“Either private military agencies and inmates, or your children“: Evgenij Prigožin, oligarch close to the Kremlin and financier of Wagner, a modern-day venture company, protagonist of the war in Ukraine, thus responded to the criticism for the recruitment of prisoners of all kinds in Russian prisons and penal colonies. In recent days, a video has also appeared where the “Putin cook” himself appeared, shot from a smartphone in a penitentiary in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of the republic of Mari-El, where he had gone to enlist other prisoners.
It is not the first time, for Prigožin, already this summer he had been in other penal colonies in the Tula and Yaroslavl regions, and the scene would always seem the same: the prisoners are gathered in the courtyards, where the entrepreneur harangues them, escorted by some bodyguards “there were three men in good shape, with guns in their pouches, and the fourth was an older one, bald, not tall, and on his chest shone the star of Hero of Russia”, said a detainee in Rybinsk, where Wagner representatives went in search of soldiers on 1 August.
The speech of the “bald man with the medal” was explicit: “We are not the armed forces, but a real militarized criminal organization: my boys go to African countries and in two days they leave nothing alive there, and now they destroy the enemies in Ukraine. Your decision to serve in the company is a pact with the devil, whether you come away with me from here or come back as free men or you will die. You will be obliged to kill the enemies and carry out orders from above, and for those who come back, the shooting on the spot awaits them ».
After the publication of the last video, the Konkord, holding company owned by Prigožin, obliquely confirmed the presence of the owner in the prisons, writing that “indeed we can confirm that the person in the video looks tremendously like Evgeny Viktorovič and judging by his rhetoric in a way it deals with the problems of implementing the objectives of the special operation and it would seem to succeed well.
Also… the person in the video has a very well placed stamp, like that of Yevgeny Viktorovič, and the person who looks like Yevgeny Viktorovič explains in great detail simple and understandable things to simple people ». It is also probably the tycoon’s past that makes communication easy with those serving a sentence, because in the 1980s he spent some time in Soviet jails for robberies and muggings in the then Leningrad, his hometown. 13 years, this is the sentence for Prigožin, defined as an “antisocial element”, imposed in 1981, and reduced to 7 plus a period of confinement for the 1988 amnesty, returning to freedom in 1990, now at the end of the USSR.
In the following decade, the ex-convict emerges in the catering sector in Petersburg, opening luxurious restaurants and winning the sympathies of officials, politicians and those who count in the city, often personally serving the most prominent guests, a courtesy particularly appreciated by Vladimir Putin , who goes for lunch and dinner at New Island, a restaurant located on a boat along the banks of the Neva, first with Jacques Chirac in 2001 and the following year with George Bush jr. An acquaintance, the one with the Russian president, made possible by his friendship with the driver, who later became head of security and later general of Rosgvardija Viktor Zolotov.
As a restaurant owner, Prigožin launches into catering and refueling canteens, first obtaining contracts in Petersburg and then in Moscow, where he becomes the main supplier of the schools, not without protests from his parents for the quality of the meals, until he wins the provisions for the Russian army, even here amid much controversy over the poor ration.
The birth of the contractor company called Wagner (from the nickname of its first commander, Colonel Dmitry Utkin, was made possible by the oligarch’s funding, increasingly intent on winning a place in the sun in the Kremlin court, proposing himself as a man capable of carry out the low kitchen operations, where you have to get your hands dirty without being picky: it is Prigožin who supports the expeditions of Utkin’s fighters in Syria, the Central African Republic and Ukraine, often clashing with the Ministry of Defense and army officers, who share trucks and heavy weapons with the mercenaries.
This position gives him enemies and ups and downs in relations with the Kremlin, but the war in Ukraine makes him regain points: Putin does not want to resort to general mobilization, and Prigožin’s men are comfortable in a special operation that is less easy than some. he described in his reports. His support for the president is rewarded with the award (secret) of the gold star of the Hero of Russia, which is usually given to those who have distinguished themselves in battle or been in space, a sign of the regained satisfaction.CopyAMP code.
“I’m interested in bandits and murderers,” Wagner’s financier said on one of his Russian prison tours. The conditions promised to those who enlist are tempting: wages up to three hundred thousand rubles, freedom and cancellation of the sentence from the criminal record if you return alive, five million to families if you are in a gruz-200, that is, in a zinc coffin. And many go, 100 from a penal colony, 200 from a prison, and so on: those who still have 10 or 20 years to serve leave, but also those who are sentenced to lower sentences, attracted by the possibility of being able to obtain a clean criminal record.
It does not matter if to get freedom and a future you have to kill, for some it is not a problem, war allows crimes to become acts of heroism. It is no coincidence that Prigožin is now among those calling for a change of pace in Moscow, aimed at the total destruction of Ukraine at whatever cost, and is portrayed as an unblemished and fearless patriot by the ultranationalist Telegram channels and the his image brought up by the media of Konstantin Malofeev: the past of the boy who stole from Leningrad apartments forty years ago has become the present of a man feared and respected, honored by some and despised by others, ready to do anything to achieve that who wants and whose private army sheds blood from the humid forests of Central Africa to the streets of Ukrainian cities. What will happen when these modern Freikorps return home, sadly, already seems like a tragedy foretold.
Giovanni Savino, Russian Diary. March 19, 2022
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