After celebrated Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a plane crash, following his attempted coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin, some Wagner adherents are convinced Prigozhin is not dead. A video from Africa is adding fuel to the fire.
This article was updated on August 31, 2023 at 6:30 p.m.
ST. PETERSBURG — In front of the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg stands a memorial to former mercenary commander Yevgeny Prigozhin. The center, once heavily guarded, now lacks the usual security, allowing unrestricted access.
One by one, cars with tinted windows drive up to the memorial. A man in camouflage steps out of one. His partner, also in camouflage, struggles out of the back seat and pulls two metal crutches behind him. Both go to the memorial and lay out bouquets of red carnations. Refusing to answer questions, they silently go to the fence and look at the memorial through dark sunglasses.
When questioned, those in attendance remain silent, or briefly talk about how “unfairly and cowardly” their boss was treated. Some rip the chevrons off their sleeves and put them on top of red carnations and roses.
In another car, two people arrive with flags embroidered with the Wagner emblem. They pick two people from the crowd and ask them to put banners on the flowers. One of them says that he used to work with Prigozhin. He does not give his name.
The men take out candles and begin to lay them out: 10 candles, to match the number of people who died in the crash. At this moment, a man in a black T-shirt with a red and yellow Wagner emblem appears from the crowd. He drags a sledgehammer behind him. "Why did you bring a sledgehammer?" someone asks. “Prigozhin liked sledgehammers; that’s why,” the man replies.
The crowd at the memorial grows. Whole families gather. A man gives his daughter a pair of red carnations and pushes her towards the collection of flowers. Mom and son approach the banner unfurled on the flowers. A woman calmly puts her hand on the flag, closing her eyes. Her child stands aside and watches in bewilderment.
A newly resurfaced video on Thursday of Prigozhin shows him in Africa just days before his death, where he is seen addressing speculation about his wellbeing and possible threats to his security. It is sure to add to speculation about whether he may still be alive.
"For those who are discussing whether I'm alive or not, how I'm doing - right now it's the weekend, second half of August 2023, I'm in Africa," Prigozhin says in the short video published by the Grey Zone Telegram channel which is linked to his Wagner Group. "So for people who like to discuss wiping me out, or my private life, how much I earn or whatever else - everything's ok." (See video below)
JUST IN: Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen in new footage 'dismissing reports of his elimination'..— Chuck Callesto (@ChuckCallesto) August 31, 2023
Warlord insists 'everything is fine' in video filmed in Africa during 'the second half of August'..pic.twitter.com/HAydnrJCEq
Putin "never forgets"
Back at the memorial the week before, grief mixed with speculation and bitterness.
“He was killed like Nemtsov,” whispers a gray-haired woman next to me, referring to Russian politician and Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015. “Though Nemtsov was not as kind to me as Prigozhin. This man was one of the people, unlike Nemtsov.”
He's like a father to us.
A Yandex Delivery car drives up. The driver takes a huge funeral wreath from the trunk and sets it up in front of the crowd. "And who ordered the wreath?" someone asks him. "I don't know. They ordered it; I brought it,” the driver makes a helpless gesture.
Eventually, there were so many cars that there was nowhere left to park. Suddenly, loud music is heard: Vika Tsyganova's song "Wagner" plays from one of the passing cars. The crowd begins to sing softly.
A woman in her 60s says she is shocked by the news of Prigozhin’s death: “He was such an honest person. He ate from the same plate as the soldiers. He was very nice to me ... I am glad that I raised my daughter correctly; she also supports Prigozhin. She believes that Prigozhin’s plane was shot down by air defense. After the mutiny, everyone remembered Putin’s words, that he never forgives betrayal. Was it a betrayal? I think it was."
Firefighters on the site of the crash of the private plane transporting Prigozhin.
Anger, and denial
Putin called Prigozhin's actions a betrayal two months ago, after the mercenary leader marched on Moscow, taking the city of Rostov unopposed. Putin described the attempted coup as "terror" and "treason against the country and the people," and that it amounted to "stabs in the back."
But there was no punishment for Prigozhin at the time.
Valery, a Wagnerite, had been in hospital awaiting a leg amputation when Prigozhin began the mutiny. Valery claims that, had he been healthy at that moment, he would have taken part in the march without a doubt: “Prigozhin is like a father to us. We all respect him. I would have done whatever he asked."
Now, with Prigozhin dead, Valery and his colleagues wonder whether they will receive the payments they had been promised for their service and compensation for their injuries.
But some Wagner PMC members still don’t believe Prigozhin is dead. Statements by the Federal Air Transport Agency that Prigozhin was on the passenger list are still not considered confirmation enough, and some members are waiting for what they describe as "accurate information." They condemn the people bringing flowers to the memorials.
I will believe it to my dying breath.
“I will never believe in Prigozhin’s death; everything was planned in advance. He will keep living, just under a different name,“ one person says.
A screen grab of Yevgeny Prigozhin in a video taken near Rostov-on-Don during Wagner's coup attempt.
Some followers refuse to believe the news
“Nothing is known yet. Alive or dead, we can’t be sure,” one Wagner fighter tells Important Stories. In a Wagner volunteer chat, another says he is sure that Prigozhin is still alive, and provides a link to a news story saying that Prigozhin had been seen in Mali.
Another sends a voice message imitating Prigozhin's voice, saying: “The top dog is still alive!”
Maxim, who worked for Wagner for several years, tells Important Stories that “We all doubt that he’s dead, because Yevgeny Prigozhin is a fan of these types of antics. He faked his death before. It happened in one of the Arab countries: he died, then he came back and said: “Aha, bitches, did you expect any less of me?”
“Nothing is known yet,” says another chat participant, nicknamed Skif. “Commanders like Prigozhin would not risk their lives just like that. If (his death) is confirmed, we will go to the funeral, put on a uniform, chevrons, take the PMC flags and solemnly bury him. If not, we’ll drink to health so that we live even longer and continue to do what we were doing beforehand," Skif writes.
“Who could replace Prigozhin if he did die? No one, because he is such a key figure," Maxim reflects. "In Wagner, there is no deputy that could take his place. It’s not like the army where there are whole mountains of deputies," he adds.
“In our circle, we don’t know what will happen next,” he goes on. “If Prigozhin is dead, what will happen? Where do we go if the organization dissolves? Everyone thinks they would go to the Ministry of Defense or, damn it, get a job as a security guard for 25,000 rubles a month (about $250 USD) in the (supermarket). But people cannot see themselves in this sort of civilian life. If this crash is real and Prigozhin really is dead, then there will never be any trust in our government again. I now look at the Ministry of Defense with ever more shame. It is a stain on our state. I hope our Dad (Prigozhin) is alive. I will believe it to my dying breath.”