Like most Russian funeral ceremonies, the one held just north of the resort town of Goryachy Klyuch featured colorful flowered wreaths, portraits of the dead, red carnations, and coffins draped in tapestries.
But the ceremony, held on March 19 in a region better known for thermal spas and mineral baths, was remarkable in another way: a public fight between the local administration and the founder of the Wagner Group mercenary company, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The local mayor said there were too many Wagner soldiers being buried there; better to bury them elsewhere. Outraged, Prigozhin and his allies defied the mayor and held the ceremony, at which the dead were mourned and the administration was excoriated.
The graveyard spat comes amid growing questions about the political future of Prigzohin, who has become one of Russia’s most notorious public figures amid the 13-month invasion of neighboring Ukraine. A former convict who made his fortune opening restaurants in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin later netted lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin before founding Wagner Group.
The group’s mercenaries, who have appeared in Syria, Africa, and elsewhere, have emerged as a potent fighting force in Ukraine. Even as Wagner has suffered high casualties, Prigozhin has publicly feuded with top commanders in the Russian Defense Ministry, criticizing the conduct of battlefield operations.
And that’s stoked speculation that Prigozhin’s rise has been tacitly endorsed in the Kremlin -- and whether his ascendence may be coming to an end.
“As soon as it became clear that [Prigozhin’s] influence was falling sharply, the mayor, after consulting with the leadership, received the go-ahead to refuse further funerals,” said Ivan Preobrazhensky, a Russian political scientist now based outside the country.
“It’s unlikely that this is a message directly from the presidential administration. Rather, it’s likely that someone who’s inside the Russian bureaucratic system realized that Prigozhin is just no longer that frightening," he told RFE/RL’s Caucasus.Realities.
Too Many Graves?
The cemetery that was the focus of the recent political squabble first gained notoriety late last year, when activists publicized the sudden appearance of dozens of graves. As of February, more than 300 new graves had appeared in the Bakinskaya cemetery over the preceding months; activists say they had counted up to 570 graves as of this month.
Nearly all are believed to be soldiers who fought for Wagner in Ukraine.
Western officials estimate Wagner has suffered exceptionally high casualties, particularly around the Donbas city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of a bloody, monthslong assault dating back to August. Wagner troops, including thousands of prison inmates, have been at the vanguard of that assault; the White House says up to 30,000 Wagner fighters may have been killed or wounded to date.
As Prigozhin’s prominence has risen, his supporters, many of whom are hard-line nationalists, have sought to glorify the efforts of slain Wagner fighters.
This past week, when Wagner officials sought to hold another public funeral for eight of its fighters at the Bakinskaya cemetery, municipal officials in Goryachy Klyuch balked, citing public opinion against the continued burials.
On his Telegram channel on March 18, Prigozhin published what was purportedly a recording of a phone call between a Wagner representative and Mayor Sergei Belopolsky, in which Belopolsky explains the reasoning for denying permission for the upcoming funeral.
Shortly afterwards, Belopolsky posted his own statement on the dispute, saying that while he "respects the fighters," he doesn’t think a spa resort town is a suitable place for the burials anymore. He said there were better locations in the region.
The funeral went ahead anyway, according to multiple videos posted on Telegram channels. The ceremony included the broadcast of an audio message from Prigozhin, who called local officials “scum hiding in the offices."
Several local lawmakers attended as well, although none representing the Kremlin-backed United Russia political party, however.
The following day, Prigozhin posted a new statement, saying that the governor of the Krasnodar region, where Goryachy Klyuch is located, had promised no further obstacles for Wagner burials.
Andrei Panyushkin, a local activist, told RFE/RL that he doubted public opinion was, in fact, opposed to the burials. He said there were an unknown number of local men who had gone to fight in Ukraine, so people were already sympathetic. Two men from two of his neighboring families had joined Wagner and been killed, he said.
Vitaly Votanovsky, another local activist who was present for the funeral ceremony, said the funeral drew cars registered from many places around southern Russia.
Votanovsky has also advocated on behalf of families of killed Wagner soldiers, who have complained of not getting compensated by the government.
Prigozhin’s public feuds, as well as the public responses of the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry, have been scrutinized as the Ukraine war has ground on and Wagner forces continue to suffer high casualty rates.
Earlier this year, Wagner’s ability to continue recruiting prison inmates to fight in Ukraine appeared to be curtailed; Prigozhin said himself that he would stop the recruitment.
The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has reportedly started its own recruiting effort in Russia prisons, effectively taking over the process from Wagner.
Prigozhin…is learning a hard lesson in Kremlin politics."-- Analyst Mark Galeotti
Prigozhin has also complained that his forces are not getting adequate supplies of ammunition and that that has hampered the effort to capture Bakhmut. The Defense Ministry has denied that.
This week, the news agency Bloomberg, citing unnamed “people close to the Kremlin and intelligence services,” reported that Prigozhin intended to curtail Wagner’s operations in Ukraine and focus on Africa, where his mercenaries have been reported in at least four different countries. Prigozhin denied the report in a sarcastic statement posted to Telegram on March 24.
“Prigozhin himself understands that publicity is his only resource,” said one political scientist who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, due to restrictive Russian censorship laws. “Especially if a populist plays on the dislike for local bureaucrats.”
“Prigozhin…is learning a hard lesson in Kremlin politics,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services, wrote in a column earlier this month, prior to the funeral spat. “It doesn’t matter how useful you were yesterday, what matters is how useful you may be tomorrow.”