In 2019, Yevgeny Prigozhin was briefly reported to have died after an An-72 transport plane crashed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The embassy said two Russians had been onboard the plane, which was also carrying members of the DRC’s presidential staff.
The Wagner chief reappeared three days later, however, reports of his death having been greatly exaggerated.
As Prigozhin’s business jet crashed on Wednesday in a likely political assassination, there was again an air of doubt or hesitation to declare that the Kremlin-connected businessman could actually be dead this time.
“There is one huge caveat to the early reporting,” wrote Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow on the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House. “It’s been announced that a passenger by the name of Yevgeniy Prigozhin was onboard. But it is also known that multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels. So until we know for certain that it’s the right Prigozhin, let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa.”
After Prigozhin launched his abortive military uprising against the Kremlin in June, Russian investigators leaked documents from his house showing he held extra passports for possible body doubles who traveled in his name. There were also pictures of Prigozhin wearing various disguises, including heavy beards, aviator sunglasses and foreign military uniforms.
Prigozhin’s own persona as an agent of chaos and media troll has only served as grist for the conspiracy theories: isn’t this all a bit too convenient? Fontanka media on Thursday reported that Prigozhin’s body may have been left too disfigured by the crash and ensuing fire to be identified by normal methods.
“And to disappear forever, having taken one of his many spare passports, a burnt-out airplane is a good way to do it,” wrote one prominent Russian political scientist on social media. “The crows won’t collect the bones, the remains are in ashes, the trail has gone cold.”
“I think it’s absolutely unavoidable that 50% of the population would always be convinced that he just escaped and that was his way out,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and expert on the security services. “This kind of conspiracy theory will always be very popular, especially given his background.”
Telegram channels close to Wagner quickly declared the plane had been downed by a surface-to-air missile fired by the Russian military. Tsargrad, a hardline conservative news agency, said Prigozhin’s jet may have been blown up by a device onboard, which would widen the cast of those who could be behind the crash.
Alexey Venediktov, the well-connected former head of the Echo of Moscow radio station, wrote that while Prigozhin would have been easy to spot entering the Vnukovo-3 airport and going on to the tarmac, it was possible he could have switched to a second plane that took off on Wednesday.
He also posted a poll that showed nearly 60% of readers believed Prigozhin’s plane was either shot down or blown up by a device onboard, and 17% thought he had staged his own death. Only 1% believed the plane crash had been an accident.
Those who appear most convinced of Prigozhin’s death are his own allies and some of his associated media channels.
“Prigozhin died as the result of the actions of Russia’s traitors,” wrote the Grey Zone, a social media outlet close to Wagner. “But even in hell, he’ll be the best! Glory to Russia!”