If the American dream consists of starting from scratch and, through tireless labor, building one’s assets up to formidable quantities, then it should be easy for Western capitalists to understand how certain individuals were able to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 to attain the status that they have today. Boris Yeltsin’s oligarchs with insider connections, of course, are exceptions to this; instead, the individuals being referred to include middle class contractors, mid-tier managers, and even hot dog stand owners. One stand owner in particular, Yevgeny Prigozhin, provides a particularly dramatic case study for economic success following modest origins. Prigozhin used to rob banks and sell street snacks just to pay his bills, but today, he owns a number of bustling enterprises and can be seen driving a blue Lincoln Continental. However, all is not as picture perfect as it seems for this Gatsby-esque individual.
In 2016, the United States congress imposed economic sanctions against Prigozhin alongside several other Russian political elites in an attempt to strike back at the heart of Putin’s inner circle. Just under a month ago, Prigozhin was indicted by Robert Mueller, special counsel overseeing the alleged Russian interference in the United States’ 2016 presidential election, for playing a major role in the digital manipulation of public opinion. Similarly, the international community has expressed repeated disdain toward Prigozhin for his establishment of the Wagner Group, which today stands as Russia’s premier private military corporation acting in Syria, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. So, how exactly did a humble, bank-robbing hot dog stand owner such as Prigozhin manage to gain such prestige and controversy in Russia’s government?
As Russian political rebel Aleksei Navalny stated in a recent interview, Prigozhin “didn’t invent anything, didn’t find buried treasure, didn’t win at the Olympics. He received his prize as thanks for serving the president well.” In 1998, Prigozhin opened his most famous conventional business to date: New Island, a buoyant restaurant that lies atop an adorned ferry in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Two years later, in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought the then-Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori, to a professional dinner at New Island out of sheer interest. Coincidence or not, Putin took a liking to Prigozhin, and the very next year he brought Jacques Chirac, the former President of France, to the very same restaurant. He also brought United States President George W. Bush in 2002, and he hosted his personal birthday party there in 2003. Putin and Prigozhin rapidly formed a unique friendship, the shady personal and economic perks of which would be seen in the years to follow.
Some of these perks included contracts to provide food for Russian public schools and the Russian military — at his peak, Prigozhin was feeding 90% of Russian service-members, a job which Vox News reports earned him over a billion dollars. Perhaps it is because of Prigozhin’s humble origins as a hot dog stand owner that he is not afraid of doing President Putin’s dirty work. Perhaps he was enraptured by the economic benefits, or perhaps he was simply too afraid to say no. Regardless, with economic favors from Putin came political and social responsibility for Prigozhin to serve his leader’s interests. A decade after Putin’s birthday party, Prigozhin was presumably advised by government sources to use his funds to create the Internet Resource Agency — also known as Glavset — a Saint Petersburg-based technological company seeking to promote disinformation campaigns both domestically and abroad. Glavset’s campaigns initially sought to put down domestic protests by creating fake social media accounts advocating on behalf of President Putin and disparage the actions of his primary opponent, Aleksei Navalny, but, according to Mueller, it allegedly expanded to the point of interference in international elections, including the United States’ in 2016. The most prominent evidence citing Prigozhin’s involvement in the US election meddling pertains to his meeting with Mikhail Bystrov, the appointed head of Glavset, several times from 2015-2016 to discuss the work being done. It’s also important to note that Glavset’s Project Lakhta, a so-called “disinformation campaign,” received approximately $1.2 million in funding from Prigozhin in 2016 alone.
Following dramatic success countering protests and slandering rivals with Glasvet, Prigozhin used his immense wealth in 2014 to found and develop ChVK Wagner, a private military corporation which has, as of late, become one of President Putin’s primary sources for military operations that Russia cannot formally be involved in. Commanded by Dmitry Utkin, an ex-Russian Special Forces brigade commander, ChVK Wagner has been involved in both the conflicts in Syria and in Ukraine’s Luhansk region. Perhaps most infamously, it was recently discovered that the Wagner Group shot down the Ukrainian Air Force’s Ilyushin Il-76 in 2014, an act which was originally attributed to rogue Russian nationalists in Ukraine and killed all 49 of the plane’s passengers. ChVK Wagner has also been involved in the recent conflict in Crimea, where their innocuous green uniforms earned them the title of “little green men.” Prigozhin’s decision to fund military bases in Ukraine’s Donbas region has been a critical component of the success of Russian encroachment. In Syria, ChVK Wagner’s shady activities include serving as “shock troops” to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as seizing ISIS-held oil fields for Russian companies, including the newly made conglomerate Evro Soyuz. The Wagner Group’s economic and military influence is easily one of the most valuable assets that Prigozhin is bringing to Putin and his oligarchs’ table.
In everywhere but Putin’s Russia, it is positively bizarre for one to imagine a world in which a hot dog stand owner with a vast criminal record can rise to a point of such prominence in one of the world’s most powerful political and military systems. Prigozhin himself once said that “Vladimir Putin saw how I built up my business from nothing,” but the roots of his success lie not in his hard work — they instead lie in the fact that Putin was a personal witness and catalyst to it. This is precisely how modern Russia has operated since Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar’s disastrous economic reforms in the early 1990s. Regardless, President Putin’s crony-infested inner circle will continue to thrive on loyalty and trust above all else, proving that even the bank robber putting mustard on a hot dog has a valid chance at fulfilling his wildest dreams.