“Shades of red kindle the appetite,” Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, a real-estate developer and restaurateur from St. Petersburg told the city’s Time Out magazine in 2009. In the baroque Count Stroganov palace—of beef Stroganov fame—Prigozhin’s then new venue, the restaurant-cum-nightclub Gloss, was the talk of the town. The Pan Asian–themed food was served in a setting of gold canvas ceilings, colossal Ferrari-red chandeliers, and original 18th-century statues of Roman gods looming over Philippe Starck chairs. The restaurant was designed by Prigozhin himself. “It’s a mix of intricate visuals from the past with contemporary luxury; it fits well with the concept of a pre-party venue,” the restaurateur explained somewhat confusingly.

Fourteen years later and roughly a thousand miles south of Gloss, Prigozhin, wearing military fatigues, demands in a rage that the Russian Ministry of Defense provide his mercenaries with the necessary ammunition to capture the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. Behind him, in one of the more disturbing images of an already gruesome war, lay the remains of some of his troops. “I want you to remember that they came here as volunteers,” screams Prigozhin as he points at the corpses. “They died so you can thrive in the luxury of your [government] offices.”

Even the war-crazed Russian hawks, known for rejoicing every time a bomb fell on a hospital in Ukraine, balked at the video. Prigozhin was accused of disrespecting the dead; some even called him a necrophile. It seemed as if nothing was left of the once glamorous restaurateur. But if you overcome the revulsion, turn off the sound, and force yourself to press Play, you’ll see something different. The dozens of mangled bodies, their mismatched uniforms drenched with blood, illuminated by a camera light in the otherwise pitch-black Ukrainian night – this too, is a Prigozhin design. True to his style, even the macabre shade of red dominating this set piece kindled an appetite, albeit one that fits a different concept—Prigozhin’s bloodthirsty hunger for power.

In St. Petersburg, Pregozhin’s pan-Asian/bordello–themed restaurant and bar, Gloss.

The few photos of Prigozhin from his pre-Wagner days show the man as the embodiment of obsequiousness, either graciously presenting Putin with an elaborate dish or pouring wine into the president’s glass. It wouldn’t be surprising that, for Putin, his “chef’s” journey from Gloss to Bakhmut simply means that his personal wine opener is now a personal sledgehammer. But with Putin’s 20-foot tables, a mandatory two-week quarantine required for a handshake, and the most catastrophic war in the history of modern Russia, a question arises: what does a sledgehammer do when its owner loses his grip?

Prigozhin’s political potential remains a mystery. He’s been circling Putin for more than two decades, but few can point to his location on the Kremlin’s power grid. “Prigozhin’s status is overblown,” says Andrey Zakharov, an independent investigative journalist formerly of the BBC. “They paint him as the demon, but he’s nothing more than an imp—Putin’s man for delicate, hybrid tasks.” Prigozhin’s net worth is estimated at a billion dollars—far from what a true Russian oligarch can put on the table. “He’s rich, but his fortune is at the mercy of the Russian state,” says Zakharov.

The Pan Asian–themed food was served in a setting of gold canvas ceilings, colossal Ferrari-red chandeliers, and original 18th-century statues of Roman gods looming over Philippe Starck chairs.

Prigozhin has never been elected or even appointed to a government office; he flirted with politics but never joined any party; and his name is barely heard on Russian TV. Even the Wagner Group—Prigozhin’s most powerful asset—relies on the army for weapons and is widely believed to be controlled by military intelligence. “Wagners are mercenaries,” notes Zakharov. “The moment Prigozhin’s bank account is frozen—they’re gone.”

In the few interviews that he gave before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin said, again and again, that he loves being a servant to Putin. I remember how, over a decade ago, a Kremlin-linked person, fresh from a meeting with Prigozhin, told me how surprised he was when Prigozhin reiterated the “servant” line, word for word.

Prigozhin takes Putin on a tour of a school-lunch facility in St. Petersburg in 2010. Prigozhin was indicted by American prosecutors for his involvement in interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Yevgeny Prigozhin opened his first restaurant, the dimly lit Old Customs House, in 1996, at the height of St. Petersburg’s mafia wars. In those days, the lifeless bodies of mobsters, government officials, and bankers (you could barely tell them apart) were featured on the evening news with the consistency of a weather forecast. Referencing the 1920s, the city was nicknamed St. Chicago.

