Russia officially confirms Prigozhin’s death

The tearful mourners gathered in Moscow to pay silent respect to Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and nine other people who died in a suspected plane crash last week.

Hundreds of people placed flowers, photos, candles and flags – including some with the skull and crossbones motif of the private military group – at a small memorial on the sidewalk near Moscow’s Red Square.

The weekend’s gathering reflected the general appeal Mr. Prigozhin had for the Russian public over his armed forces’ fierce fighting in Ukraine, despite a bitter relationship with the Russian military leadership and backlash over his failed mutiny in June, when the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin initially accused him of high treason.

Near the makeshift memorial, many wept openly, expressing their dismay at the death of a man they said they respected and their sadness at the loss of life. Almost all expressed their support for the invasion of Ukraine.

“This is a person the whole world feared,” said 25-year-old Alyona. Like many who agreed to be interviewed, Alyona did not want to give her last name because of political sensitivity surrounding Mr. Prigozhin, who frequently criticized how the war had been carried out in the months leading up to his brief rebellion two months ago.

“That alone is worthy of respect. Not only did he scare people, he created a system no one else had, he did something no one else had done,” she said, referring to both the making of Wagner and the Courage to confront Moscow’s military establishment.

Should Wagner disappear, she added, “it would be a great loss indeed.”

Volunteers distributed water, sweets and snacks, a funeral tradition in the Russian Orthodox faith. On a low wall along the sidewalk, tea lights crowded between memorial candles and funeral wreaths. A long banner read: “To be a soldier is to live forever!”

Many found it difficult to believe that Mr. Prigozhin and the supreme military commander of his group, Dmitry Utkin, had died. Photo credit: Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Some Wagner fighters who had come to pay their respects pledged their loyalty to the leader of the mercenary group.

“I was mobilized,” said one soldier, giving only his call sign, Prapor, and his age, 32. He showed Times journalists a Wagner dog tag emblazoned with the date of the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May.

“No one has ever left me; They helped me, they did everything necessary and provided me with everything I needed,” said Prapor, adding that he personally met Mr. Prigozhin.

Many could not believe that Mr. Prigozhin and his group’s supreme military commander, Dmitry Utkin – whose callsign allegedly served as inspiration for the group’s name – had died.

“We didn’t believe it until the last moment,” said Kirill, 31, who wore a Wagner hat and said he had a connection to the mercenary group but wasn’t a soldier. He praised Mr. Prigozhin’s open, colloquial and often profane communication style.

“Wagner executives were honest – they told us everything,” he said sadly. “They spoke to people informally, just as they communicated with the general public.” He called Wagner’s conquest of Bachmut, which had leveled most of a city of 70,000 people before the war, “a great success.” .

Other mourners said she appreciated Mr Prigozhin’s populist messages, which included criticism of the military establishment – Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu in particular – and at times apparently extended to Mr Putin himself.

“Evgeny Prigozhin won my respect just by the simple fact that he went against this system, against Putin, Shoigu, and started an active fight against our government,” said Sergei, a 23-year-old student. “But I am against the fact that his mercenaries are fighting in Ukraine.”

Sergei shared pictures of himself on his phone being arrested at rallies for another populist who dared to challenge Mr Putin: Aleksei A. Navalny, who survived a poisoning attempt and faces more than 30 years in prison on allegations by human rights groups was convicted say we are political.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the crash. US officials said the crash was the result of an explosion on board, possibly in retaliation for the insurgency.

Sergei said he believes the killing of the ten people was ordered as revenge for the mutiny. And although Russia’s investigative committee said genetic testing showed the remains from the crash site matched the names in the plane’s flight log, Sergei said he believed there was a chance Mr Prigozhin was still alive.

Police officers are patrolling the memorial this weekend. Source: Nanna Heitmann for the New York Times

Posters all over Moscow encourage people to sign military contracts or proclaim the exploits of fallen soldiers. But in a country where little is said about the victims, the sidewalk memorial has become a rare place for people to mourn in public.

Elena, a 47-year-old lawyer originally from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, cried for about five minutes as she took the photos and memorabilia.

“Russia protects these people,” she said of Ukrainians living in Russian-held territories, calling the death of the Wagner leadership a “tragedy.”

“I feel so sorry for these people,” she said. “I followed the activities of the leaders of the Wagner group. I thought they were Russian patriots.”

Like most local people, she expressed respect for Mr. Prigozhin without directly contrasting him with Mr. Putin or his Defense Ministry, and took no position on the Wagner mutiny or its resolution. She was also unwilling to speculate about the cause of the plane crash.

The improvised memorial dates from before Mr. Prigozhin’s death, but has grown a lot in recent days. Originally erected for military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a St Petersburg bombing in April, it features photos of other prominent Russian pro-war advocates, including Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist, who was killed in a car bombing in August 2022.

But almost everyone seemed to be focused on the Wagner leader. Mr. Prigozhin, Alyona said, was unique in his generation in his ability and willingness to openly discuss the problems of Russian society.

“In our history there was only one Lenin, one Stalin and one Prigozhin,” she said. “If someone else like Lenin, Stalin or Prigozhin shows up, we’ll be lucky.”

Milana Mazaeva provided coverage from Washington.

— Valerie Hopkins reports from Moscow


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Amanda Walker

Global events enthusiast. Reporting with a critical lens to offer readers a deeper perspective.

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