ST. PETERSBURG— Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin’s favorite restaurateur, won a lucrative government contract to deliver school lunches across Moscow in 2011. Parents were soon up in arms. Their children wouldn’t eat the food, saying it smelled rotten.
As the bad publicity mounted, Mr. Prigozhin’s company, Concord Catering, launched a counterattack, a former colleague said. He hired young men and women to overwhelm the internet with comments and blog posts praising the food and dismissing the parents’ protests.
“In five minutes, pages were drowning in comments,” said Andrei Ilin, whose website serves as a discussion board about public schools. “And all the trolls were supporting Concord.”
On Friday, a federal grand jury empaneled by special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Mr. Prigozhin, some of his companies and a dozen of his employees on charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by tampering in the 2016 presidential election.
The online army accused of sowing discord among American voters during the 2016 presidential campaign emerged from a tiny corner of the business empire built by Mr. Prigozhin, a millionaire who also operates some of St. Petersburg’s most prestigious restaurants, according to more than a dozen former colleagues, employees and others familiar with the operations.
Workers at the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, posed as Americans to create Facebook posts and Twitter accounts with the intention of influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to the indictments.
Mr. Prigozhin has previously denied ties to the IRA and on Friday dismissed his indictment. “Americans are very impressionable people. They see what they want to believe,” he told RIA, a Russian news agency. “I respect them greatly. I’m not at all bothered that I’m on that list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
He started out as a hot dog vendor in the early 1990s and went on to seize opportunities that emerged during the breakup of the Soviet Union, making his mark in high-end dining for a new Russian elite. One customer, Vladimir Putin, became his chief patron.
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin at a meeting on June 16, 2016 in St. Petersburg. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Over the years, Concord Catering and his other companies gained multimillion-dollar government contracts to feed Russian soldiers and provide utilities at military bases. Some of the revenue clandestinely supported the Internet Research Agency, the social-media operation housed in a nondescript building in a sleepy neighborhood of St. Petersburg, according to Anonymous International, a Russian hacking group.
Abroad, Mr. Prigozhin’s enterprises have fueled some of Russia’s most audacious operations to inflame division. The agency, for instance, has weighed in on everything from Brexit, according to studies at Stanford and Edinburgh universities, to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Russian media reported.
Using his connections with the defense ministry, Mr. Prigozhin also created a private military corporation, the Wagner Group, which fields Russian mercenaries to defend the Kremlin’s interests in Syria, Ukraine and North Africa, according to people familiar with the matter.
“Yevgeny Prigozhin believes he is the Czar’s right hand,” said Yevgeny Vyshenkov, who has known Mr. Prigozhin for years and whose Fontanka newspaper in St. Petersburg has written about him in numerous articles.
From his start as a food vendor in St. Petersburg’s Apraksin market, Mr. Prigozhin had by 1996 raised enough money to start Concord Catering. He opened his first restaurants along the picturesque canals and grand thoroughfares of St. Petersburg. At his flagship restaurant, The Customs House, guests in the early days were greeted with a shot of vodka served in an ice tumbler.
Against the drab backdrop of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, Mr. Prigozhin’s restaurants were among the few elegant enough to take foreign guests. International Monetary Fund officials were regulars, as was Mr. Putin, at the time a top official in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office.
Mr. Prigozhin was in high demand. Waiters employed by Concord Catering said private banquets were held in Russia’s opulent Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.
After Mr. Putin became president, he selected Mr. Prigozhin’s riverboat restaurant, New Island, as the site of a dinner meeting with President George W. Bush in 2002. During the meal, the two leaders cruised the canals of St. Petersburg. Mr. Bush wrote a letter of thanks to Mr. Prigozhin, according to a copy viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, first lady Laura Bush, President George W. Bush and Mr. Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, set to board the New Island on May 25, 2002. Photo: Presidential Press Service/TAR-TASS/Associated Press
Mr. Prigozhin’s cuisine helped him gain entry into powerful Kremlin circles. The Concord company’s website boasted of his invitation to cook for the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. He also catered Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 presidential inauguration.
Mr. Prigozhin’s IRA sought to influence opinion on local issues including policing and education policy, said Andrei Soshnikov, a journalist who worked undercover there in 2013. “It looked like a headquarters for a local election, a shabby rented office, a few old computers,” he said.
But despite outward appearances, the agency’s ambitions grew.
