SAINT PETERSBURG: Russian supporters of Yevgeny Prigozhin gathered outside the Wagner headquarters in Saint Petersburg on Thursday (Aug 24) to pay their respects to the mercenary group’s boss, presumed dead after a mysterious plane crash.
Prigozhin was branded a “traitor” by President Vladimir Putin after his short-lived rebellion against the conventional Russian army on Jun 23 to Jun 24.
But he remained popular among Russians, who acclaimed the battlefield achievements of the Wagner paramilitary group – despite many accusations of abuses and war crimes.
“You could say it’s like losing your father. He was everything to us, because everyone was always waiting (for) what Uncle Zhenia (Prigozhin) was going to say,” said Igor.
Like Igor, who was wearing a hat with the Wagner logo and the national flag on it, many Russians eagerly awaited Prigozhin’s outspoken videos and audio messages on social media.
The clips, full of expletives, were a sharp contrast to the tightly controlled narrative of Russian officials.
His verve and unbridled criticism of Russia’s regular army had turned him into a cult figure for parts of Russian society – and antagonised Moscow’s top brass.
Tensions degenerated into a violent but short-lived mutiny attempt at the end of June.
The mutiny ended with a deal, mediated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, under which Prigozhin was expected to move to neighbouring Belarus with some of his fighters.
There was no mention of Prigozhin’s rebellion – or the ensuing public repudiation by Putin – from the mourners laying red carnations in front of Wagner’s glass-fronted multistorey headquarters, which opened last autumn with great fanfare.