Epitaph on a mafioso’s grave

Prigozhin thought that his ‘hard drive’ of Putin’s murky network of contacts, conspiracies and deals might save him, following his mutiny. He was wrong. But his murder means Putin is now more Mafia Don than Imperial Tsar.

Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Yevgeny Prigozhin are displayed for sale at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg.
Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Yevgeny Prigozhin are displayed for sale at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Yevgeny Prigozhin did not expect to meet a sudden, horrible death on board his private Embraer Legacy 600 jet before it began its final descent from a height of nine kilometres to the ground, north of Moscow, near Putin’s dacha on Lake Valdai. He was killed instantly, together with Dmitry Utkin and several other prominent figures of the Wagner Group. Just a day earlier Prigozhin filmed himself against an African backdrop and declared his desire to expand the Wagner empire, ‘to make Russia great on all continents’. What then brought them to Moscow, their last stopping point? And why did they use Prigozhin’s private jet, which had stood there inactive for days beforehand?

This was the coda to the remarkable career of a Russian mafioso, culminating in his mutiny on 24 June, the aborted march to Moscow, then the unexpected mercy that Putin extended to the Wagner Group, with a supposed promise of immunity and freedom to move ahead with their lives. Then the Wagner chief suddenly reappeared on the margins of a summit with African leaders in St Petersburg. The last two months of his life were clouded in suspense and mystery. Numerous Western commentators, and even President Biden, wondered why Prigozhin was still alive and warned that it would not last long. Prigozhin’s mutiny breached the illusion that everything is under control in Putin’s Russia and, perhaps inadvertently, forecast looming chaos. Instead of continuing to Moscow as Julius Ceasar might have done, Prigozhin turned out to be a don’s disloyal mafioso who suddenly changed his mind. He, who projected himself as a man with a gun, turned out to be a grumpy mafioso asking for his fair cut.

His brutal end is reminiscent  of The Godfather, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and Jarmusch’s Dead Man – perhaps a B-rated version of a great film. We will probably never find incontrovertible evidence of who planted a mine on Prigozhin’s jet. Yet there were simply too many reasons for Putin to destroy his long-time associate. The word ‘betrayal’, Putin pronounced on the day of the short-lived mutiny, was already a death sentence. The Kremlin lord is notorious for neither forgiving nor forgetting traitors. No less important is the fact that Prigozhin became briefly a centre of popular, even international fame. In the eyes of millions, he cut a dramatic figure who eclipsed the Russian leader. A decade ago, Putin stood as the sole macho figure on Russian nationalist posters. There were even admirers abroad. Suddenly, in the summer of 2023, millions of Russians and the world media had Prigozhin’s growling and snarling face on their screens. He projected the raw power that Putin seemed to have lost because of his failure in Ukraine. How could the judo master and ex-KGB colonel forgive? After the sudden farcical submission of the Wagner chief to the Kremlin ruler, Prigozhin did not advertise humility, as his last video shot in Africa clearly showed. He carried on as before.

If Prigozhin’s end was apparently near, many wonder why he criss-crossed Russia with amazing nonchalance, as if nothing threatened his life. He was no fool, and would certainly have watched The Godfather a few times to realise the precariousness of the situation. It is impossible to interrogate him any longer, but it is safe to conclude that he knew something that had boosted his self-confidence. For a plot-writer of a future film or a book about him, one possible lead may help. Prigozhin had known Putin for thirty years and knew about his underground financial operations just as well as Frank Nitti had known about Al Capone’s. Moreover, he had unique knowledge of the most daring operation that the Russian leader had authorised: the Wagner Group’s ‘empire’ in Africa. Prigozhin may have viewed himself as not so much a walking dead man as a walking ‘hard drive’. This ‘hard drive’ contained many unique contacts, passwords, details of money paid, services promised, and much more. This, he imagined, could protect him, because it would weigh more in the balance for Putin than his misstep in June. In the end, however, this turned out to be an erroneous assumption. The scales tipped the other way. Instead of keeping his African ‘Mr Kurtz’ alive, the Kremlin leader must have decided it was yet another reason to get rid of Prigozhin. And to make the job clean, it was necessary to put his closest associates on the same doomed jet. Two civilian pilots and a young stewardess died as collateral damage.

