- Share to or
‘How could you not worship a hero?’ In St. Petersburg, mourners gathered by a makeshift memorial to Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Here’s what they had to say about the mercenary leader and what he meant to them.
The day after the plane crash that apparently killed both Yevgeny Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin (who gave his nom-de-guerre “Wagner” to the entire Wagner Group), local residents and leaderless mercenaries gathered by the former PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. The flowers, candles, and other offerings they brought heaped up into a sprawling memorial to a man who had gained immense notoriety, both in Russia and abroad, for his private military company’s role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ekaterina Barkalova, a reporter writing for the independent Russian outlet Bumaga, visited the memorial and spoke to the people who came to honor Prigozhin. With the publication’s permission, Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of her reportage on why many Russians admired Prigozhin, despite his criminal biography and Wagner Group’s reputation for grotesque violence and colossal losses of mercenaries’ lives.
A burial mound in the midst of St. Petersburg
At noon, the time when mourners were asked to gather at the former PMC Wagner Center, around 50 people stand in front of the office building. A mound of loose soil left behind by city landscapers must have reminded someone of a burial site: within a short time, it’s covered with red carnations and begins to really look like a fresh grave.
Mothers with children, teens, and men in military uniforms marked with “Z” patches all show up carrying flowers and Wagner banners. Crossing themselves before the memorial, they step away to make room for others. “Teaching the kids respect,” says a woman holding a pair of red-headed twin boys by the hands.
A uniformed man in a balaclava has fallen to his knees before the mound. His whole body shakes as he bursts into tears. He turns out to be a currently enlisted mercenary. Another Wagner fighter says he is going to stay on with the private military company. “We’re a brotherhood,” he says, and “you can’t trade your family for another.” “We’re all of the same blood. We’re bound by the blood we shed in Bakhmut, Slovyansk, and Popasna. Life is hard here,” he says, gesturing at the civilian life around him, “but easy at the front.”
Over there, you know who’s who, both your enemies and your friends. Here, you can’t sort it out. It’s like a disease. People who try to quit manage for a couple of weeks. But there’s that pull to go back.
A police car passes by the memorial a few times. The operatives inside are watching the mourners, but the car doesn’t stop. A group of people, likely associated with Wagner Group, are attending the memorial, keeping order.
In the afternoon, a courier arrives with an enormous wreath. He adds it to the growing mound of offerings without telling anyone who had paid for it. Shortly afterwards, a young man named Dmitry brings a sledgehammer to the memorial site. This reminds the crowd of the brutal executions practiced by Wagner mercenaries.
“Prigozhin liked sledgehammers,” Dmitry says, explaining that he got this particular tool from his friends, some of them former Wagner mercenaries.
“He didn’t like sledgehammers,” objects a woman from the crowd. “It was just a symbol,” she says.
Dmitry bows to the public. A state television crew asks him to lay the sledgehammer again, for a TV segment. He lays it on the flowers again. And again.
A man and his son are arranging votive candles into cross shapes. “When it gets dark, the cross will be visible from up there,” the man says, heaving a sigh as he gestures towards the heavens.
When the memorial is already heaped high with flowers, flags, chevrons, and the sledgehammer, a young woman comes with a drawing and adds it to the mound. It’s a drawing of a cute capybara with Wagner insignia. Next to the capybara, a handwritten message is scrawled: “We’ll always remember you. Should we still believe in a better future, Pops?” The artist dries her eyes with a tissue. One of her friends, she says, also served in Wagner Group.
The former PMC Wagner building’s new occupants are watching the crowd from a distance. They work for Megastroy, a company that moved into the former PMC Wagner Center after Prigozhin’s mutiny fizzled out on June 24. “We’ve read the news,” one of them says. “We think it’s a staged death. Prigozhin must be in Hawaii now, drinking cocktails.”
The night before, the building’s 13th floor was lit, the lights forming the shape of a cross. Employees working in the building now don’t think it was intentional.
Who mourns Prigozhin and why
Many of those who came to say farewell to Prigozhin have a personal connection to Wagner Group. Some writers who worked for his “troll farm” from last November to June joined the crowd briefly but declined to talk to journalists. Some visitors sympathize with the PMC because they know someone who serves there or died as a Wagner mercenary.
At a distance, a group of men in military camouflage look like current Wagner fighters.
A pair of teenage boys
We came to honor the memory of a great Russian man and patriot who fought for our Fatherland. We’d like to join the PMC ourselves, but we’re not 18 yet.
A Wagner fighter
I took the news really hard. The commander’s death — I don’t know if he’s really dead, they haven’t confirmed that yet, have they? We’re waiting to hear this isn’t true. We absolutely don’t want this to be true. It’s a heartache, it’s like your next-of-kin. What are we gonna without him?
The mercenary says he met Prigozhin in person: he used to visit the troops. The speaker joined the PMC long before 2022. He has a hard time believing that Prigozhin and Utkin could be dead. “They always had some moves in reserve,” he says. Besides, the paramilitary group wouldn’t let something like this just slide. Though partly under the Defense Ministry’s control, it’s a force unto itself in Africa, he argues. “Those who did it will be caught and punished very harshly.”
“Do you realize who those pilots were?” he says about the crew of Prigozhin’s executive jet. “They were the best pilots in the world — pilots who could fly without a plane!”
Prigozhin had plenty of enemies, because he always told the truth. He said everything just how it was, without embellishment or hypocrisy. Not how they do it today on TV and everywhere else — it’s all liars the world over. He was our fighting spirit. He had our back.
He doesn’t believe that Ukraine could have been interested in the crash. “There’s plenty of villains here too,” he says about Russia, “people who will do anything for $100 — sell whatever, break whatever, damage the infrastructure.” Wagnerites, on the other hand, “had ironclad discipline” and “never had any problems with civilians,” he is certain.
An entrepreneur who arranged candles into cross shapes
How could you not worship a hero? There are very few of them left in our country. Since the day he founded Wagner Group, he was a man of his word. He said he’d capture Bakhmut no matter the cost, and he did it. God only knows what he had to do when no one gave him [the ammunition] he needed, but he did everything he said he would.
“It’s a pity to lose such a huge presence — and he was a huge presence for about two years,” the speaker goes on. “Time will tell what comes next. Our people act first and think later. I’m more than certain this was no accident,” he says about the crash and those who presumably arranged it. He doesn’t think this is the end of Wagner Group, though. “Our guys went horizontal in droves when [the authorities] needed it. And they will be needed again,” he adds, referring to combat operations. “Africa is nothing,” he shrugs.
A man who says he was connected to Prigozhin ‘by way of the special operation’
These dead are Russia’s most remarkable people who had a vivid, clear position and broadcast it everywhere. This is why there’re people here with flowers, and why they’re crying. They know that the people who were really doing something for our country — who had real victories, and whom everybody loved — they have been taken away. This is why we’re here to show our support for the rest.
“We don’t really care what happens to his assets,” the speaker adds. “Everybody knows what will happen to those assets. But it would be interesting to see what becomes of Wagner Group itself.” He hopes that the PMC won’t fall apart but “keeps serving the country.”
A woman who brought a single flower
“I think of him as a hero,” says a woman with a flower, adding that the mutiny didn’t change her attitude. She thinks that the crash was a “provocation,” and that both Ukraine and the Russian opposition are responsible. The destabilizing “fifth column” is everywhere, she thinks, and trouble in the country is just beginning.
Translated by Anna Razumnaya.
- Share to or