It was the year when Anatoly Sobchak, the city’s first post-Soviet mayor known for his refined demeanor, eloquence, and corruption, lost his re-election bid. Without a powerful patron, and with elbows deep in the mayor’s criminal dealings, Sobchak’s deputy, Vladimir Putin, fled to Moscow—lest he, too, become a segment on the local news.

The Old Customs House was envisioned as St. Petersburg’s first haute cuisine establishment, serving oysters and foie gras to those lucky enough not to get whacked. Prigozhin even hired a former manager of London’s Savoy to up the prestige. To his dismay, there was little interest in French delicacies at the time. In a 2008 interview, the restaurateur confessed that the venue was empty for the first couple of months: “We cooked something new every day, but nobody came.”

Prigozhin’s political potential remains a mystery. He’s been circling Putin for more than two decades, but few can point to his location on the Kremlin’s power grid.

In a move worthy of a casino owner, Prigozhin had a stripper pole placed in the middle of the fine-dining restaurant, with round-the-clock exotic dancers to compliment the escargots. Before long, the place was brimming with gangsters and burly municipal apparatchiks talking kickbacks over vodka-fueled lunches of oysters and foie gras.

The restaurant business became an expression of Prigozhin’s marketing genius. No matter who you were in St. Petersburg, you could always find a Prigozhin spot that catered to your taste, status, and budget. Known for its exorbitant prices, overt czarist nostalgia, and solid-gold utensils, the Russian Empire, the restaurant he opened in 2004, was a lavish establishment that catered to diplomats and high-ranking F.S.B. officers visiting from Moscow.

Russian Kitsch, a favorite with the coked-up jeunesse dorée of the city, had an opulent gold-and-leopard-skin décor and more Porsches in its parking lot than all of the city’s dealerships combined. In keeping with less heady times, in 2016 Prigozhin turned Russian Kitsch into a hipster burger joint called Street Food Bar № 1. (That was the café that was blown up by pro-Ukraine forces on April 2, killing an ultra-nationalist Russian military blogger and wounding at least 25 others.)

Back in the day, If you didn’t have an F.S.B. badge or a diplomatic passport, and your method of transportation was a marshrutka—a van-based shared taxi with the survival rate of a Russian tank in Ukraine—Prigozhin still had you covered. There was BlinDonalt’s, a fast-food chain offering blinis, borscht, and kielbasa sandwiches at single-digit prices. This was Prigozhin’s attempt to counter the popularity of McDonald’s and, it seemed, Western culture in general. Coming years before Russified knockoffs replaced Western chains, it was BlinDonalt’s, with its slogan “Tasty, Russian, Fresh,” that pioneered the concept of fast-food nationalism.

By way of disclosure, when I was a student, Gloss was my go-to spot for first dates. I still ask myself if the numerous mai tais I consumed while trying to impress French-literature majors with my superficial knowledge of Arthur Rimbaud count as financing terrorism.

In a move worthy of a casino owner, Prigozhin had a stripper pole placed in the middle of the fine-dining restaurant.

Though now known for razing entire cities to the ground, Yevgeny Prigozhin had a distinct passion for prime real estate. In a 1983 interview for The New York Times, Donald Trump was quoted as saying hyperbolically, “I have the best diamonds in the city of New York as far as location.” In St. Petersburg, some of the best gems belonged to Prigozhin. His restaurants are often located in UNESCO World Heritage sites. His offices, situated along the prestigious University Embankment, are steps away from the city’s oldest palace, with Prigozhin enjoying the same view as Peter the Great.

Much like his carroty New York counterpart, Prigozhin lives in a faux palace—a gated community of 49 baroque mansions in a nature reserve outside St. Petersburg called the Northern Versailles. The project’s description reads like a ChatGPT version of Trump selling a penthouse to Potemkin—or vice versa:

The best ideas of Louis XIV and Peter the Great found their embodiment in the unique palatial and garden ensemble of Northern Versailles. As an embodiment of the ideal residence, the palace captivates the minds of the 21st century. More than any other dwelling, a palace speaks of its owner’s selectiveness, wealth, and power, representing his tastes. The nobility always yearned for nature—residences that aligned with their discerning tastes, far away from the city, with its politics and envious individuals.