By 2014, mass protests had overtaken Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, threatening the rule of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Moscow. Mr. Prigozhin, by all accounts a staunch Russian nationalist, shifted gears, hiring men and women as “internet content producers,” according to his company’s help-wanted ads.
One man that responded to the job advertisement was Vitaly Bespalov, who had recently moved to St. Petersburg from his native Tyumen. When he came to the job interview at IRA’s new offices on Savushkina 55, Mr. Bespalov said, he was told to leave all his personal details at the front desk, including his passport number. An armed guard stood by.
After a brief test, Mr. Bespalov was assigned to what was called the Ukraine project. The job entailed rewriting news from the point of view of pro-Russian separatists who at the time had just seized territory in eastern Ukraine.
“You take 20 pieces of news every day and rewrite, replacing one word for another, to write it from the point of view of Russia’s foreign policy,” he said.
The news was distributed to a network of news sites created by the Internet Research Agency. As Ukrainian authorities tried to shut down the sites, Mr. Bespalov said, the IRA team would switch web addresses to stay online.
The news sites, in some cases, drew as many as 100,000 views a day. Other IRA employees created personal accounts, posing as patriotic grandmothers, homemakers and others. They would distribute the rewritten news items through social media accounts, spreading them across the internet.
As conflicts escalated in Ukraine and Syria, crews at the Internet Research Agency operated around the clock.
A leak from Anonymous International revealed in more than 2,000 emails from employees of the IRA how managers taught ways to navigate social media: PowerPoint presentations suggested, for instance, the best times to post on Facebook or Twitter for maximum likes or retweets.
The emails included exchanges between IRA workers and employees at Mr. Prigozhin’s Concord Catering. Among the leaked emails are essays written by IRA employees pretending to be Americans, many riddled with typos.
The essays would turn out to be training for a new operation the IRA started in 2015 and aimed at a U.S. audience, according to people who worked there. That summer, the group started creating accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some workers tried to imitate American southern accents in their posts. Others posed as Muslims, African-Americans or middle-class Baptists. What the posts all shared was anger with and distrust of authority, government and the news media.
One alleged IRA-created site, BlackMattersUS, was set up to mimic slogans and messages of the Black Lives Matter movement. It carried the same Internet provider address as one of the IP addresses of the Internet Research Agency.
Alan Baskaev worked at the agency during the U.S. presidential campaign developing pages, some made to seem as if they were written by African-Americans and others intended to imitate racists, he told a Russian TV station. He said he was given freedom to come up with his own personalities and posts: “Those were my ideas.”
The IRA also bought advertising. Facebook identified more than 3,000 ads purchased by accounts associated with the IRA from 2015 to 2017. The ads—on such issues as immigration, race and gun violence—reached an estimated 10 million people in the U.S.
Twitter suspended more than 3,800 accounts the company said were associated with the IRA, including one pretending to be the unofficial feed of Tennessee Republicans, which had more than 140,000 followers. Many of the accounts sent tweets denigrating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and boosting Republican candidate Donald Trump. Mr. Trump once retweeted a post from the bogus Tennessee GOP account to his millions of followers.
Over the past year, Mr. Prigozhin has focused on the Wagner Group and potential spoils from the war in Syria, according to Russian officials and an individual who fought with the group in Syria.
While revenues are hard to measure, as the Wagner Group is closely held, documents acquired from Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service show large sums flow through Mr. Prigozhin’s various companies.
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Fund requested Russia’s antimonopoly body to look into the companies. They found a web of interlocking ownership that held a monopoly on defense ministry services, according to documents reviewed by the Journal.
The antimonopoly body released bank records that showed millions of dollars flowing from Mr. Prigozhin’s Concord to nearly 30 companies associated with him, according to Mr. Navalny, the anticorruption activist. “It’s a way of pushing money around, from one company to another in order to keep all his enterprises going,” he said.
Mr. Prigozhin provided more than utilities and food for the Russian military. U.S. authorities sanctioned Mr. Prigozhin in 2016 for helping Russia’s armed forces build bases along the border with eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin has supported separatist rebels.
His private military company, the Wagner Group, has operated in the Kremlin’s hot spots, from Ukraine to Syria, supplementing Russia’s military forces, according to the two Russian officials and member of the group.
People acquainted with Mr. Prigozhin said he won the right to profits from some crude oil and gas fields in Syria. The company through which he was meant to share those profits, Evro Polis, was sanctioned in January.
—Alan Cullison contributed to this article.
Write to Thomas Grove at email@example.com
Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition as ‘Kremlin Caterer Dishes Dark Arts.’