With today’s release of the Mueller Report, the public will surely want to know more about Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Nicknamed “Putin’s Chef,” Prigozhin oversees the dining operations for the Kremlin and multiple other Russian state agencies. But that wasn’t all he was up to. In February 2018, a grand jury returned an indictment presented by the Special Counsel’s office, after it was discovered that Prigozhin had been cooking up an elaborate plot designed to sway the 2016 Presidential election.
Here’s what you need to know about Yevgeny Prigozhin and his disinformation scheme.
1. Progozhin was Indicted for Using “Information Warfare Against the United States”
Prigozhin, 57, was one of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies indicted on February 16, 2018 for federal crimes described by the Department of Justice, as “information warfare against the United States,” with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” Prigozhin attempted to manipulate the election using a “troll factory,” – a company that pushes out disinformation on the Internet meant to harm other countries while serving Russian interests. Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency did just that by creating posts and messages designed to hurt presidential candidate and Putin critic Hillary Clinton’s campaign while concurrently helping Donald Trump.
The Internet Research Agency began disseminating disinformation in 2014 using false personas designed to sway U.S. citizens. The company used multiple ruses to promote the Kremlin’s agenda including posing as U.S. citizens without disclosing their Russian affiliation and purchasing political ads using false identities. The indictment says that Prigozhin and others “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.”
2. Prigozhin Has an Extensive Criminal History
Progozhin was born in 1961 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In his youth, Prigozhin was a talented cross-country skier. Graduating from a sports-focused boarding school in 1977, he dreamed of becoming a cross-country ski champion. He also had a stint as a ski instructor at a boarding school.
But in 1979, at the age of 18, Prigozhin wound up on the wrong side of the law and was given a suspended sentence and probation for theft. Two years later in 1981 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for robbery, fraud and involving teenagers in prostitution. He served nine years of his sentence before being released In 1990.
According to The Daily Beast, a 2018 article published in the Russian independent paper Novaya Gazeta, alleged that Prigozhen retained his thug-like ways, even as a successful entrepreneur. The paper spoke with ex-con Valery Alemchenko who had once served as Prigozhin’s “security aide.” He claims to have arranged for Prigozhin’s opponents to be attacked and sometimes murdered. Alemchenko went missing after the Novaya Gazeta article was published.
3. He Started in the Restaurant Business by Opening Hot Dog Stands With his Stepfather
Prigozhin started his career in the foodservice industry by opening up hotdog stands with his stepfather in the 1990s. From there, Prigohzhin graduated to food marts and then upscale restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow. According to the New York Times, “the rubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them.” His St. Petersburg restaurant Staraya Tamozhnya (“Old Customs House”) opened in 1996 and attracted high-ranking government officials including Vladimir Putin. He is quoted in the Russian magazine Elite as saying that the restaurant offered Russians something new and different from boring “cutlets with vodka.”
In 1998 he expanded his luxury dining business by opening New Island Restaurant aboard a luxury ship. Prigozhin served heads of state like George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac at New Island Restaurant. The floating restaurant was hailed by one tourism website as “St. Petersburg’s only floating luxury restaurant-ship.” Putin was so taken by the restaurant that he celebrated his birthday there one year. While Putin appreciated the fine dining and nice atmosphere he was most impressed with Prigozhin’s ruffian-to-riches story and began to include him in his close-knit circle of friends and confidantes.
4. Prigozhin Raked in Millions Thanks to Cushy Government Contracts
According to the Washington Post, Prigozhin won lucrative contracts for his Concorde catering business that began feeding Russian soldiers. In 2012 he was awarded a two-year contract worth $1.6 billion to provide more than 90% of all food ordered for the Russian military. Since 1996 he’s also been feeding Moscow schoolchildren. In 2010 he opened the food factory outside St. Petersburg that provided prepackaged food. When parents complained about the food’s quality, Prigozhin won school catering contracts That totaled approximately $177 million. It’s reported that he signed several other state contracts totaling at least $3.1 billion.
Prigozhin critic Lyubov Sobol and a colleague flew a drone over Prigozhin’s estate near St. Petersburg, exposing his opulent lifestyle. Soon after the drone footage was revealed, Sobol’s husband was accosted by a mysterious stranger who suddenly injected her spouse with a powerful sedative as he entered their apartment building. Sobol says the attack was an act of retaliation however Prigozhin denies having any involvement.
5. Prigozhin Bankrolled the U.S. Misinformation Project With Funds From His Catering and Restaurant Businesses
“He is the person who does the dirty work for Putin,” Sobol told NBC News. Sobol says that he and the Russian president “so close that he has been assigned work that Putin wouldn’t trust with anyone else.” The Department of Justice’s February 2018 news release revealed that Prigozhin used funds from Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering, his successful catering businesses, to help fund the Internet Research Agency which had an annual budget of millions of dollars. NBC News reported that Prigozhin’s troll factory employed hundreds of staffers tasked with creating divisive social media posts and web information about race, gun rights, and religion.
In addition to managing the Internet Research Agency, Prigozhen is also thought to have been involved in funding Russian mercenary activities on the Kremlin’s behalf in Syria and Africa. In February 2018, American Special Forces and their Kurdish allies inadvertently killed dozens of subversive Russian soldiers after being attacked in Syria. It’s believed that the Russian mercenaries were sent to Syria to protect Russia’s oil interests in the region.