In a video from early May, Prigozhin, standing in a field of dead soldiers killed in Bakhmut, accuses the Russian military command of starving his Wagner mercenary troops of ammunition and supplies.

The Stroganov family, whose real estate is now in Prigozhin’s possession, started as merchants. Over the years, they used their immense wealth to finance Ivan the Terrible’s 16th-century wars of conquest; their private army annexed lands for the czar and became his ruthless enforcers. Prigozhin, himself a resident of Northern Versailles, viewed himself as nobility.

But just like the merchant Stroganovs, Prigozhin, a regional restaurateur and megalomaniac developer, needed a title, and only the current “czar” could grant him one. But it wasn’t Prigozhin’s culinary breakthroughs, such as adding caviar and lobster meat to the pickle-laden Russian salad, or offering a lump of foie gras swimming in mushroom soup, that earned him the title of “Putin’s chef.” His signature dish for the Russian elites was Prigozhin himself.

“He has a great feel for people, and he’s incredibly charming,” says an acquaintance of Prigozhin’s. “His jokes may be crude, but he’s funny. Hang out with him once, and you’ll walk away thinking, ‘What a great guy!’”

Prigozhin’s charms got him a seat at the table, and in a short time he was reaping the benefits. Concord, his umbrella company, won the bids to supply meals for Moscow’s public schools and the entire Russian military. Soon, Prigozhin went international: he became the primary contractor for Russia’s hybrid of international meddling and cyber-warfare, with millions pumped into his Internet Research Agency, a.k.a. the Russian troll farm that interfered in U.S. elections (Prigozhin was indicted by American prosecutors for his involvement), the Wagner paramilitary outfit, and his “business ventures” in Africa and the Middle East.

These operations, though, however crucial for Putin’s anti-Western agenda, did little for Prigozhin’s political status at home. In the M. C. Escher painting that is Russia’s structure of power, one can spend decades climbing up the Kremlin’s ladders only to end up in a political basement. At the same time, a deputy mayor such as Putin can become president in 48 months. For all his victories in Syria and Central Africa, and in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Prigozhin lost most of the battles he waged against the career politicians—Putin’s Brioni-clad troops.

“For Yevgeny, bureaucracy means the opposite of getting things done,” recalls a person who worked with Prigozhin on several projects. “His style is very hands-on: you come to him with an idea, and if he likes it, it’s ‘I’ll call such-and-such; let’s make this happen.’”

In St. Petersburg, this wasn’t the way business was done. Local elites detested Prigozhin. He was a brazen ex-convict who tended to go over their heads and phone Moscow whenever he needed a favor. Before long, Prigozhin found himself at war with his hometown. Chief among his enemies was the city’s governor, the bland apparatchik Alexander Beglov. Prigozhin’s company Concord lost every bid to feed the city’s schools. Local media outlets called him a bandit, and the city’s security services overtly hinted at having a hefty dossier on the man.

Much like his carroty New York counterpart, Prigozhin lives in a faux palace—a gated community of 49 baroque mansions.

When Prigozhin’s motorcade was pulled over by the police, with the embarrassing footage immediately leaked to the press, it became clear that Beglov was sending a message: this is what happens when you refuse to play ball.

Prigozhin, desperate to end the hostilities, asked the powerful Kovalchuk brothers (Putin’s equivalent to the Koch brothers) to act as mediators. A road map for peace was soon on the table. Beglov was facing re-election in a city where he was wildly unpopular. At the same time, his administration announced a billion-dollar plan to urbanize Gorskaya—a vast industrial area outside the city. The road map was simple: Prigozhin gets Beglov elected, and Beglov gets Prigozhin the contract to build Gorskaya.

