Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has catapulted into the global spotlight one of President Vladimir Putin’s close associates: Yevgeny Prigozhin, who the Western media for years referred to as “Putin’s chef” because he ran a catering business used by the Kremlin. Prigozhin is now better known as the founder of Wagner Group, the infamous Russian mercenary army, and he has seized on the war in Ukraine to move out of the shadows, becoming one of Russia’s most recognized political players.
While the broad strokes of his meteoric ascent from the Russian criminal justice system to the highest echelons of Putin’s war machine are widely known, much about him remains unclear, especially as Prigozhin has skillfully controlled the emerging narrative surrounding him.
But a once-private document unearthed in a mass hack of Russian companies and agencies adds new details to Prigozhin’s biography and rise to power. The document, which The Intercept is publishing, was found in the hacked emails of Capital Legal Services, a Russian law firm that represented Prigozhin in a number of endeavors, including appealing European sanctions, targeting journalists who exposed his connections to Wagner, and fighting U.S. charges over election interference. Last year, The Intercept reported in depth on those endeavors, as well as on his attorneys’ successful effort to lobby Interpol, the international police agency, to remove a red notice against him.
The five-page document, attached to an October 2021 email from Capital Legal Services, is a bullet-point biography of Prigozhin that appears to have been drafted by his attorneys as they worked to contest his growing reputation as a global warlord — a reputation that Prigozhin has now embraced, as Wagner’s involvement in Ukraine raised his profile in Russia and abroad. Often referring to Prigozhin’s accomplishments in aggrandizing terms, reminiscent of his own bombastic style, the document reads at times like a resume and includes widely reported biographical details as well as curious anecdotes, like a reference to “Indraguzik,” a book of fantasy tales about the residents of the fairy land Indraguzia, ruled by King Indraguz, which Prigozhin co-wrote with two of his children, printing 1,000 copies. The document also includes a list of several dozen senior political figures and heads of state Prigozhin served as part of his catering business with the Kremlin.
Notably absent from this detailed biography, however, is what ultimately propelled Prigozhin to global recognition: his role at the helm of a mercenary organization that has been accused of widespread atrocities across multiple continents. Wagner’s prominent role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made Prigozhin a household name in Russia and elsewhere, a rumored challenger to Putin, and, some have speculated, a potential threat to be eliminated. Until last fall, Prigozhin always denied his connections to Wagner, before abruptly embracing them and embarking on a public relations spree to boost his visibility and association with the group. The U.S. government has recently listed Wagner as a transnational criminal organization, and some in Congress have called for designating it as a foreign terrorist organization.
A representative for Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment nor did they challenge the authenticity of the document. Capital Legal Services did not respond to a request for comment.
From Robbery to Election Interference
Much of the document matches widely circulated accounts of Prigozhin’s life. He was born on June 1, 1961, in Leningrad — today’s St. Petersburg — the son of a nurse and a mining engineer, who died when Prigozhin was 9. A promising skier, according to the document, Prigozhin left the sport due to an injury and later worked as a trainer at a children’s sports school. In 1979, he received a suspended sentence for theft, and two years later, he was convicted on four charges ranging from armed robbery to fraud to “involving minors in criminal activity” and sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony. According to the document, Prigozhin violated the terms of his confinement “on a regular basis” until 1985, when in solitary confinement, he started to “read intensely.” In 1988, the Russian Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 10 years, noting that he had “began corrective behavior.” In order to earn money, he requested to be transferred to a residential colony for timber work, which the document characterizes as “extremely hard labor.”
Upon his release, in 1990, Prigozhin began but didn’t complete a pharmaceutical degree. He married, had three children, and for much of the 1990s ran a food store network, according to the document. Prigozhin’s biography credits a visit to the U.S. in 1993 with the inspiration to launch a fast-food chain in Russia, which led to his opening of a network of more than 100 hot dog kiosks and earned him his first $1 million. In the following years, Prigozhin opened a food manufacturing factory, a bar, and an upscale restaurant on a used ship, which, according to the document, “immediately became the most fashionable place in St. Petersburg.”
He eventually consolidated his ventures under Concord Management and Consulting: a network of restaurants, fast-food companies, and construction businesses working on commercial properties. He began catering for Russian political leaders in 2000, just as Putin ascended to the presidency.
“By the time of [the] presidential elections,” according to the document, “Yevgeny Prigozhin was a successful businessman and one of the best in his business segment.” The summary of his professional accomplishments at this point includes a three-page list of world dignitaries for whom he held dinners and receptions and includes a note that he “personally served the heads of states.” Guests ranged from former U.S. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-Prince Charles of Wales, as well as presidents and royals from dozens of other countries. Among the occasions catered by Prigozhin were Putin’s 2003 birthday party and the 2008 inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin to the presidency. That year, according to the document, Concord was “recognized as the best Russian brand.”
The document notes that until 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency in an election marred by accusations of fraud, Prigozhin was “politically indifferent.” That, the document implies, changed after “slanderous articles” by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta threatened Prigozhin’s business and “forced [him] to sell personal assets to restore it.”
The document notes that Prigozhin was awarded an order “For Merit to the Fatherland,” among other Russian honors. In 2016, it also notes, he was included in a U.S. sanctions list, and in 2018, he was indicted along with Concord Management and Consulting by special counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the U.S. presidential elections. At the request of the U.S., Interpol issued a red notice seeking his arrest, which they rescinded two years later, noting that “the prosecution appeared to be political in nature.”
Prigozhin, who remains under indictment in the U.S., has since publicly admitted to his role in the election interference, including in a statement to The Intercept.