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Prigozhin’s Mutiny Shatters Illusion of Powerful Media Empire

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Prigozhin’s media empire was conceived as a contractor that would perform functions for the state while remaining under external management. But it turns out that receiving billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money is no guarantee of either effectiveness or loyalty.

One of the consequences of businessman and mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny earlier this year has been the unraveling of myths associated with his media empire. The main asset of that empire—the Patriot media company—announced its closure after the armed uprising. While it’s possible it will be reborn, this seems unlikely. Everything linked to Prigozhin is now toxic.

Patriot’s media outlets failed to rise to the challenge during the Wagner mercenary army’s standoff with the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin did his own PR and, during the uprising in June, turned his personal Telegram channel into the key source of news about what was unfolding.

The silence of Prigozhin’s media empire was surprising given its supposedly huge size. Patriot included national online publications like RIA FAN, Politika Segodnya (Politics Today), Ekonomika Segodnya (Economics Today), and Narodnye Novosti  (People’s News), as well as hundreds of regional websites and a network of channels on the Telegram messaging app.

According to RIA FAN head Yevgeny Zubaryov, about 300 million people per day were consuming content provided by Patriot at the beginning of this year. If that were true, which is highly unlikely, it would mean Prigozhin’s media assets had a bigger audience than Russia’s state-owned media outlets.

Prigozhin could also, at least in theory, have deployed his famous “troll factory,” which was set up in St. Petersburg in 2009 and has since grown to include hundreds of employees writing tens of thousands of online comments every day. The troll factory achieved worldwide fame in 2016, when the U.S. authorities accused it of meddling in the country’s presidential election (as part of that campaign, the troll factory reportedly reached up to 70 million people in the United States every week). That propelled Prigozhin’s name into the headlines, and he was sanctioned by Washington in 2018.

Prigozhin’s trolls did not stop work after the U.S. election, going on to support European politicians loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, exert influence in African countries, and discredit Russian opposition politicians. Yet they didn’t come to Prigozhin’s aid during his insurrection.

It has been clear for some time that Prigozhin’s media empire was not as powerful as it claimed. Its limits were illustrated most clearly in Wagner’s years-long campaign to discredit and oust St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. While Prigozhin’s media outlets backed Beglov in his 2019 election campaign, they soon parted ways (Prigozhin claimed Beglov had interfered in his business ventures). Russian media outlet Dossier reported that Prigozhin was using a network of Telegram channels to criticize Beglov. Things reached a head when those channels alleged Beglov had created a “criminal gang” to steal taxpayers’ money.

The Kremlin observed all of this from the sidelines, and, as expected, Beglov survived. Compromising information and media assassinations may have worked in the 1990s, but this is the 2020s. Beglov is personally loyal to Putin, and none of the mud slung at him proved capable of unseating him.

Another example of Prigozhin’s unsuccessful high-drama tactics was the social network YaRus, which was shut down in June. Created in 2020, YaRus was supposed to be a Russian substitute for Western social media sites, many of which have been blocked in recent years. But Russians weren’t interested. YaRus claimed earlier this year it had 11 million users, but there is no way it would have been closed if that was true. As with Patriot, reality likely lagged far behind the company’s claims.

Previous investigations showed that Patriot worked extensively with traffic exchange networks and spent about 900,000 rubles a month (about $9,000 at current exchange rates) buying traffic and social media likes. In all likelihood, judging by the activity of Prigozhin’s channels on Telegram, where it’s much harder to manipulate traffic, Patriot’s real audience was no more than a few thousand.

Staff at Patriot have admitted they worked for one reader alone: Prigozhin. Creating a personal media empire like this was something straight out of the 1990s, when Russian oligarchs bought newspapers and TV stations to further their political and business interests.

In addition, however, it appears that Patriot and the troll factory received state money. As long as the Kremlin needed Prigozhin, no one paid much attention to whether his businesses were losing money. Immediately after Prigozhin’s treachery, however, officials started looking at the accounts. Putin said that, in one year, the state had 276 billion rubles’ worth of contracts with Wagner and other Prigozhin outfits. Propagandist TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov reckoned the state spent more than 1.7 trillion rubles of budget funds on Prigozhin projects.

The Wagner uprising showed that Patriot was never integrated into Russia’s propaganda system. That independence made it vulnerable—something that was clear for all to see as soon as Prigozhin’s star began to wane.

Prigozhin apparently decided to dissolve Patriot’s media outlets in the wake of the uprising so that they couldn’t be passed on to new owners, though the Financial Times quoted the head of one Patriot media outlet as saying that the announcement of closures was done just to “keep the intrigue going.”

At one point, the most likely buyer for Patriot was thought to be National Media Group, which is owned by Putin ally and billionaire Yury Kovalchuk. But Prigozhin’s current toxicity is clearly a problem, and it’s unclear what exactly can be done with Patriot: it’s a loss-making asset and wouldn’t add much value to the existing Kremlin propaganda machine.

Both Prigozhin’s media empire and Wagner were conceived as contractor agencies that would perform functions for the state while remaining under external management. That idea didn’t work. It turns out that receiving billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money is no guarantee of either effectiveness or loyalty.

What will happen to Patriot now? It can’t be relocated to neighboring Belarus, like Wagner. And it’s not really needed by Russia’s major propaganda networks, which would find it far easier to hire staff made redundant by Patriot than to take over the company itself. Prigozhin’s downfall means Patriot has been deprived of its most important reader.