From Catering to Cartel -Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Troll Factory

Original Twitter Thread created on May, 27, 2017 by @SaysDana

Vitamins are considered essential nutrients because, acting together, they perform many useful roles. Kremlin caterer, Yevgeny Prigozhin does the same for his master, Vladimir Putin. Yevgeny is just one of an inner circle of point men who carry out essential functions for Putin and are richly rewarded in return. Perhaps that is why the chef turned billionaire, Yevgeny Prigozhin, chose to name his yacht St. Vitamin and his jet M-Vita. He is also believed to have fueled the Russian bot campaign to sway political opinion and thus influence the 2016 US election via another of his businesses, The Internet Research Agency (IRA).

Early Years in Prison

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Prigozhin was born in 1961 to Violetta Prigozhin in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He enjoyed sports and cross-country skiing growing up, but it is known from publicly available information that on 29 November 1979 in Leningrad’s Kuybyshev court, Prigozhin was convicted of theft, for which he was put on probation. Just two years later, he received a custodial prison sentence from the Zhdanov court for more serious crimes. In 1988, Prigozhin was pardoned, and in 1990 released from a penal colony.

While in prison, his mother remarried. His step-father helped him set up a business selling hot dogs, establishing a grocery store chain and investing in restaurants. It would be his restaurants that attracted elites in St. Petersburg including officials from the city and the federal government and the man who was to become his greatest supporter, Vladimir Putin.

Hospitality Success

Interesting information, but not confirmed, is that Putin’s grandfather was allegedly a cook for Lenin and then Stalin — both of whom may have been poisoned. Yevgeny Prigozhin, it seems, may not cook at all, but being in the position of being “Putin’s Chef”, surely gives him access to both friends and enemies. Putin and Prigozhin met in 2001 when Vladimir Putin was hosting French President, Jacques Chirac at Prigozhin’s New Island floating restarant. Putin entertained President George W. Bush at the same restaurant in 2002. By the following year, Prigozhin had a successful catering and restaurant business, often personally serving his elite clients.

George W. Bush with Putin, 2002
Prigozhin serving Vladimir Putin

This success helped him receive the catering contract for Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential inauguration and his relationship with Putin won his company, Concord Management & Consulting a government catering contract worth $1.4 Billion. This contract was to feed all Moscow’s schoolchildren and 90 per cent of the Russian Military.

Prigozhin talking with Medvedev

However, as far as programs go, many schoolchildren and their parents repeatedly complained about the poor quality of the food provided, which was neither tasty nor fresh. In autumn 2011, protesting parents blocked a lorry bringing food from Concord to a local school. The children refused breakfast and lunch and complained to their parents of stomach upsets, leading them to go to school and monitor the quality of the food themselves. Prigozhin suffered no consequences.

Concord Management continued to grow and expand. The two year Defense contract helped him acquire his first yacht, the St. Vitamin and a Raytheon Hawker 800 jet, the M-Vita. The family boasted on social media about their high lifestyle.

M-Vita
St. Vitamin

In 2013, the new Russian Defense Minister did not renew the contract reducing Prigozhin’s income to ~$704 million. The same year, Prigozhin branched into other endeavors and Russian journalists in Russia discovered that he not only operated but owned, The Internet Research Agency also known as “The Troll Factory”.

Serving Propaganda on a Plate

The Internet Research Agency was located in St. Petersburg’s Olgino region. Staff worked up to 12 hour shifts, writing social media posts and comments praising Russian authorities, while criticizing opposition. Approximately 400 people worked in the building, writing to prepared scripts.

The IRA provided additional propaganda services. In 2013, three months before Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown, the news agency Kharkov, was founded in Ukraine and opened a branch in Crimea. The news agency advocated pro-Russian positions well before the violence began in eastern Ukraine. According to the Nvaya Gazeta newspaper, Yevgeny Prigozhin financed Kharkov.

In 2014, Anonymous International hackers corroborated that Prigozhin’s company Concord Management & Consulting was financing the IRA and leaked emails to BuzzFeed News. Later, it was revealed online that the IRA approved payments to Prigozhin’s catering firm.

Contracts with Russia Military

By 2015, Prigozhin began expanding his military contracts. Companies like Agaat LLC, Nordenergo, Teplosintez, Teplosnab, TCS and Proftehuslugi were all associated Prigozhin’s Concord Management and Consulting company. Prigozhin’s CEO of Concord Management, Dmitry Utkin, is the founder of Wagner Group, a private military contractor.

