Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his closeness to the Russian president and his career in the food and restaurant industry. He caters Vladimir Putin’s “state dinners with foreign dignitaries” and provides meals for both Russian schools and the military.
Prigozhin is one of 13 individuals named in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment made public on February 16, 2018 and is tied to two of the three indicted entities – Concord Management and Consulting, LLC and Concord Catering. The indictment charges Prigozhin as the financier of the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm accused of running Russia’s scheme to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A Washington Post profile of Prigozhin says he trained to be a champion cross-country skier but that dream died in 1981 when he was “sentenced to 12 years in prison for robbery, fraud and involving minors in prostitution.” He served nine years.
His first foray into food service came in the 1990’s when he “opened a fast-food cafe, which was followed by a series of food marts and upscale restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow.” One of his St. Petersburg spots, opened in 1996, quickly became a favorite of Vladimir Putin and other top government officials.
Putin and friends also frequented another of Prigozhin’s restaurants where the Russian president hosted French President Jacques Chirac in 2001 and President George W. Bush in 2002. Putin reportedly liked Prigozhin’s backstory and made him part of his in-crowd.
Putin also made Prigozhin very wealthy, awarding his catering company – Concord Catering (named in the Mueller indictment) – contracts for school lunches and military meals. Prigozhin reportedly has ties to the oil industry too and has referred to himself as “an adviser to the presidential administration.”
Russia has another “grey cardinal.” The reclusive Yevgeny Prigozhin has taken the place of Igor Sechin, the austere head of the state oil company RosNeft. The fear that Sechin strikes into the Russian elite has earnt him the nickname “Darth Vader.” For many years, Prigozhin was an obscure figure in comparison. Yet he now surpasses Sechin in terms of the sheer murkiness of the rumours surrounding him, which concern court intrigues, murders, wars, and other “sensitive operations.” This may not be surprising; the rotation of lead characters in any political drama often come to reflect deeper transformations in the regime itself. Today, the Putin regime has an increasing need for those shadowy intrigues and murky escapades on the level of both foreign and domestic policy. Yevgeny Prigozhin fits the bill, for he is “special operations” personified.
Yevgeny Prigozhin isn’t a businessman in the traditional sense. He wasn’t among those who enriched themselves during the period of privatisation in the 1990s (compared to the oligarchs of the day, he was merely a small businessman with ambitions.) Neither was he one of those who gained control of important assets under Putin (such as, for example, the presidential advisers Alexey Miller, Igor Sechin, or Sergey Chemezov.) Unlike many others, he didn’t chase after huge profits; instead, he sought the opportunity to serve those in whom he felt had big political futures. Without much in the way of education, but some criminal background, he started out by selling hot-dogs. By the mid-1990s, he had achieved significant success and made good money. The opportunity to serve high-ranking state officials became his ticket into high politics. The essence of Prigozhin’s activities are not so much an effort to provide services, but instead to guess what exactly “the boss” might want, including the most delicate commands and requests. In demonstrating his lack of squeamishness in tackling the most unsavoury kind of jobs, he built up a network of technical staff (such as drivers and security guards,) and was well-placed to offer his services to Putin.