The hotdog salesman who had Putin to thank for his rise – and his fall

Mugger, convict, hotdog salesman, fine-dining boss, warlord and the mercenary chief who dared to challenge Vladimir Putin.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the 62-year-old owner of the Wagner Group and the cruellest commander of Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine, was all these things before his reported death.

Now he is the centre of a murky story of suspected revenge that brings far fewer surprises than his incredible rise to power from prison to Putin’s orbit.

Prigozhin fell from grace after leading a June mutiny against the Russian president in the midst of his illegal war in Ukraine.

Whether his private jet was shot down over the Tver region north of Moscow or crashed is uncertain.

But few doubted that Putin would take his revenge against a man who was once his close ally.

Prigozhin was born in 1961 in St Petersburg, which was then called Leningrad. Putin, who he would later nickname “papa”,  was born nine years earlier in the same city.

While Putin slid into the world of spycraft, Prigozhin fell into a life of street muggings and petty crime.

The 18-year-old hoodlum was sentenced to 13 years in prison and was only released in 1990, when the Soviet Union was enduring its death rattle.

Back in St Petersburg, he sold hotdogs in the new Russia, before building up a string of restaurants, including one at a hotel, which became a byword for fine dining.

Anatoly Sobchak, St Petersburg’s mayor, would go and sometimes bring his deputy – one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Years later, in his early years as president of Russia, Putin would bring visiting foreign dignitaries to eat in Prigozhin’s restaurants.

The official engagements built up and there are photographs of the future warlord standing poised to serve behind the future King Charles.

Prigozhin at an event with Putin and George W Bush

Prigozhin at an event with Putin and George W Bush – Sergei Zhukov/Sputnik/Kremlin pool photo via AP

Such successes brought more government food contracts, before Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine presented Prigozhin with an opportunity.

He is thought to have pitched Putin the possibility of a mercenary group to give the Kremlin deniability over its actions in Ukraine.

Now no longer a glorified caterer, Prigozhin embraced his new life – with Wagner also being sent to places like Syria and spreading its tentacles to at least 10 countries in Africa.

After Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine, a video of Prigozhin inviting convicts to join Wagner went viral and he admitted he had founded the group.

In places like Bakhmut, he gained a reputation as a brutal and heartless commander.

His rise from the cells of the Soviet Union brought him incredible riches before he led his prisoner-army on the ill-fated march on Moscow that many believe led “papa” to decide he had to die.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.

Leave a Comment