This article originally appeared on Meduza, an independent Russian- and English-language news website, based in Riga, Latvia. It was founded in 2014 by a group of former employees of the then independent news website Lenta.ru.
Bylines by Elizaveta Antonova and Svetlana Reiter
The mutiny of PMC Wagner failed: on the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenaries returned to their field camps. The businessman himself – according to Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko – is leaving for Belarus. Now it is not clear what will happen to his assets. These include the media business which Prigozhin has been building up for at least 10 years. Former and current employees of Prigozhin’s media have told Meduza what is happening to the businessman’s propaganda publications.
What kind of media empire has Prigozhin built (and how big is it)
The story of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media business began in St. Petersburg in 2013, when the so-called “troll factory” appeared.
Employees of the “factory” are professional supporters of power on the payroll. From specially created fake accounts on social networks, they write comments in support of the authorities, criticise the opposition and promote “patriotic” values. Apparently, the “factory” is not only working for the Russian audiences. In February 2018, the US Department of Justice accused Prigozhin of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. As a result, the United States imposed personal sanctions against Prigozhin — but they were far from being the only ones.
For a long time, the businessman himself denied any connection with the “troll factory” and even went to court to have the media that wrote about it remove their publications. Only in February 2023 did he confirm that he had indeed invented the “factory” and that had been running it for a long time. Prigozhin claimed that he had done this “to protect the Russian information space from the boorish aggressive propaganda of anti-Russian theses from the West”.
Over time, the “troll factory” has grown and turned into a real “media factory”. It has spawned many Internet resources, including pseudo-opposition ones, which produce content and promote the pro-government agenda through bloggers and telegram channels. According to the Dossier Center, as of March 2023, the structure created by Prigozhin includes dozens of websites and bloggers — they are managed by a total of about 400 fake and real legal entities.
The largest media outlet associated with Prigozhin is the Federal News Agency (RIA FAN). According to Liveinternet, users who visited riafan.ru in May viewed the publication’s material about 40 million times.
In order to pool the resources of Prigozhin’s media empire, the Patriot media group was created in October 2019. In addition to the Federal News Agency, it also includes People’s News, Economics Today, Politics Today and other resources. Prigozhin is already the head of Patriot’s Board of Trustees – this was confirmed to the BBC News Russian by the head of the media group and former leader of the pro-Kremlin Young Russia party, Nikolai Stolyarchuk.
In addition to traditional media, the businessman has actively developed a network of telegram channels. Two of them occupy a special place in this network: both serve as press services and publish Prigozhin’s voice messages, often in response to media requests. One is called “Prigozhin’s Press Service” and has more than 1.3 million subscribers. The second, “Prigozhin’s Cap” – with a smaller audience, more than 643 thousand subscribers is in fact a duplicate.
In addition, Prigozhin actively cooperates with the so-called military commanders, in particular with the channels Voenkor Yarem by Alexander Yaremchuk (with an audience of almost 84,000 subscribers) and Callsign Bruce by Alexander Simonov (more than 182,000 subscribers). Both are employees of RIA FAN. They often repost Prigozhin’s audio messages from his press service channels, and also post photos and videos of Wagner PMC mercenaries from the front (this was also the case during the fighting between the Wagnerites and Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut).
PMC Wagner also has its own network of channels. It, in all likelihood, includes the Wagner Orchestra, Wagner Z Group, Wagner Unloading, Wagner PMC. Summaries” , “Cyber Front Z” and many others. All of them systematically repost Prigozhin’s statements and repost each other.
What did Prigozhin’s media do during the rebellion
The morning of June 24 began with searches at the office of the “Patriot” media group in the “Lakhta Center” building in St. Petersburg. “The security forces removed doors, pulled hard drives [from computers] and smashed computers”, a former employee of Prigozhin’s media empire who is familiar with the situation, told Meduza.
On the same day, the Trezzini Hotel in St. Petersburg, which is believed to be Yevgeny Prigozhin’s office, was searched. According to Fontanka, they found gold bars, dollars in cash, six pistols, five kilograms of white powder briquettes and several passports with photos of Prigozhin, but under different names.
As early as 08:56 the news of the search appeared on the website of the St. Petersburg edition of Neva.Today. Officially, it is not part of the media group, but it regularly quotes Prigozhin and takes its quotes. The article is illustrated with photographs showing several police buses near the glass skyscraper of the business centre. Meduza asked Neva.Today’s editor-in-chief Sergei Korunnyv how the editors found out about the search but he ignored this request.
Abbas Juma, chairman of the board of trustees of “Patriot”, also refused to talk about the search. And one of RIA FAN’s employees, when asked by Meduza whether the security forces had really destroyed a significant part of the equipment in the media group’s office, said that “[this] information is confidential,” and therefore the newsroom “does not cover this issue.” Another RIA FAN employee assured Meduza that “everything [works] as usual,” but left the question of the search unanswered.
