After the Wagner mutiny, the palatial home of the mercenary group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was searched in St. Petersburg. Among other chilling finds was a framed photograph of the severed heads of slain Africans. It fits in with the profile of a man Proekt media calls “Putin’s Sadist.”
MOSCOW — On October 18, 2011, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had recently announced his intention to return to the presidency, was walking through the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. On his way, he crossed paths with a bald man. “Great hairstyle,” Putin quipped with a smile, shook the man’s hand, and continued on to meetings with the heads of government of former USSR states who had gathered in the northern Russian city.
The bald man was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the future founder of the Wagner mercenary company; an interlocutor that would prove to play an important role in Russia's interference in the U.S. elections, in the military interventions in Syria and Libya, and most recently in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But Prigozhin's privileged status with Putin would not last indefinitely. After Prigozhin led a mutiny against the highest echelons of Russia’s military command in late June, the sworn alliance was apparently over. In the meantime, news has since leaked that Putin met with Prigozhin and other Wagner members after the failed insurrection, adding uncertainty to the future of the group and its leader.
Still, in recent days we have been learning more and more about Prigozhin’s past. Following the insurrection, Russian police raided his house in his native Saint Petersburg, where stashes of cash, weapons and other items were found.
Most notably, officials say they found a framed photograph showing severed heads. At first, it was unclear from the censored photo who the victims were.
But on Wednesday, independent Russian media outlet Proekt published the photo, revealing that the victims were of African origin, likely from a location on the continent where Wagner mercenaries were already infamous for having committed countless atrocities.
More details of the police raid on Prigozhin’s house and offices came from Russian state-owned broadcaster Rossiya-1. Presumably aimed at discrediting the Wagner chief, the broadcast provided glimpses into Prigozhin's lavish way of life: a grand piano, indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, and sauna. But amidst these displays of luxury, more disturbing items emerged: an assortment of weapons, a stuffed alligator, fake passports and wigs to help disguise the bald leader.
Rossiya-1 also showed a sledgehammer — possibly the same instrument used by Prigozhin to beat those he accused of betrayal, and the photograph with the decapitated heads strewn on an African roadside.
The Wagner group became infamous for its cruelty.
Such revelations draw the connection between the geographical objectives of Wagner and its bloodthirsty leader. For at least a decade, Prigozhin was a bona fide untouchable in Putin’s orbit. A ruthless, out-of-control criminal who regularly broke laws, defied both legal and ethical limits, and somehow remained immune to any consequences, all due to his association with the Russian leader.
Some of the wigs and military uniforms found at Prigozhin's St. Petersburg residence
Atrocities in Africa and Syria
The inception of the Wagner private military company (PMC) came to public attention in 2015 when the organization sought recruits to partake in the military campaign in Syria to support strongman President Bashar al-Assad. The PMC was also expanding around Africa. Prigozhin's structures were present in at least 13 African countries - serving as both mercenaries and political strategists who helped local leaders seize or retain power.
But even more than its far-flung structure, the Wagner group became infamous for its cruelty. In one notable example, mercenaries beat an unarmed Syrian with a sledgehammer then cut off his head and hands, hung him up, and burned his body.
They committed dozens of crimes in the Central African Republic. France’s Radio France International reported on the Wagnerites shooting a food truck, their execution of civilians in a mosque, and a gang rape. According to witnesses and experts that spoke to The Guardian, the Wagnerites attacked the camps of gold miners, killing workers. In Mali, the mercenaries may have been involved in the massacre of civilians described in a UN report.
For his actions, Prigozhin was awarded several military honors by leaders in Africa and elsewhere. In November, sources close to Prigozhin published a video of the execution of former prisoner Yevgeny Nuzhin with a sledgehammer.
Wagner providing security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic.
Clément Di Roma/VOA
But his cruelty was not only limited to perceived political enemies.
Violence was institutionalized in his office, with a special person designated for such tasks.
According to a former employee who served under Prigozhin in Africa, there was a pervasive understanding that any wrongdoing would result in severe consequences, including the literal threat of having one's "balls cut off." This notion has fostered a climate of loyalty around Prigozhin, as everyone is acutely aware that "something terrible" could happen if any misconduct was discovered.
All interlocutors note the hot-tempered character of the chief. “If he was dissatisfied with something, he could easily take you out into the corridor, and push you down the stairs,” one of them recalls.
Once Prigozhin was in a hurry and, with displeasure, kicked his driver in the head from the back seat, “as if to make him go faster”, says another acquaintance. After this incident, the driver quit, as have many other employees, since legal action is simply impossible.
The chief did not always beat the employees himself - violence was institutionalized in his office, with a special person designated for such tasks.
One of the associates Proekt spoke to recalls that, once, one of his coworkers blundered during a meeting and disappeared. Colleagues tried to get through to him to no avail. He appeared at work only a couple of weeks later, explaining that he spent several days in the basement under the office, where he was beaten. He then pointed to the yellowing bruises covering his body and soon changed jobs.
The person who beats employees in the basement is known as the "teacher" in the collective, explained Vyacheslav Tarasov, a former top Wagner employee in his video message on the day of the mutiny on June 24. “This is the executioner who f****s you up in the basement and sends [Prigozhin] a photo, [who] then decides whether you have taken enough of a beating.”