Wagner chief Prigozhin is buried in secret as Kremlin seeks to avoid unrest


RIGA, Latvia — Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin was buried in an unusually secret ceremony in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, with his press service announcing that the event was closed to outsiders, after a series of hearses and funeral corteges laid false trails at several local cemeteries and other locations tracked throughout the day by local journalists.

Prigozhin’s press service said in a brief statement that the last rites for Prigozhin were held in secret on Tuesday without offering details of the time and location, or providing photographs of the event — perhaps a fitting final chapter to a secretive life of disguises, clandestine security arrangements, diversions to conceal travel plans, duplicate passports and body doubles.

The cloak-and-dagger machinations around Prigozhin’s burial underscored the Kremlin’s fears of potential unrest among hard-line, pro-war Russian nationalists, many of whom lionized the Wagner leader for his tough, blunt criticism of a war that has raised doubts about President Vladimir Putin’s leadership and often made his defense chiefs appear incompetent and untruthful about casualties and battlefield setbacks.

Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, other mercenary leaders and their bodyguards were killed last week, along with three crew members, when an Embraer business jet crashed during a flight to St. Petersburg from Moscow — a suspicious incident that many in Russia’s elite presumed to be an assassination directly or indirectly ordered by the Kremlin.

Earlier Tuesday, the Kremlin had said that Putin would not attend the funeral of Prigozhin, his former ally, as the first of the Wagner leaders killed in the crash were buried without fanfare.

Putin’s snub of the funeral risked further angering Prigozhin’s hawkish supporters who saw him as a war hero and demanded that he be buried with military honors, despite the rebellion he led in June aimed at toppling the nation’s military leadership.

Russian investigators confirmed Aug. 27, that Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin was killed in a private plane crash outside Moscow on Aug. 23. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Prigozhin’s press service, which had dutifully promoted his profanity-laden battlefield videos during the months-long siege of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, provided no details of Tuesday’s clandestine ceremony. Instead, it issued a curt line to say that those who wished to bid him farewell could visit the Porokhovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg.

Russia’s Interfax news service reported that Prigozhin’s press service confirmed to the agency that he was buried in a small ceremony with only family and close friends present, according to the family’s wishes.

Local media outlet MSK1 reported that Prigozhin was buried at about 4 p.m. quoting a representative of the cemetery stating that the family wished the arrangements to be kept secret. Russian Telegram channels also reported that he had been buried in the afternoon at an event carefully concealed from local media.

Putin, stained by Prigozhin’s death, faces calls for military funeral

Earlier on Tuesday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded to questions about the funeral by saying that Putin’s schedule was busy. Peskov said he had “no specific information” about the funeral, and that decisions rested with the family.

The extraordinary secrecy surrounding the funerals of Prigozhin and the other top Wagner figures, highlighted the unease in Moscow as the Kremlin sought to minimize the risk of unrest and to draw a line under Wagner’s short-lived June rebellion. Still, divisions over the grinding, 18-month-long invasion of Ukraine continue to roil Russia’s elite and its military leadership.

The Kremlin has strongly denied any role in the crash of Prigozhin’s plane while Russian state media have blamed Ukraine and Western intelligence agencies. Russian investigators say they are probing the crash, which Pentagon officials believe was caused by an explosion, potentially sabotage.

The rebellion was designed to oust Prigozhin’s nemeses, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, whom the Wagner chief accused of sabotaging his fighters by rationing ammunition as they struggled for months to seize Bakhmut. The fight for the city, which has limited strategic value, cost horrendous casualties, many of them ex-convicts recruited by Prigozhin from prison in exchange for pardons.

Putin called the rebellion a “stab in the back” to the motherland, and described Prigozhin as a traitor, before agreeing to drop insurgency charges and allow Wagner fighters to relocate to Belarus, sign contracts with the Defense Ministry or return home to their families. Most of the convicts were let go after being pardoned by Putin following six months of front-line service.

Putin, who rules as an almost czar-like figure in Russia, allowed the long-running, poisonous dispute between Shoigu and Prigozhin to spill into open conflict — a sign of the president’s remote leadership style.

Shoigu had won Putin’s approval to force Wagner fighters to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, a demand rejected by Prigozhin and his commanders, because it would have ended Wagner’s autonomy. That standoff triggered the rebellion.

Before Prigozhin plane crash, Russia was preparing for life after Wagner

Wagner’s chief of logistics, Valery Chekalov, 47, a key figure in the group’s hierarchy, was the first of the Wagner leaders to be buried at a funeral in the Northern Cemetery in St. Petersburg early on Tuesday afternoon.

Dozens of mourners, many of carrying wreaths, surrounded Chekalov’s coffin at the graveside where a priest presided.

Chekalov was put under sanctions by the United States for his links to Prigozhin and for funneling weapons to Russia. He directed key Prigozhin companies including Evro Polis, which had a contract to guard oil fields for the Syrian government in exchange for a 25 percent share in oil and gas production from the fields, according to the Treasury Department. Chekalov also led Kollektiv-Servis, which held catering contracts with the Russian military.

Utkin and several other top figures killed in the crash were expected to be buried in the coming days, but details on the times and locations were also being kept secret.

Wagner’s future operations are now in doubt, with analysts predicting its remaining lucrative operations in Africa and the Middle East will be gobbled up by pro-Kremlin groups that are likely to be close to the Defense Ministry.

On Tuesday, several hearses and funeral corteges were seen at key locations in St. Petersburg, as local media scrambled to find the location of Prigozhin’s funeral. Later they reported that these appeared to be part of a complex diversionary effort.

Kremlin dismisses speculation it ordered Prigozhin’s death as ‘lies’

Security was tight at the Serafimovskoye cemetery on Tuesday morning with mass gatherings banned, streets around the cemetery blocked off by police, and sniffer dogs sweeping the area, local media reported. Metal detectors were installed at the entrance and police questioned mourners who arrived at the gates. A hearse and black van drew up and entered.

Several officials close to Wagner, including Vasily Vlasov, a member of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Dmitry Gryzlov, son of an ex-Duma speaker, were present at Serafimovskoye cemetery on Tuesday, local media reported. One of Prigozhin’s bodyguards, Sergei Plashchenko, was also spotted there.

Another funeral cortege with three hearses drew up at Beloostrovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, after it was seen earlier at the Manege of the First Cadet Corps, where security guards shooed away journalists and members of the public. One of the vehicles, a black BMW, bore a number plate previously associated with Prigozhin, according to news outlet Fontana.

The Telegram channel VChK-OGPU, known for leaks from Russian security services, reported that the funeral corteges were “red herrings” to sow confusion, adding that Prigozhin’s funeral would be small and private. Ultimately, mourners were advised by Prigozhin’s press service to visit yet another cemetery if they wished to pay respects to the fallen Wagner leader.


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