Whatever the case, RIA FAN, the largest media outlet associated with Prigozhin, tried to distance itself from him as much as possible during the armed uprising. From Friday evening, June 23, when Prigozhin announced the “march” of the mercenaries to Moscow, and until Saturday evening, when it became known that agreements had been reached between Prigozhin and Alexander Lukashenko, RIA FAN published very little news on the subject.
Apart from the column about Prigozhin’s rebellion, whose author urged everyone to “pray” and “love Russia and Russian soldiers”, the site published mostly short news items. Moreover, they were often reduced to quotes from Prigozhin’s press service without explaining the context. For example, on Saturday June 24, RIA FAN published the news “Prigozhin told why the Russians support Wagner PMC.” But there is not a word about what exactly they are “supporting” – that the armed mercenaries are on a “march” to Moscow.
Most of the publications on the site on the day of the rebellion were devoted to completely different topics: the work of the musical artist Yuri Shatunov, the protests in Argentina, the “mental health crisis” in the UK. Prigozhin had already managed to declare that the Wagner PMC reached Rostov “without firing a shot”, and Vladimir Putin had accused him of “betrayal” and “treason” (without naming him by name), but the agency decided not to inform readers about all these events. At the same time, RIA FAN spoke about the movements of columns of mercenaries with reference to anonymous Telegram channels – as if the publication had nothing to do with Prigozhin’s activities.
The news about the agreement between Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Prigozhin, according to which the PMC Wagner would return mercenaries to field camps, was already published by RIA FAN with reference to RIA Novosti and Vladimir Putin’s press service. And the next day, a whole series of short messages, more like press releases from the Ministry of Defense, appeared on the publication website, for example about a working meeting of the head of the department, Sergei Shoigu (whom Prigozhin had previously accused of cowardice and betrayal of Russia’s interests).
At the same time, RIA FAN “military officer” Alexander Simonov, who reports on the activities of the Prigozhin and Wagner PMCs in his telegram channel “Callsign Bruce”, remained silent throughout the mercenaries march”. Only after the news of the withdrawal of the fighters back to the field camps, Simonov wrote that it was “a very difficult day”, and at the same time thanked the PMC Wagner, the military personnel, the Russian guards and the traffic police at the same time for “doing everything to prevent bloodshed” (at least ten Russian soldiers were killed by the Wagner fire). Simonov refused to talk to Meduza’s correspondent.
What will happen to Prigozhin’s media empire now (and will it move to Belarus)
On Monday afternoon, 26 June, a laconic message appeared on the RIA FAN’s telegram channels saying that the agency’s news was available at a new address – riafan.org. Obviously, the new domain was needed to bypass Roskomnadzor’s blocking: on 24 June, the department blocked access to RIA FAN’s websites and other publications of the Patriot media group “in order to stop the spread of calls for participation in a military mutiny” (PMC Wagner’s VKontakte and Odnoklassniki administrations were also blocked). But it is curious that the new RIA FAN domain was registered almost a month before the rebellion – as early as May 18, 2023.
“We hope that after the official announcement by the FSB [that the criminal case for armed rebellion has been closed], the RKN will unblock the resource, which has always been and remains exclusively patriotic,” Abbas Juma told Meduza. When asked why RIA FAN had previously created a mirror of the site with a different domain, Juma replied that he could not say: “I didn’t create it.”
What awaits Prigozhin’s media empire now, it seems, is still not understood even in the Patriot itself. “The decision on [Prigozhin’s] media has not yet been made. They are being watched closely by the state, and cannot fulfil the tasks required by the investor. In the current format, the work of the media is paralyzed – because during the searches almost all the infrastructure was destroyed, only human resources remained, ”says one of the political scientists who used to work for Prigozhin and is familiar with the situation.
It is not clear in what form the publications will continue – it depends on Prigozhin’s agreements [with the Russian authorities], he continues. “It is more profitable for the owner to create a new media holding in Belarus, managed from Russia, using the backbone of dedicated employees who have served faithfully for many years,” adds Meduza’s interlocutor.
For his partAbbas Juma,chairman of the Patriot board of trustees, insists that he “has nothing to say yet” about the future of the media group. “We are subject to the law and the president,” he adds.
When asked whether it was true that not only PMC Wagner fighters, but also entire editorial teams of Prigozhin’s media, would be allowed to “leave” in Belarus, Juma replied that “so far [this issue] has not been commented on.”
Another Meduza’s interlocutor, a former employee of the “troll factory” who is familiar with the situation in the media group, is sure that, be that as it may, the publications of the media empire in one form or another will continue to work in any case.