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New Prigozhin Biography Leaves Enigma Intact

The chef-turned-warlord was truly, as Putin put it, “a man of a difficult fate.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin Attends The Saint Petersburg  International Economic Forum
(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Downfall: Prigozhin, Putin, and the New Fight for the Future of Russia, Mark Galeotti and Anna Arutunyan, Ebury Press, 262 pages

Nobody knows for sure whether Yevgeny Prigozhin is really dead. Many observers, including Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, believe he might have gone into hiding after faking his death in a plane crash on August 23, 2023. Ten bodies were found in the wreckage, and DNA tests by Russian officials reportedly confirm that Prigozhin was among the dead. But the man’s career was so outrageous, so utterly larger than life, that no one would be surprised if he walked out of the jungles of the Central African Republic tomorrow carrying the decapitated head of Joseph Kony.


Assuming he really is dead, now is the right time to publish a biography of one of the most colorful characters to grace the world stage in the 21st century. At least four books on Prigozhin and his mercenary firm, the Wagner Group, are scheduled for publication in the upcoming year. The first to hit shelves is Downfall: Prigozhin, Putin, and the New Fight for the Future of Russia, by Mark Galeotti and Anna Arutunyan. 

No such books were published while Prigozhin was still alive, partly because he threatened any journalist who started sniffing around. One journalist was told her car would be run off the road if she investigated him. In 2018, three Russian documentarians working on a film about Wagner’s activities in Africa were killed in the jungle outside Bangui, so perhaps these threats were not idle.

The bald thug behind these stories started out wanting to be a cross-country skier. His stepfather was a ski instructor who arranged to have little Zhenya enrolled in the elite Leningrad Sports Boarding School No. 62. Prigozhin washed out of the program and fell into a life of petty crime. He spent nine years in prison for thieving. When he got out in 1990, he started a hot dog stand, which turned out to be surprisingly lucrative. 

He graduated to brick-and-mortar restaurants in 1995, and soon his establishments were favored by the St. Petersburg elite, including Vladimir Putin. Putin’s grandfather Spiridon was a personal chef to Lenin and Stalin, which perhaps disposed him to recognize his favorite restaurateur as a man of potential. In any event, Putin brought Prigozhin along with him when he became president and hired him to cater state events for foreign dignitaries. Prigozhin’s resume at one time listed 70 such leaders, including Prince Charles, Silvio Berlusconi, and King Salman. Putin also gave Prigozhin’s firms government contracts to supply food to schools and the military.

In 2014, Prigozhin added a private military company to his growing business empire. The first known record of the Wagner Group was in the Donbas region, where, according to Galeotti and Arutunyan, it “was less of a frontline fighting element so much as a ‘mop up’ force.” The “half-drunk, half-feral assortment of amateur militias” that had sprung up in the breakaway regions needed to be reined in before they became an embarrassment to the pro-Russian side. Wagner reportedly assassinated several of these warlords. 


Syria was Wagner’s chance to shine, and at its peak it had 2,500 fighters deployed there. At first, Wagner worked in cooperation with regular Russian forces. By 2017, that relationship had soured due to differences in pay—“a Wagner fighter could be paid twice as much as an experienced Spetsnaz,” according to Galeotti and Arutunyan—and Prigozhin’s boasting about his boys’ performance. “It was us, not you, that took Palmyra!” he reportedly told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to his face. Eventually the Russian military stopped providing Wagner with supplies and looked the other way as American forces killed dozens of Wagner fighters near the town of Khasham in February 2018. 

The feud between Shoigu and Prigozhin explains much of Wagner’s shifting fortunes during the ongoing Ukraine war, including the eventual mutiny of June 2023. Prigozhin complained constantly that his forces (now numbering 85,000) were being starved of supplies by the corrupt Ministry of Defense. “Shoigu’s main complaint against Prigozhin,” says one Wagner officer quoted in the book, “was that the [Wagner] money did not go through the Defense Ministry. He had no contact with this money and couldn’t take a cut.” During the mutiny, Prigozhin was heard on film saying that his fighters “were just after Shoigu and [General Valery] Gerasimov.”  

The mutiny was still too great an insult to Putin for the president to bear. Galeotti and Arutunyan are in no doubt that the Kremlin had Prigozhin killed as punishment for the mutiny. The official Kremlin line is that the explosion on board the plane was caused by the passengers horsing around with live grenades. Putin himself offered this obituary when an interviewer asked him about Prigozhin two months after the crash:

I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 1990s. He was a man of a difficult fate. He made serious mistakes in his life. And he achieved the results he needed, both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented person, a talented businessman, he worked not only in our country, but also abroad, in Africa in particular.

It will be left to future books to describe in detail how Wagner performed in battles such as Bakhmut. Downfall is more about Yevgeny Prigozhin the man. The book ends with a provocative comparison between Prigozhin and dissident Alexei Navalny. Both took aim at the ruling regime, Galeotti and Arutunyan argue, with the difference that Navalny’s supporters were in the small, Western-aligned elite whereas Prigozhin “highlighted the regime’s betrayal of the ‘guys’ on whom it depended.” 

“One thing Putin’s regime has not faced is a serious and unified blue-collar challenge,” Galeotti and Arutunyan write. The reason Putin probably did order Prigozhin’s death, and probably did not order Navalny’s, is that he posed a much greater threat.