If Prigozhin were to write a book on political campaigns, he could call it The Art of the Kill. Here is a typical recipe of Prigozhin’s for getting someone elected. A dictator/warlord in an impoverished African state with abundant natural resources is facing a group of rebels (or democracy activists) that threaten his wealth and physical well-being. Prigozhin offers to help, and soon Wagner’s mercenaries are wiping out entire villages and rebel strongholds with the kind of weapons—and brutality—that makes any resistance futile. When the “dirty” stage of the campaign comes to an end, Prigozhin’s political operatives—linguists and policy majors fresh out of college—go in and take care of the narrative. The dictator stays in power, with Wagner’s men setting up a base in the country as his security force. In return, Prigozhin gets a sizable chunk of the country’s natural resources.

St. Petersburg was a different operation. Known for his gangster demeanor, African-warlord clientele, and a propensity to adorn everything he touched with neo-Roman frescoes and stripper poles, Putin’s chef seemed like an odd choice to convince the city of Dostoyevsky to vote for Beglov. But with a billion-dollar development project on the table, Prigozhin went all in. He hired hundreds of spin doctors, pollsters, and experts in urban planning to make Beglov—a man with the charms of a dormant moth—the city’s belle of the ball.

Prigozhin’s Patriot Media Group, the Russian version of One America News, used to run articles criticizing Beglov. In a matter of days, its narrative changed. Even the troll factory had to work overtime: on top of trying to convince Americans that Hillary was the Devil, they had to convince Russians that Beglov was a godsend. Prigozhin personally controlled the campaign.

“He has a great feel for people, and he’s incredibly charming,” says an acquaintance of Prigozhin’s. “His jokes may be crude, but he’s funny.

“The first time I met Yevgeny,” recounts a former political adviser, “it felt as if in front of me sat a Tyrannosaurus rex, which was extracted from the depths of the Siberian permafrost, thawed, dressed in a suit, and put in a boardroom. I thought to myself: he’s not supposed to be here, in the 21st century, listening to a bunch of Ph.D.’s explain the nuances of municipal politics. But whenever the dinosaur spoke, his message was unequivocal: Fuck evolution; I’m here.”

Beglov won the election. Quoted as having spent more than $30 million on the campaign, Prigozhin, it seemed, finally had the keys to the city—and a lucrative contract to go with it. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the governor’s office and Prigozhin’s construction company, with the formal agreement to develop Gorskaya scheduled to be signed at the 2022 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Prigozhin installed a massive display on the forum’s grounds: Gorskaya was to become the city’s premier I.T. hub, co-working space, museum cluster, and festival venue. All he needed was the governor’s signature. In the middle of the nation’s premier economic forum, in a highly publicized move, Beglov in June signed the Gorskaya contract with a different company—one that was linked with his nephew. For Prigozhin, already a noted commander in Ukraine, it was a public humiliation. This stroke of a pen cemented Prigozhin’s disdain for the system; he scratched their back, and they stabbed his.

Last October, workers put the final touches on Prigozhin’s “PMC Wagner Center,” which offers free workspaces for inventors, project developers, I.T. specialists, and defense start-ups.
Prigozhin offers to help, and soon, Wagner’s mercenaries are wiping out entire villages and rebel strongholds.

Humiliated by the loss of the construction contract, Prigozhin launched a hate campaign against Beglov: his trolls spread calls for anti-government rallies, and he even accused Beglov of being an agent for Ukraine’s armed forces. It was a sight all too familiar—a megalomaniac real-estate developer losing to a career politician and demanding that he be locked up. Still, Beglov kept his job.

“He’s unstable,” says a person about his former boss’s mental condition. “There were two ways he’d start a meeting: If he walks into the room, and his first words are ‘So, what’s up?’ it means he’s in a good mood, and you’re safe. If the first word is ‘Well?’—there’s nowhere to hide. He would throw things at people; he could beat up his driver for taking a wrong turn. With a temper like his, it’s a mystery Prigozhin can manage a business.”

“You want to talk about Prigozhin’s political influence?” asks Zakharov. “Let’s imagine he’s a figure so powerful he’s second only to Putin. So why can’t this man with a private army deal with a regional governor? Because he’s a troll: all talk and no bite.”

