Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash two months after staging a short-lived mutiny, was on Tuesday laid to rest in a secret ceremony in his native Saint Petersburg.
He was believed to have been buried at the Porokhovskoye cemetery amid heightened security after his firm said a private ceremony had been held for the warlord “in a closed setting”.
The cemetery was cordoned off and access was restricted, but an AFP photographer saw the back of what appeared to be Prigozhin’s fresh grave, which was marked by a wooden cross.
At the burial site, mourners left a framed excerpt from “Nature Morte”, a poem by Soviet poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, which contains the words “dead or alive?”
Prigozhin’s press service only said that a private ceremony had been held for Prigozhin — who held the title of the Hero of Russia, the country’s top honour — at the cemetery located on the northeastern outskirts of Saint Petersburg.
“Yevgeny Viktorovich’s farewell was held in a closed setting. Those wishing to say goodbye can visit the Porokhovskoye cemetery,” his firm said.
Ukrainian officials pointed to the secrecy surrounding the ceremony, suggesting the Kremlin feared possible protests.
“The secret funeral of Wagner ex-chief Prigozhin as an absolute symbol of Putin’s genuine fear,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a political adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on messaging app Telegram.
The funeral appears to draw a curtain on an extraordinary chapter in recent Russian history that saw Prigozhin help lead Moscow’s assaults for cities and towns in eastern Ukraine and challenge Moscow’s leadership.
– ‘Shrouded in secrecy’ –
“The funeral of Prigozhin marked the culmination of a covert operation aimed at his elimination,” wrote political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya.
“Conducted under the strict oversight of the security agencies, the entire process was shrouded in secrecy and involved deceptive tactics.”
Russian authorities said that Prigozhin died in a private jet crash along with nine other people last week.
The spectacular plane crash in the Tver region took place two months after Prigozhin ordered his troops to topple Russia’s military leadership, in what was the most significant challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s authority since he came to power in 2000.
Many military analysts said the downing of Prigozhin’s plane appeared deliberate, with some suggesting it might have been blown out of the sky by a missile and others pointing to a possible bomb.
The Kremlin has dismissed suggestions that it orchestrated the crash in revenge for Wagner’s march on Moscow in June.
But political commentators said that, with next year’s presidential election in Russia approaching fast, Prigozhin had become a huge liability for the Kremlin.
Russian officials opened an investigation into air traffic violations after the crash but have not disclosed details about a possible cause.
– Questions over death –
After the mutiny, Putin accused Prigozhin of treason, but following the crash, the Russian president said that he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s, describing him as a man who made mistakes but “achieved results”.
Putin’s comments did little to stem mounting questions over Prigozhin’s death, with makeshift shrines to the Wagner chief springing up across Russian cities.
The Kremlin said earlier Tuesday that Putin would not attend Prigozhin’s funeral.
“The president’s presence is not envisaged,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The Wagner outfit had taken a prime role in Putin’s offensive in Ukraine, taking on the most dangerous frontline work, as the regular army appeared to falter, while sustaining what Western sources have described as huge losses.
Unlike Russia’s generals, who have been criticised for shirking the battles, the stocky and bald Prigozhin regularly posed for pictures alongside mercenaries allegedly on the front lines.
Prigozhin was allowed to openly recruit for new members in Russian prison camps and savaged Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Prigozhin has been described as a billionaire with a vast fortune built on state contracts, although the extent of his wealth is unknown.
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