Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who defied Putin and paid the ultimate price?

Prigozhin launched an attempted assault against Moscow at the end of June. By the end of August, he was dead.

Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin earned his fortune in the culinary world before branching into private militaries
(Image credit: File / AP Photo)

The Russian army has had an ally in its war against Ukraine: the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization of mercenaries led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The far-right Wagner Group, described as "a group of entities that operate as a private military company" by CBS News, was considered a key collaborator with Russian forces throughout the war.

That changed, though, when Prigozhin led his Wagner forces in an uprising against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The incident, widely described as a rebellion or attempted coup d'etat, began when Prigozhin accused the Russian military of killing Wagner soldiers in an airstrike. Wagner soldiers then captured the strategic Russian city of Rostov-on-Don while en route to Moscow.

But it all ended as quickly as it began. Following negotiations laid out by the president of Belarus, Prigozhin agreed to stop his siege, and the Wagner Group returned to their bases without reaching Moscow. Exactly two months after the rebellion, Prigozhin was suspiciously killed in a plane crash. While Putin has denied involvement in the event, the Russian president is suspected of killing numerous political opponents over the years, Prigozhin now included.

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Prigozhin's Soviet-era beginnings

Yevgeny Prigozhin was born in the Soviet Union in 1961. He soon became involved in organized crime and was convicted of assault, robbery and fraud in 1981, per court documents obtained by Russian publication Meduza. He was sentenced to 13 years behind bars but was released "around the fall of the Soviet Union," Insider reported.

From there, Prigozhin branched into the culinary world, opening a hot dog stand soon after his release from prison, The New York Times reported. He likely met Vladimir Putin during Putin's tenure as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Prigozhin worked his way through Russia's culinary business, crafting a food empire while simultaneously growing closer to Putin. This created a "relationship with the Russian president that would grow and metastasize in unexpected ways," The Guardian wrote.

By the early 2000s, once Putin became president, Prigozhin's "catering business received lucrative government contracts to feed Russia's schools and military, as well as an opportunity to host state banquets," Insider reported. These contracts were reportedly worth billions and made Prigozhin extremely wealthy. The oligarch soon started to dabble in the realm of private militaries.

The Wagner Group was founded in 2014. While Prigozhin had previously denied any involvement with the organization, he confirmed in 2022 that he had started the group in order to send fighters to Ukraine, per Bloomberg.

His demise

After the Wagner rebellion, it was clear that "Prigozhin's continued public presence could further undermine the Kremlin's credibility," The Guardian reported. The attempted coup was widely described as an embarrassment for Putin, and one that "forced the Kremlin to shore up control of Russian territory rather than direct the entire might of its armed forces at Ukraine," Politico reported.

In what may have been a tragic coincidence — or not — Prighozin died in a plane crash around 60 miles from Moscow on Aug. 23, 2023, exactly two months to the day after the start of his rebellion. Despite initial doubts about his demise, Prighozin's death was confirmed via genetic testing. Though Putin has continually denied involvement in the crash, Prighozin's death "adds to the growing list of people who died … under suspicious circumstances" after undermining Putin, Axios noted.

While Prighozin may be dead, his legacy is "likely to reverberate for years to come, as private military groups like Wagner play an ever-growing role in conflicts around the world," The Intercept wrote. And though Putin may see the death of Prighozin as a positive, those around him will likely view the Wagner leader's demise as "evidence not that Putin is strong but that he is increasingly and murderously erratic," The Spectator wrote. It is likely too early to gauge the true effects of Prighozin's death, but while Putin may have hoped to oppress Wagner's forces with a "naked display of power and violence … he may find he has done the opposite," the outlet added.

Updated Sept. 6, 2023: This article has been updated with new information on Yevgeny Prighozin.

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Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.