There were obvious reasons to wait a couple of months before the execution, such as to put the victim’s suspicion at rest. Analysts cite the need to wait for the disarmament of Wagner and dismissal of General Surovikin, the main ally of Prigozhin in the regular army. Indeed, it was important to avoid even the slightest danger of an internal feud, to restore the semblance of control. Yet perhaps equally important was the information that Prigozhin carried on his ‘hard drive’. Important information had to be somehow ‘transferred’ from Prigozhin to others around Putin. Some experts pointed out that Putin might have used a summit for African leaders to reach all sorts of agreements and understandings to make Prigozhin expendable.

Putin’s speech on the next day after the crash sheds some light on the plot. And, for a moment, it brought the episode to Shakespearian heights. The same man who had treated Prigozhin as a hero, then denounced his actions as ‘betrayal’, and then allegedly amnestied him, was now on air expressing his ‘deep condolences’. Putin said that investigation would certainly give a clue as to what happened. With a poker face and frequent sighs, he said: ‘I have known Prigozhin for a long time, since the early 1990s… His errors were grave, and he achieved the required results, for himself and for the common cause when I asked him, as it was during these last months.’ He worked, Putin continued, ‘abroad, particularly in Africa. He dealt there with oil, gas, precious metals and stones. Just yesterday, as far as I was informed, he returned from Africa and met here [in Moscow] with several officials’. Putin apparently did not read from the script but said what he wanted to say. The enumeration of what the Wagner Group was getting in Africa, including ‘stones’, is revealing. The oil of Libya was also important for the common cause. Was Putin among those ‘officials’ who saw Prigozhin before his death? Did Prigozhin expect to see him and for this reason arrived in Moscow? What happened between the Kremlin chief and the man with ‘the hard drive’?

In addition to watching The Godfather, Prigozhin should have read Mario Puzo’s book as well. It tells simple but profound truths, and not only about how organised crime works, but about how power in general dictates certain logical maxims to those who hold it. Yes, a don must destroy a disobedient mafioso to continue to rule. And yes, if a don fails to kill the man who threatened him once, this don will certainly pay for it later. Better to strike first. Puzo coined well-known witticisms: ‘The lawyer with the briefcase can steal more money than the man with the gun’; ‘Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.’ Prigozhin, however, was a busy man, and it is unclear if he found time to read books at all. Meanwhile, books on history and on politics would have informed him of his folly of expecting some kind of immunity from his old acquaintance in the Kremlin. History keeps teaching us that in a state of war or when power is torn off its usual hinges of legitimacy, there are no half-tones and half-measures. Prigozhin made a crucial step across the Rubicon, but then retreated and pretended it had not happened. The past cannot be undone.

Putin is an ultimate survivor and the winner in this story. Yet he has paid a price, too. Prigozhin’s daring act had created a looming possibility of a new time of troubles, Smuta. This act cannot be unwound. Putin is in a very difficult stage of his political career. He used to wear the two hats of a don and a Tsar without apparent strain. After the Covid pandemic, and particularly after the unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine, strains began to appear and accumulate. If you play a don, you need to execute a disobedient mafioso in a spectacular and public way. Presumably, this need contributed to the plot of the plane crash near Moscow, for everyone to see (although one day we may learn that Ukrainian commandos did this job for Putin for their own reasons). At the same time, the need to be the ‘father Tsar’, terrible but fair, made the Russian leader express his condolences and conclude that the heroic deeds of the Wagner Group leaders will be remembered and honoured. There is also an international factor that makes Putin stay in denial of any involvement in a sordid affair like this. His international partners, India’s Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa are not too squeamish, and the Saudi Mohammed Bin Salman has his own hidden skeletons. Still, in such company it is more appropriate to cut a figure of an internationally legitimate ruler, than a vengeful capo.

For all Prigozhin’s sins, he was a very useful man for the Kremlin. It would not be easy to find another daredevil executor of murky tasks for ‘the common cause’. Young associates can be potentially more fickle than new ones. Thus it is conceivable that one day Putin could open a monument for Prigozhin. What might serve as an epitaph for this grave? Shakespeare gives a broad range of options. ‘A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one.’ (Julius Caesar) ‘Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end.’ (Richard III). Both are unlikely to be selected. Mario Puzo may provide a better line.


Vladislav Zubok