ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) -Followers of mutinous Russian mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin laid flowers, messages and poetry at his grave on Wednesday, hailing him as a fearless warrior after he was killed along with his inner circle in a yet-to-be-explained plane crash.
Prigozhin was buried at the Porokhovskoye cemetery in his home town of St Petersburg on Tuesday away from the glare of the publicity he had courted so ardently in life, after leading his fighters on a dash towards Moscow before turning back.
A man wearing the shirt of his Wagner mercenaries and a cap bearing the Russian flag was among those paying respects at the grave, where red roses and carnations graced a wooden Orthodox cross lablled “Prigozhin, Yevgeny Viktorovich 1961 – 2023”.
One tribute beside flowers read: “To be a warrior is to live forever.”
“It is a big loss for Russia,” said Sergei Abeltsev, a former Russian lawmaker, who visited the grave. “We will feel that loss only later – as always – the realisation of the loss will only come later.”
The private jet on which Prigozhin was travelling to St Petersburg from Moscow crashed north of Moscow killing all 10 people on board on Aug. 23, including Prigozhin, top Wagner commanders, his bodyguards and a crew of three.
The cause is still unclear, but villagers near the scene told Reuters they heard a bang and then saw the jet plummet to the ground.
The plane crashed exactly two months since Prigozhin took control of the southern city of Rostov in late June, the opening salvo of a mutiny which shook the foundations of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In life, Prigozhin liked to brag that he was one of the world’s most feared mercenaries with the best fighting force.
Opponents such as the United State cast Prigozhin as a brutal commander who plundered African states and meted out sledehammer deaths to those who crossed him.
Though he won the bloodiest battle yet of the Ukraine war for Putin by capturing Bakhmut, Prigozhin became enraged with what he said were the treacherous failings of Putin’s military – and warned that Russia could lose the entire Ukraine war.
After months of insulting Putin’s top brass with a variety of expletives and prison slang over their perceived failures, Prigozhin marched towards Moscow before turning back 200 km (125 miles) from the capital.
Prigozhin said he simply wanted to settle scores with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, though he also dissected the very justification behind the Ukraine war.
Putin initially cast Prigozhin as a traitor whose mutiny could have tipped Russia into civil war, though he later did a deal with him to defuse the crisis.
The day after the crash, Putin sent his condolences to the families of those killed and said he had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the chaotic years of the early 1990s.
“He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life,” Putin said, while describing him as a talented businessman.
Before the mutiny, Prigozhin had quipped that his nickname should have been “Putin’s butcher” rather than “Putin’s chef” – a moniker acquired after his catering company won Kremlin contracts.
He said he always professed loyalty to Putin, while branding Shoigu as so incompetent he should executed for his treachery. Shoigu has not responded in public to those insults.
The Kremlin has rejected as an “absolute lie” the suggestion by some Western politicians and commentators – for which they have not provided evidence – that Putin ordered Prigozhin to be killed in revenge.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said he was not surprised by the death and that not much happened in Russia that Putin was not behind.
After Prigozhin’s death, Putin ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state – a step that Prigozhin had opposed due to his anger at the defence ministry that he said risked losing the Ukraine war.
A picture of Prigozhin frowning and the text of Joseph Brodsky’s “Nature Morte” lay on the freshly dug ground of his grave.
“You are nailed to the cross. How will I go home?” the excerpt of the poem said. “Dead or alive – there are no differences.”
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Philippa Fletcher)