigozhin’s feud with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. The conflict grew more heated in 2021 when Prigozhin’s position in the region began to “weaken,” sources told Bumaga. More recently, the campaign by Prigozhin and his troll empire has escalated from mere criticism (about the governor’s snow-cleanup and trash-pickup efficiency, for example) to outright character attacks and legal efforts, including petitions demanding treason charges against Beglov.

As with his role at Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t acknowledge his control over “the trolls” relatively recently, in this case in February 2023, when he deemed it appropriate to declare that the group was necessary for “defending Russia’s information space from the obnoxious, aggressive propaganda of anti-Russian messaging by the West.”

On June 24, during Prigozhin’s armed rebellion, Russia’s federal censor blocked the websites and social media accounts of the publications that comprise the Patriot Media Group on the grounds that these outlets were “spreading incitements to join an armed rebellion.” That same day, the authorities raided the offices of several “newsrooms” under Prigozhin’s control.

Journalists at Bumaga have learned that the websites are still blocked, but the largest outlet in Prigozhin’s pocket — RIA FAN — already has a backup site up and running. It turns out that the publication anticipated its confrontation with the federal censor at least a month ago and registered the domain on May 18, 2023. 

Where the money is made

There are six companies registered in Yevgeny Prigozhin’s name that have not already been dissolved. Three of these businesses are different legal entities for the Concord catering company. Prigozhin also serves as the director of the real estate company that legally manages the PMC Wagner Center and owns 49 percent of a film-distribution business. Additionally, he owns 80 percent of another property-leasing and -management firm.

Journalists at Verstka Media have also tied Prigozhin to several businesses not registered in his name that reported record profits in 2022. For example, Russockapital, which supplies food to schools and hospitals in Moscow, won more than 150 state contracts and earned 760 million rubles ($8.9 million) in profits. Reports at MBK Media, meanwhile, connect Prigozhin to a company called Verona, which made 750 million rubles ($8.8 million) on school catering deals in Moscow.

Prigozhin doesn’t do school catering in St. Petersburg, at least not anymore. Concord won a contract to supply food to 14 schools in the city in 2011, but that work ended after just one year. The company doesn’t even bid on these contracts anymore. 

More than once, Prigozhin has tried to implement investment projects in St. Petersburg.

In 2021, the Megaline company (which has unofficial ties to Prigozhin) signed an agreement with the municipal investment committee to create a maritime industrial complex just outside the city. Prigozhin claims that he hoped to invest as much as 300 billion rubles ($3.5 billion) into St. Petersburg’s infrastructure.

Journalists have written that Prigozhin has offices at the Trezzini Palace Hotel in St. Petersburg, which he calls “his own hotel.” During Saturday’s rebellion, the authorities raided this property, too, seizing 4 billion rubles ($46.8 million) in cash (along with boxes of guns and apparently narcotics). (Prigozhin says the money was intended for Wagner Group soldiers.) In the past, Prigozin has claimed that he would like to rebuild the hotel, expanding into adjacent lots he’s acquired, but the project will have to wait until there’s a new governor, he says.

According to available information, not one of the billionaire’s investment ventures in St. Petersburg is currently in motion. The massive maritime industrial complex was reportedly given to another investor, and Prigozhin openly accuses Governor Beglov of sabotaging his other projects.

All in the family

There are also several assets registered in the names of Prigozhin’s wife and their two children. For example, the family owns property in a gated community outside St. Petersburg at Lake Lakhta. Records show that the Concord company managed the construction of the community’s 49 villas, some of which belong individually to Prigozhin, his wife Lyubov, their son Pavel, and their daughter Polina. Counted together, this real estate adds up to roughly 17,000 square meters (more than 180,000 square feet). 

Prigozhin’s other daughter, Veronika, is the registered founder of a hotel not far from the Mariinsky Theater, while Pavel Prigozhin founded a business center located on the Sinopskaya Embankment. 

The family owns other properties throughout St. Petersburg, as well. Some have old history, like a restaurant launched in 1996 where Prigozhin used to entertain and dine the city’s political elites. There’s more recent history, too, like a food court on University Embankment where a bombing in April 2023 killed “war correspondent” Vladlen Tatarsky. After that deadly attack, Prigozhin said he’d previously transferred control over the cafe to the pro-invasion Cyberfront-Z movement.

English-language text by Kevin Rothrock

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