At memorials for Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died exactly 40 days ago in an unexplained plane crash, dozens of mourners hailed the mutinous mercenary chief as a patriotic hero of Russia who had spoken truth to power.
The private Embraer plane on which Prigozhin traveled to St. Petersburg crashed north of Moscow on August 23, killing all 10 people on board, including two other top Wagner figures, Prigozhin’s four bodyguards and a crew of three.
It is still unclear what caused the plane to crash two months after Prigozhin’s failed mutiny. The Kremlin said on August 30 that investigators were considering the possibility that the plane had been shot down on purpose.
At his grave in the former imperial capital of St. Petersburg, his mother, Violetta, and his son, Pavel, laid flowers. Supporters waved Wagner’s black flags with a skull and the motto “Blood, Honor, Motherland, Courage.”
In Eastern Orthodoxy, it is believed that the soul makes its final journey to heaven or hell on the 40th day after death.
At memorials in Moscow and other Russian cities, dozens of Wagner fighters and ordinary Russians paid their respects, though there was no mass outpouring of grief. Russian state television was silent.
“He can be criticized for certain events, but he was a patriot who defended the interests of the Motherland on several continents,” Wagner’s recruiting department said in a statement on Telegram.
“He was charismatic and, most importantly, he was close to the fighters and the people. And that is why he became popular both in Russia and abroad,” the report said.
Prigozhin’s mutiny posed the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s rule since the former KGB spy came to power in 1999. Western diplomats say it has exposed the pressure on Russia over the war in Ukraine.
After months of insulting Putin’s top brass with profanity and prison language over their perceived inability to properly conduct the war in Ukraine, Prigozhin took control of the southern city of Rostov at the end of June.
Its fighters shot down a number of Russian aircraft, killing their pilots, and advanced towards Moscow before turning back 200 km (125 mi) from the capital.
Putin initially cast Prigozhin as a traitor whose mutiny could have plunged Russia into civil war, although he later struck a deal with him to defuse the crisis.
Mourners spoke of respect for Prigozhin.
“He was a real authority, a leader,” Mikhail, a soldier in the Russian armed forces who declined to give his middle name, told Reuters.
Marta, a Moscow resident who also declined to give her last name, said people believed in Prigozhin, but Wagner was “decapitated” by the deaths of him and co-founder Dmitry Utkin.
“The hope of justice died with him,” she said. “People believed in him.”
Pro-Wagner groups posted a video of Prigozhin flying to Mali, where after a thunderstorm he met a high-ranking commander known by his call sign “Lotus” – Anton Yelizarov – who now reportedly heads the group.
Opponents such as the United States view Wagner as a ruthless crime group that plundered African states and meted out sledgehammer deaths to those who challenged it.
Putin met one of the highest-ranking former commanders of the Wagner mercenary group on Friday and discussed how best to deploy “volunteer units” in the war in Ukraine.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)