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As you may have heard, there appears to be a coup underway in Russia right now. And as is typical with coups from the dawn of time, the side performing the coup is a once-loyal military faction led by a General who has lost faith in the current political regime. In today’s coup, the General is a guy named Yevgeny Prigozhin. Yevgeny Prigozhin is able to pay for his private military force, the Wagner group, because he is a billionaire. How did Yevgeny become a billionaire? Since this is Russia, you might assume he controls an oil, gas or fertilizer empire. That’s not the case. Yevgeny Prigozhin earned his billion-dollar fortune as a caterer. But not just any caterer, for the last two decades, Yevgeny Prigozhin has been essentially the Russian government’s exclusive catering contractor for everything, from school lunches to prison food. Yevgeny’s nickname is literally, “Putin’s Chef.” And it all started from a hot dog stand.
From Flea Market Hot Dog Stand To Billionaire
Yevgeny Prigozhin was born on June 1, 1961 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His father died when he was very young. In high school he had aspirations to become a professional cross-country skier and even earned a scholarship to a prestigious school to focus on the sport. He graduated from that school in 1977 but as it turned out, being a professional cross-country skier wasn’t a lucrative career path. So he began dabbling in petty crime
In 1979, when he was 18, Yevgeny was arrested for theft. He got off with a warning. He did not heed that warning. In 1981 he was arrested for robbery and fraud and ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison. He served nine years.
Upon being released in 1990, Russia was in a very precarious state. The Berlin Wall had fallen a year earlier, and by the end of 1991 the USSR would dissolve entirely. The Russian economy was always in shambles but in 1990 it was in a free-fall. There weren’t exactly a lot of great jobs for an uneducated convicted criminal.
Yevgeny took the only job he could find: Along with his mother and stepfather, Yevgeny pooled what little money they had and started a hot dog stand. They operated the stand just outside of a flea market.
The hot dog stand turned out to be a successful cash-generating business. As the Soviet Union Collapsed over the next 12 months, Yevgeny seized every opportunity to level-up that he could. For example, he provided some startup cash to help a former classmate, Boris Spektor, launch the first private grocery store chain in Saint Petersburg. Yevgeny owned 15% and also appointed himself the store manager. Soon they had a dozen locations.
Next, Yevgeny and Boris launched a chain of casinos. The first casinos in Saint Petersburg.
They also operated a high-end restaurant. Yevgeny served as head chef. One of their frequent customers in 1995 was the recently-elected Deputy Mayor of Saint Petersburg. That person’s name was…
Putin loved Yevgeny’s food so much that he literally made him the official caterer for the St. Petersburg government.
Through a series of events that no one at the CIA predicted and seemed to have come out of nowhere, just five years later Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia. And when Putin took up residence in Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin followed along.
Now Yevgeny Prigozhin and his business, Concord Catering, were the official catering contractor of the government of Russia. In addition to catering all official state meals, Concord Catering provided food for school lunches, food for the military and food for the prison system. If you were a dignitary who attended the 2013 G20 summit in Russia, your meals were provided by Concord. If you attended the 2014 Sochi Olympics, you ate mostly Concord Catering food in the Olympic Village. Over the decades Concord has reportedly received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government contracts just in the food services industry. In just a single contract, Concord reportedly earned $1.2 billion to provide meals for the Russian military for a year.
And Concord’s government contracts have not been limited to food services. Concord won contracts to build (and then manage) housing developments. It has interests in mining, media and security.
His best-known media interest is called the Internet Research Agency. This organization allegedly operates countless troll farms with the intention of supporting the Russian government and interfering in other country’s politics.
His security company eventually morphed into a private military force called…
The Wagner Group
The Wagner Group has been involved in a number of conflicts around the world, including in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic. The group has been accused of human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. The group has been accused of deliberately targeting civilians, using child soldiers, and committing torture. In 2022, the United States government designated the Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organization.”
The Wagner Group has been on the front lines of the war in Ukraine. In addition to using its own mercenary forces, Wagner has recruited potentially hundreds of thousands of prisoners from Russia to fight in exchange for a pardon after 6 months of service. They have reportedly recruited murderers, rapists and child molesters.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Fortune
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s exact fortune is extremely hard to peg, but it is generally understood that he is a billionaire. Perhaps even a multi-billionaire. He is known to personally own a fleet of private jets, including two Cessna 182s, a Hawker 800XP and an Embraer Legacy 600. He is known to own at least one yacht, measuring 115 feet, and a compound in Saint Petersburg that has a large sports court, resort-style pool and helicopter pad.
Yevgeny is a married man. His wife Lyubov owns the Chocolate Museum in Saint Petersburg and a day spa. They have a daughter and a son. His mother is the legal “owner” of Concord, the catering business that built the family fortune.
Yevgeny and most of his family members are sanctioned by the United States, Ukraine and the European Union.