Prigozhin: From 'Putin's chef' to deadly plane crash

Yevgeny Prigozhin was on the passenger list of the private plane that crashed in Russia on Wednesday.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a commercial kitchen with Vladimir Putin, points to something out of camera range.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in 2010. (Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

An airplane believed to have been carrying Wagner Group private army head Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday evening. The 10 people on the passenger list of the downed plane were the 62-year-old Prigozhin, six senior Wagner Group officials and three crew members.

The crash occurred exactly two months after Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch once allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin, launched his short-lived rebellion against Russia’s top military leadership. The insurrection, labeled as a betrayal by Putin, led many to speculate whether Prigozhin would survive the year. Since June, Prigozhin remained under the radar, appearing only in sporadic videos published on the Telegram messaging app. Just days before the crash, a clip of him was published online from what appeared to be an African country. However, his whereabouts since his so-called march for justice were never verified.

Read more on Yahoo News: Putin breaks silence on Prigozhin plane crash as bodies taken to medical examiner's office, via ABC

A private jet allegedly carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin and other passengers burns in a field after it crashed.
The site where a private jet reportedly carrying Prigozhin and other passengers crashed in Russia’s Tver region on Wednesday. (Wagner Telegram account/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In a speech on Thursday night, Putin shared his condolences for those who died in the plane crash, stating that Prigozhin was a “talented businessman” and that his contribution to the Wagner Group in fighting the “Nazi regime in Ukraine” would not be forgotten. (That Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, has a “Nazi regime” is a lie being pushed by the Kremlin.)

Below is a timeline of Prigozhin’s time in Putin’s inner circle.

Early years

Before he met Putin, little was publicly known about Prigozhin’s private life. A report by the Guardian reveals that Prigozhin spent his early 20s as a petty thief. Following several months of conducting robberies in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin was jailed for 10 years. He was released in 1990, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and started selling hot dogs, which began Prigozhin’s entrepreneurial career.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-U.S. President George W. Bush sit at a working dinner in 2006 as Prigozhin stands in the background.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-U.S. President George W. Bush at a working dinner in 2006 as Prigozhin stands in the background. (Sergei Zhukov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool via AP)

‘Putin’s chef’

Prigozhin opened the Old Customs House restaurant in the mid-1990s — an establishment that attracted an elite clientele. As the decade came to an end, Prigozhin began to provide catering for high-profile clients including Putin, who became a regular at the Old Customs House while president of Russia. Prigozhin would often be seen in the background of pictures of Putin’s diplomatic meetings and built an empire with Putin’s loyalty, garnering the nickname “Putin’s chef.” The next decade would see Prigozhin win contracts dished out by the Kremlin worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mercenary leader

Although Prigozhin only admitted to having any connection to the Wagner Group last September, it has been widely reported that the mercenary group is his private operation.

Since its founding in 2014, Wagner fighters have been in operation across 30 different countries — all orchestrated by Prigozhin.

Prigozhin stands on a street with soldiers behind him as he looks at the camera.
Prigozhin on June 24. (Wagner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

War in Ukraine

When Russia launched its “special operation” in Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin would play a key role. Leading the charge with around 50,000 Wagner soldiers, he would prove to be vital in Putin’s advance in eastern Ukraine.

Just days after the invasion, Prigozhin would be forced out of the shadows and onto the world stage after the U.S. announced it was imposing sanctions against him — spotlighting him as one of Putin’s closest allies.

‘March for justice’

Last November, Prigozhin began publicly sharing criticisms of Russia’s Ministry of Defense and its conduct in the war against Ukraine. He accused senior military officials of poor logistical and military oversight leading to the death of thousands of Wagner troops — the majority of whom had been recruited from prisons. The day before the insurrection, Prigozhin accused members of the senior military of targeting a Wagner camp in an occupied Ukrainian territory.

Portraits of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, with flowers laid in front, are seen at a makeshift memorial.
Portraits of Prigozhin, left, and Dmitry Utkin at a makeshift memorial in front of the PMC Wagner office in Novosibirsk on Thursday. (Vladimir Nikolayev/AFP via Getty Images)

In an act of fury, Prigozhin then led his soldiers toward the Russian capital on a so-called march for justice to remove what he called Russia’s incompetent and corrupt senior military leadership. Hours later, just 125 miles from Moscow, Prigozhin turned back, stating, “Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our convoy around and going back to our base camps, according to the plan.”

Putin dubbed the insurrection a “betrayal” and went so far as to accuse Prigozhin of treason. Prigozhin resurfaced days later, defending his mutiny in a voice message on Telegram: “I want you to understand that our march for justice was aimed at fighting traitors and mobilizing our society.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Prigozhin would move to Belarus after its president, Alexander Lukashenko, brokered a deal between Putin and the mercenary chief. Lukashenko had offered to mediate the deal, with Putin’s approval, as he has known Prigozhin personally for two decades. Peskov added that Prigozhin would receive amnesty despite orchestrating the armed mutiny and that the soldiers who had taken part would also not face any criminal action.

A little less than two months later, Prigozhin would be reported dead.