The Justice Department’s special counsel Friday indicted a group of Russian Internet trolls, accusing them of running a years-long scheme to illegally meddle with the 2016 presidential election by using social media to bolster then-Republican candidate Donald Trump’s chance at winning and hurt that of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Among the 13 Russians charged is Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, an oligarch and financial backer of the troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, according to Russian media. He is a caterer who has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his proximity to the Russian president. According to The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Sari Horwitz and Rosalind S. Helderman, Prigozhin is linked to two of the three Russian businesses also named in the indictment, Concord Consulting and Concord Catering.
Here’s what else we know about Prigozhin:
• He had a shot at a cross-country skiing career
Prigozhin was born in 1961 in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. He graduated from a sports-focused boarding school in 1977 and tried to make it as a champion cross-country skier, according to the online news website Meduza.
But his skiing career fell apart in 1981, when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for robbery, fraud and involving minors in prostitution, Meduza reported. Prigozhin served nine years and was freed in 1990, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Around that time, Prigozhin briefly returned to skiing, by working as a ski trainer at an athletics school in Leningrad, according to Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper known for its critical coverage of the Kremlin. The newspaper also reported that Prigozhin in 1990 studied at the Leningrad Chemical and Pharmaceutical Institute — now the Saint Petersburg State Chemical Pharmaceutical Academy — but was expelled.
• His first foray into business was a hot-dog stand
In the 1990s, Prigozhin opened a fast-food cafe, which was followed by a series of food marts and upscale restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow. One St. Petersburg restaurant, Staraya Tamozhnya — or “The Old Customs House” — is touted as one of the oldest restaurants in the city on its website. He unveiled it in 1996, and it was soon frequented by high-ranking officials, including Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin told a Russian magazine called Elite Society in 2008. It was a restaurant, Prigozhin said, that offered Russians something new and different from boring “cutlets with vodka.”
In 1998, he opened the New Island Restaurant on a boat, which one tourism website calls “St. Petersburg’s only floating luxury Restaurant-Ship.” Putin dined there with French President Jacques Chirac in 2001 and with President George W. Bush in 2002. Putin even celebrated his birthday there one year, according to Meduza. Prigozhin made an impression on Putin, who was charmed by his rags-to-riches story and welcomed him as “one of the boys,” Meduza reported.
Prigozhin founded Concord Catering in 1996, and over the years began feeding Moscow children and eventually the Russian military. Putin attended the 2010 opening of Prigozhin’s food factory outside St. Petersburg, designed to supply food to schools, according to Meduza.
But parents began to protest the factory in 2011 for providing students with processed food packed with preservatives. So Prigozhin turned to Moscow, where he won school catering contracts worth more than 10 billion rubles, or $177 million, Meduza reported.
His career peaked in 2012, when Prigozhin was awarded a two-year contract worth $1.6 billion to source more than 90 percent of all food orders for Russian soldiers. Since then, Prigozhin, described by the Anti-Corruption Foundation as man whose only merits were “his cooking and Putin’s trust,” signed several state contracts totaling at least $3.1 billion.
He is linked to the oil industry as well, as Prigozhin’s companies are reported to have received a percentage of Syria’s oil revenue in exchange for protecting its oil fields from ISIS.
• His family has lived a life of luxury
With the lucrative contracts came a boost in Prigozhin’s social and political status, which he and his family embraced. In letters, Prigozhin called himself an adviser to the presidential administration, and a knight of the “For Merit to the Fatherland” order, according to Meduza, which reported that there is no official record of him being granted the title.
The New York Times reported:
Delovoy Peterburg, an independent daily newspaper published in St. Petersburg, listed him last year as ranking 83rd among the city’s 304 ruble billionaires, with 11 billion rubles, or almost $200 million. The newspaper included only property in the public record, said Irina Pankratova, an investigative reporter. If all property linked to him had been counted, she said, he would rank in the top 5.
Details of the family’s wealth have been revealed through his grown children’s Instagram accounts, which have recently become private after the Anti-Corruption Foundation published screenshots of photos they had posted.
Those photos show the family’s private jet and a 115-foot yacht, which Prigozhin’s daughter, Polina, described as having six bedrooms, a living room, a terrace, a dining room, a kitchen, a personnel cabin and two decks. One photo shows Prigozhin’s son, Pavel, posing naked on the deck. The foundation flew a drone over the family’s property outside St. Petersburg, which revealed Prigozhin’s and his daughter’s mansions, a helicopter pad and a full basketball court.
• He denies any involvement with troll farms
The Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, was named in the indictment as the force behind efforts to trick Americans online into following and sharing Russian-fed propaganda during the 2016 election.
As The Post’s Barrett, Horwitz and Helderman reported:
The indictment charges that the Russian efforts began in 2014, when three of the Russian conspirators visited a total of 10 states, gathering intelligence about U.S. politics. Officials say as the operation progressed, the suspects also engaged in extensive online conversations with Americans who became unwitting tools of the Russian efforts. The indictment does not accuse the Russian government of involvement in the scheme, nor does it claim that it succeeded in swaying any votes.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said the suspects “allegedly conducted what they called ‘information warfare against the United States,’ with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
The suspects, Rosenstein said, “took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists.”
According to the indictment, Prigozhin met regularly in 2015 and 2016 with Mikhail I. Bystrov, a leader of the Internet Research Agency, about Project Lakhta, a broad-based effort to meddle with the American election.
Prigozhin has denied his involvement with the troll farm.
“The Americans are very impressionable people, and they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency in response to the indictment. “I respect them very much.”
In regard to the list of indicted individuals, he added: “I am not at all disappointed that I appear in this list. If they want to see the devil — let them.”