ST PETERSBURG: Followers of mutinous Russian mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin laid flowers, messages and poetry at his grave today, hailing him as a fearless warrior after he was killed along with his inner circle in a yet-to-be-explained plane crash.
Prigozhin was buried at the Porokhovskoye cemetery in his home town of St Petersburg yesterday away from the glare of the media whom he had courted so ardently in life after leading his fighters on a dash towards Moscow before turning back.
A man wearing the shirt of his Wagner mercenaries and a cap bearing the Russian flag was among those paying respects at the grave, where red roses and carnations graced a wooden Orthodox cross labelled “Prigozhin, Yevgeny Viktorovich 1961-2023”.
One tribute beside flowers read: “To be a warrior is to live forever.”
The private jet on which Prigozhin was travelling to St Petersburg from Moscow crashed north of Moscow with the loss of all 10 people on board on Aug 23, including Prigozhin, top Wagner commanders, his bodyguards and a crew of three.
It is still unclear what caused the plane to crash but villagers near the scene told Reuters they heard a bang and then saw the jet plummet to the ground.
In life, Prigozhin liked to say that he was one of the world’s most feared mercenaries with the best fighting force on the market.
But after fighting for President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, he challenged the Russian state openly.
After months of insulting Putin’s top brass with a variety of crude expletives and prison slang over their perceived failure to fight the Ukraine war properly, Prigozhin took control of the southern city of Rostov in late June.
He then marched towards Moscow before turning back 200km from the capital.
Putin initially cast Prigozhin as a traitor whose mutiny could have tipped Russia into civil war, though he later did a deal with him to defuse the crisis.
The day after the crash, Putin sent his condolences to the families of those killed and said he had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the chaotic years of the early 1990s.
“He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life,” Putin said, while describing him as a talented businessman.
Before the mutiny, Prigozhin had quipped that his nickname should have been “Putin’s Butcher” rather than “Putin’s Chef” – a moniker acquired after his catering company won Kremlin contracts.
He said he always professed loyalty to Putin, while branding defence minister Sergei Shoigu as so incompetent he should executed for his treachery.
The Kremlin has rejected as an “absolute lie” the suggestion by some western politicians and commentators – for which they have not provided evidence – that Putin ordered Prigozhin to be killed in revenge.
US president Joe Biden said last week he was not surprised by the death and that not much happened in Russia that Putin was not behind.
After Prigozhin’s death, Putin ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state – a step that Prigozhin had opposed due to his anger at the defence ministry that he said risked losing the Ukraine war.
A picture of Prigozhin frowning and the text of Joseph Brodsky’s “Nature Morte” lay on the freshly dug ground of his grave.
“You are nailed to the cross. How will I go home?” the excerpt of the poem said.
“Dead or alive – there are no differences.”
Investigators said on Sunday that genetic tests had confirmed the identities of all 10 people killed in the crash, who also included two pilots and a flight attendant.