Prigozhin’s favorite band, a folk-punk collective called Leningrad, are stadium-level trolls. Popular with the bohemian crowd in their early years, Leningrad struck gold when they made their protagonist an office worker whose protest against “the man” consisted of cursing, beer, and irreverence toward the system. One of their hit songs even had the lyrics “Elections, elections, all the candidates are bastards.” An acquaintance of Prigozhin’s told me that Putin’s chef blasts Leningrad on his way to work.

Prigozhin, with his anti-Establishment views, incessant conflicts with local and military officials, and lack of coverage on TV, doesn’t have a place in Putin’s political system. So what he did was to build a political system of his own. The war is tearing Russia apart, but not along the lines that many in the West hoped for. Most of the population supports the bloody endeavor. They’re just divided on how it’s being carried out. There’s Putin, “the Bunker Grandpa,” a paranoid man in a suit who is seemingly unaware of his army’s staggering losses. His loyal servants boast of nonexistent victories, even as waves of Ukrainian U.A.V.’s strike Moscow.

In their speeches, Russian officials call the West a satanic cult, and Ukraine a joke, and its president a drug-addicted clown. Typical Leningrad fans ate up this sort of talk pre-invasion, but with the war in its second year, it’s becoming clear to them that the Kremlin exists in a parallel universe.

When Gloss opened its doors, in 2009, almost 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prigozhin understood that Russians needed to feel the Soviet Union was finally gone. They too now had excellent food, loud music, and large chandeliers. In 2023, Russia yearns for a different Kremlin, and it would be a mistake to say that Prigozhin has lost his touch. True to his style, he lobbies many crowds at once. No matter where you stand on the Ukraine invasion, there’s a video of Prigozhin that caters to you.

For the Russian audience, he’s there, in Bakhmut, the sound of artillery shells in the background of his videos. He’s wearing a uniform fitting for a commander who just captured a city. Russian propaganda rarely shows casualties, but Prigozhin makes a point, often repulsive, of showing the graves, corpses, and his wounded troops. He spares no words in his hatred of the Russian military and political establishment. His words echo the popular sentiment that Russia is losing because of nepotism and corruption. To his countrymen, he’s one of the people, a man who tells it like it is.

Prigozhin stands over the coffins of an American and a Turkish volunteer who fought for Ukraine: he said he would return the American’s body to the U.S. with respect.

For Ukraine, his message is different: he praises their army and even addresses Volodymyr Zelensky in a Russian but respectful manner, as Vladimir Oleksandrovych. Recently, he suggested that the war should end, and what is now the front should become the country’s national borders.

Standing in a wine cellar in Bakhmut, Prigozhin points to the rows of intact bottles of sparkling wine. The city was once famous for it. “What governments take from each other, it’s their business,” says the man who razed Bakhmut to the ground, “but private property is sacred. Every bottle here is accounted for and will be sent to its rightful owner.” He’s not a Putin, who’s ideologically bent on destruction; he’s a businessman looking to make a deal.

And for America, the country which, per Russian TV, should be nuked, Prigozhin’s message is a visually striking one. Towering over a coffin with the body of an American volunteer fighter killed in Bakhmut, Prigozhin watches as an American flag is carefully placed on top of it. “We will return him to the United States. We will lay him in a coffin and cover it with the American flag. With respect, because he didn’t die in his bed but was killed in a war.”

As political analysts parse Prigozhin’s curse-laden attacks on the Russian elite, questioning his ambitions—and chances of survival—in a system that serves polonium-laced tea for much lesser offenses, they seem to be missing the fact that Prigozhin’s campaign is in full swing.

Who is Mr. Prigozhin? “An incredibly greedy businessman who claims he’s a patriot fighting for Russia,” says Zakharov. Pausing momentarily, he adds, “But more than anything else, Prigozhin is driven by narcissism.”

His campaign has been building for years. The abundance of gold, tapestries, murals, fits of rage, and statues of Roman gods; the gilded restaurants, lack of empathy, a nostalgia for better times, and a talent for being the life of the party; the baroque palaces, human-wave assaults, and the neo-imperial dishes served at his venues: these are the tokens of ambition of a sociopathic megalomaniac bent on destroying the system that called him a joke. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s campaign slogan, although unannounced, is clear: Make Russia Great Again.

Andrew Ryvkin is a screenwriter, journalist, and Russian-affairs specialist