From national hero to drugged and bewigged zero: The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has turned against Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a sensational story During Rossiya-1’s state-run « 60 Minutes » program Wednesday evening, Kremlin propaganda attack dogs played footage of what they claimed was a raid on Prigozhin’s mansion and offices, showing money, weapons, drugs, a helicopter, more (Russian) passports and a closet full of awful wigs.
« The investigation continues, » pundit Eduard Petrov said at the start of the programme, referring to the investigation into the Prigozhin-led mutiny last month, during which mercenary group leader Wagner marched his men less than 200 kilometers from Moscow in an attempt to oust the country’s military leadership. « Actually, nobody was going to close this case, » he added.
It was an open declaration of war on Prigozhin, and it came after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides issued improbable assurances that the prosecution of those who staged the mutiny would be dropped if the warlord and his Wagnerians had agreed to disarm, sign contracts with the Russian defense ministry, or leave for Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who apparently negotiated the exile deal with Prigozhin and Putin, told state media on Thursday morning that the warlord was not in the country.
“We need to figure out who was on whose side,” Petrov said in 60 Minutes. “Who was on the side of the mutineers? They should be punished and brought to criminal justice. So the nation understands that if a person acts against their government, he will be punished very, very severely. Not ‘see you later, I’m going out’”.
« Tomes » of evidence are being sifted by Russian authorities, a gloating Petrov told the audience at the evening show. « Very soon, very very soon, we will know where the criminal case is. »
Cue: Footage — obtained from Anonymous siloviki (a term used to describe members of the military or security services) – of the Russian special forces raiding what Petrov described as Prigozhin’s « nest » – namely the offices of his now closed Patriot Media company and his palatial home.
“I believe that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s image as a champion of the people was entirely created by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s well-fed media empire,” Petrov said contemptuously and seemingly without irony – never mind that Rossiya-1 himself portrayed Prigozhin as a hero a few weeks ago.
Remake a murder
Until recently, Kremlin propagandists portrayed Prigozhin, a 62-year-old former restaurateur and convicted felon, as a macho hero, a Russian Rambo behead the traitors with clubs at the forefront.
Things got complicated when Prigozhin began publicly railing against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, ranting and raging at his growing group of devoted fans on social media.
However, Prigozhin never criticized Putin, and Putin allowed Prigozhin to continue building his brand, as long as his men continued to hold the fort in the war’s most brutal battles against Ukraine. So Prigozhin crossed the line by marching his men on Moscow.
Putin’s punishment was always going to be brutal: first, however, it is destroying Prigozhin’s image and undermining his reputation.
Let’s go back to « 60 Minutes » on Wednesday night.
« Why have we forgotten about Prigozhin’s past? » asked a passionate Petrov. “Everyone knew it. Everyone talked about it. He talked about the fact that he has been tried twice. His criminal past. »
Showing the footage of what he said was Prigozhin’s 600-million-ruble (€6-million) mansion, Petrov sang: « Let’s see how this champion of truth lived – a champion twice convicted – a champion who spoke how everyone around him is stealing.
“Inside Yevgeny Prigozhin’s cottage there is coin lying around like this, in a box, held together with rubber bands,” Petrov continued. “Now we see the palace of the fighter of corruption and crime Yevgeny Prigozhin. Here is his palace. Here is his house. His daughter sometimes posts videos from here, by the way, and she’s not always in good shape.
Then the main course of the video: a wardrobe full of ugly wigs.
« OH! » Petrov exclaimed as the footage played. “This is a closet full of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s secrets – wigs! Why does she need wigs at his house?
It wasn’t long before Telegram, the social media platform popular among Russians, was inundated with photos of Prigozhin in a variety of wigs and disguises. (Albeit intriguingly, the photos appeared to come from a friend account of Prigozhin’s called « Release the Kraken, » who said he got them from the Patriot Media archive.)
The program also aired footage of what Petrov speculated were drugs found in Prigozhin’s mansion. A Prigozhin-friendly Telegram account that previously contained voicemails from the warlord himself denied the house in the video belonged to Prigozhin and he claimed the « drugs » were actually laundry detergent.
Divide and conquer
Wednesday night’s program was also designed to reassure Russians that not all of Wagner’s fighters were traitors and mutineers: With his war effort faltering, Putin cannot afford to lose tens of thousands of men from the front lines.
“There were worthy people in Wagner,” Petrov insisted — moments after a diatribe about Prigozhin recruiting some of Russia’s worst criminals into the ranks of the mercenary army.
« The majority! » cut into « 60 minutes » conductor Yevgeny Popov. « Most people acted heroically, took cities, served in good faith…and bought their freedom with blood. »
“What is absolutely clear: Prigozhin is a traitor,” Popov continued. “But Wagnerians – most of them are heroic people who with guns in hand defended our homeland. And many of them were lied to.
Referring to Prigozhin’s Concord catering company and other businesses Putin admitted were entirely financed by the Russian state, Popov said the warlord had received « billions in contracts ».
And trying to separate Prigozhin’s men from their exiled leader, Petrov said: « The question is whether this money has reached the fighters and heroes of Wagner! »
Translation: Watch your back, Yevgeny.