Prosecutors in Russia’s Central Military District soon took an interest in the procured contracts and determined that these companies were not licensed to work at military sites. The prosecutors had no way to revise the rules and contract decisions and many of these contracts remain in place today.

Anti-Corruption Investigations

According to Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, there were eight, not five, firms in this group that won procurement contracts from the military worth $607 million. Prosecutors are investigating only five of the companies, where senior management comprises former police officers. According to the news website Fontanka, they are all connected to the firm, Megaline, associated with Prigozhin’s Concord Management and Consulting.

https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/200133125

Lawsuits against Yandex

In May 2016, after being stopped by police while in his motorcade, Prigozhin’s bodyguard manhandled a police office while being videotaped. St. Petersburg police brought charges against his bodyguard and decided to proceed with them. The following day, Prigozhin brought 15 lawsuits against the Internet search engine, Yandex, seeking to use the new Russian law on “the right to be forgotten”, which obliges search engines to respond to citizens’ requests to remove results linking to “illegal, inaccurate, or irrelevant information” about that individual. Prigozhin demanded that Yandex delete links to Novaya Gazeta’s report at the “troll factory” and Fontanka’s report about this business empire in Military communities, including, specifically, his state contracts with the Defence Ministry. Prigozhin also wanted removal of an article about military communities published on the Ukrainian new website Apostrof, with the headline “On Putin’s Thieving Chef”. He later dropped all suits.

Prigozhin funding Group Wagner — a Quasi-Private Military Company (PMC)

Group Wagner is an outwardly private company, but is supported by the military and controlled by the state. Payments received by Group Wagner are much higher than received by other private security companies, leading to speculation of Kremlin Support, according to an official close to the Russian Defence Ministry. Russian defence analyst Ivan Konovalov, along with Prigozhin, helped create the idea and funding for the group.

Unconfirmed reports say that Group Wagner in Molkino was disbanded by 2015. The company, set up in 2014, is led by retired Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin, formerly of Russian special forces 2nd Spetnazbrigade and current CEO of Concord Management and Consulting.

Russian military aircraft have transported this private force to Syria and pictures of the company, show equipment used only by Russian special forces.

Courtesy of EA Worldview

Moscow’s Mercenaries in Syria

Sometime around 2010, Putin suggested that “such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state”. In 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin floated the idea of setting up a PMC with state backing. However, there was still resistance within the Defence Ministry.

The Russian government is still considering making PMC’s legal. If this happens, groups like Wagner, technically private, but acting as the arms of the Russian state, will be more widespread.

Update: Sanctions and charges

In 2016, the US Treasury sanctioned Prigozhin, for having “extensive business dealings” with the Russian Defence Ministry. The US actions bar American individuals or companies from dealing with sanctioned people or companies.

On February, 16, 2018, Prigozhin, the Internet Research Agency, Concord Management, another related company, and other connected Russian individuals were indicted by a US grand jury. Prigozhin was charged with funding and organizing operations for the purpose of interference with the US political and electoral processes, including the 2016 presidential election, and other crimes including identity theft. The US took a stand against propaganda and Russian meddling in US elections.

Sources: Ilya Zhegulev in Moscow for Meduza translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock. 13 June 2016; Thomas Grove and Paul Sonne for The Wall Street Journal. 20 Dec 2016; Niklas Eklund, Jorgen Elfving for the Eurasia Daily Monitor. 22 March 2017; Mark Galeotti for War on the Rocks. 5 April 2016; Alexandra Garmazhapova for Yevgeny Prigozhin: Caterer to the Kremlin. 31 July 2014; (OpenDemocracy) https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/alexandra-garmazhapova/yevgeny-prigozhin-%D1%81aterer-to-kremlin

Contributors:

Twitter — @911Corlebra777, @mopeng; Original Writing Date: April 16, 2017; Twitter Thread Date: May 2017; 2nd Rewrite of THREAD here: https://twitter.com/SaysDana/status/876811195897978880

Editor: Kathy Davis

Thank you to K. Louise Neufeld and Lincoln's Bible for the push to write this story last year as well. I’ve done it.

Special Thanks to Louise Mensch for her words to me back in 2017 that this story deserved more than a Twitter Thread. She was right. It took me 1.5 years to get my nerve up to do it. Thank you for the first push.