No, Yevgeny Prigozhin Didn’t Suddenly Come Back From the Dead

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Nearly a year has passed since Russia’s notorious mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a fiery plane crash widely seen as a Kremlin-sanctioned hit, but “sightings” of the dead warlord keep making waves.

The latest, circulated by Wagner-linked social media channels earlier this week, centered on a blurry photograph of a middle-aged white man spotted wearing jeans and a blue button-up shirt in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, where Russian mercenaries have long had a foothold.

“Witnesses inform that in Africa they supposedly saw Prigozhin! He was supposedly present to lay flowers for Dmitry Utkin,” one pro-Wagner Telegram channel declared. Attached was a 22-second video from a ceremony marking the 54th birthday of Utkin, the neo-Nazi commander from whom the group got its name who was killed alongside Prigozhin in the crash in Russia’s Tver region last August. Members of the republic’s armed forces could be seen lining up to lay flowers at a monument while a man vaguely matching Prigozhin’s description stood in the background.

“In Africa while flowers were laid [for Utkin], they noticed a person resembling Yevgeny Prigozhin,” another Wagner-linked channel claimed.

The video reignited wild rumors that the ex-convict turned mercenary boss had somehow staged his own death, with Wagner fanatics celebrating the supposed proof of life.

“Yevgeny Viktorovich, stop giving yourself away,” one commentator quipped. Another proclaimed that “Prigozhin is still alive, I’m sure of it.”

The latest supposed sighting came just a few weeks after a similar video circulated in late May, this time from the Republic of Chad, with apparently the same stocky-looking man described as possibly being Prigozhin back from the dead due to his “manner, gestures, gait and overall appearance.” Conveniently, his face is either blurred or never fully within view of the camera.

Relatives of Wagner mercenaries, likewise, have run rampant with speculation that Prigozhin is still alive in private chats. In one recent exchange in a Telegram group for Wagner families, a woman said Prigozhin’s death came after she’d prayed to God for him to be “punished” for using prison inmates as cannon fodder. But some who responded corrected her, suggesting it was unwise to believe he was really dead: “We’ll see who is right and who is not. If Prigozhin is alive or not.”

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“I think he’s alive, it’s just a matter of time when he’ll resurface,” another woman wrote.

Russia’s handling of the investigation into the crash that killed both Prigozhin and Utkin has not helped matters. The Kremlin refused to allow an international probe into the disaster on board the Brazilian-made Embraer jet when Brazil’s aircraft investigation authority offered one last year. Vladimir Putin then claimed Russian investigators had found grenade fragments in the bodies of the dead passengers, and perhaps to further muddy the waters, lamented that toxicology tests had not been done to check those on board for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

Russian investigators have not revealed their final conclusions, if they are in fact attempting to make any. In the interim, Wagner has been able to capitalize on the mystery surrounding Prigozhin’s final moments.

And perhaps that’s the point.

“In part, there is a genuine sense of loss amongst the ‘turbo-patriots’ who hung onto Prigozhin’s coattails, and an eagerness to believe he could still be around. But there is also the cynical pursuit of clicks by outlets which monetize themselves through engagement; there is still considerable interest in everything to do with Prigozhin, amongst both those who revere and those who despise him,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security issues and author of a new book about Prigozhin, Downfall, co-written with Russian-American journalist Anna Arutunyan.

“Keeping the myth alive is good business!” Galeotti told The Daily Beast.

Sean McFate, an expert on mercenaries and professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said it’s possible Prigozhin’s trolls are “spreading rumors and/or some of his mercenaries are.”

“If Prigozhin is alive, I doubt he would be hanging out in Africa. More likely on a yacht somewhere,” McFate said. “It’s hard to know for sure about Prigozhin’s death since the Kremlin prevented third parties from confirming it.”

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