by Mike Eckel
The cloak-and-dagger uncertainty surrounding the funeral prompted a popular quip to circulate among Russian journalists: just as the Ukraine war has been euphemized by the Kremlin as a “special military operation,” Prigozhin’s funeral should be considered a “special burial operation.”
For two months after launching the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin in his 24 years as Russia’s preeminent figure, Yevgeny Prigozhin was a man of mystery.
The Wagner Group chief darted in and out of public view, free from arrest, defying expectations that Putin would come down hard on him for the June 23-24 mutiny that brought his troops within 200 kilometers of Moscow. The day before his plane crashed north of the capital, he released a video purportedly shot in Africa, where he spoke of his expanding business empire.
The aura of mystery lingered after Prigozhin’s death. It took four days after the crash for DNA analysis to confirm the identity of his remains; even then, jaded observers cautioned that the state authorities who made the announcement could not be trusted.
READ MORE: What to Watch Next as the Prigozhin Saga Unfolds
And then his funeral became a manhunt for journalists, scrambling to determine where and when and with what honors he would be laid to rest.
The Kremlin, apparently eager to keep its distance, professed not to know the timing or circumstances of the burial of a former ally who did much to undermine Putin’s efforts to look like a steadfast wartime leader. The only thing it made clear was that Putin would not attend the funeral of the man whose mercenaries gave him a symbolic battlefield victory in Ukraine in May: the capture of the Donetsk region city of Bakhmut.
In the end, Prigozhin was not buried with honors. He was not buried in a military ceremony reserved for those who have been given Russia’s highest medal. There was no public ceremony, with streams of mourners paying condolences during a live broadcast, as often accompanies prominent Russians’ deaths. Instead of an honor guard, rifle salute, and military band, there were phalanxes of police officers and National Guardsmen who kept journalists away.
In fact, he was buried before most of the media knew about it. And on state TV, Prigozhin’s death — and the dramatic circumstances of an unexplained midair catastrophe that caused it — was buried in the rundown.
“By creating just such a posthumous image of Prigozhin in the official media, the Kremlin showed that it would make no curtsies towards the audience of ultra-patriotic media and Telegram channels, for which the head of Wagner was a folk hero,” Andrei Pertsev, a longtime observer of Russian politics, wrote in a column for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The Kremlin has proven that it is still good at dealing with the challenges of popular populists,” he added.
Days after the plane crash, Putin made comments that sounded vaguely like a eulogy, containing some positive notes. But he also said that Prigozhin had “made mistakes in life” and referred to his acquaintance of some 30 years only by his last name, omitting the name and patronymic that are an everyday expression of respect.
In the days prior to the funeral, rumors were rampant about how and where Prigozhin would be buried, and whether the state would accord him any accolades or honors. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters — implausibly — that the Kremlin had no knowledge of the funeral plans.
A day later, on August 29, Peskov added that Putin would not be attending his funeral, wherever and whenever it might be held. That same morning, journalists in St. Petersburg began furiously tracking funeral convoys, police detours, priests, gravediggers, flower sellers, and license plates on luxury cars at cemeteries in the city — the hometown of both Putin and Prigozhin.
The St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka hurried to try and identify mourners and the dead, thwarted frequently by police restricting entrances to cemeteries like Serafimovskoye, located in a northwestern district of the city. By early afternoon, reporters determined that one of Prigozhin’s top lieutenants, Valery Chekalov, who handled many of the business operations for the Wagner Group, including in Syria, was the one being laid to rest at another cemetery, Severnoye.
At 5:20 p.m. local time, Prigozhin’s press service released a short announcement on its Telegram channel, saying the Wagner chief had been buried about four hours earlier, at the Porokhovskoye cemetery. The funeral “took place in a private format.”
The location was noteworthy. Located on the eastern outskirts of the city amid an industrial zone of decrepit lots frequented by homeless and drug addicts, Porokhovskoye is not known as a home for St. Petersburg’s elite and revered.
And Prigozhin was a recipient of the Hero of Russia award, the country’s highest state honor, meaning he was eligible for an honor guard, or even burial at one of Russia’s most important military cemeteries, at Volkovskoye, outside Moscow.
“The Kremlin has broken all records of nastiness,” Aleksandr Nevzorov, a well-known Russian TV personality who now lives outside the country, wrote on Telegram. “Spooked by [the prospect of] a powerful patriotic demonstration at the funeral, it began the morning with shell game and, of course, it won.”
The cloak-and-dagger uncertainty surrounding the event prompted a popular quip to circulate among Russian journalists: just as the Ukraine war has been euphemized by the Kremlin as a “special military operation,” Prigozhin’s funeral should be considered a “special burial operation.”
A day later, on August 30, journalists who were allowed access to the gravesite documented its adornment, including a traditional wooden Orthodox cross, flowered garlands and bouquets, and a framed poem from Joseph Brodsky, the St. Petersburg writer who was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972. The grave of his father, Viktor, is alongside.
“The funeral…marked the culmination of a covert operation aimed at his elimination,” veteran Russian political expert Tatyana Stanovaya said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. She alluded to widespread suspicion that Putin or the Russian authorities more broadly were behind the plane crash, which killed nine other people. “Conducted under the strict oversight of the security agencies, the entire process was shrouded in secrecy and involved deceptive tactics.”
In the August 30 evening programs on state-controlled TV channels, where the vast majority of Russians get their news, there was virtually no mention of Prigozhin’s funeral. Channel One’s flagship evening program showed a 1-minute report, 47 minutes into the broadcast, and the other two main channels had no stories on it at all.
Sergei Kovalchenko, who used to run the St. Petersburg news agency Telegraf, said the uncertainty shrouding his burial reflected how the Kremlin hopes Prigozhin’s aura slowly dissipate. “I think the propaganda message will be, ‘Forget about him as soon as possible,’ because the Kremlin thinks that if something is not shown on television, it doesn’t exist. And the sooner they consign Prigozhin…and this myth to oblivion, the better,” Kovalchenko told Current Time.
“The Kremlin knows how to play PR. Prigozhin is not Nemtsov,” he said, referring to Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician and vocal Putin critic who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015. His death prompted an outpouring of grief and mourners formed a long line to pay their respects.
“There won’t be supporters who will support all this, or even throughout the country. A couple of months will pass, and all this will subside, everyone will forget about him. I think that’s what they’re thinking in the Kremlin,” he said.
Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL, reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Follow him on X, [email protected]
Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036