Dozens of Russians from family to former fighters have held memorial services for Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin to mark 40 days since his death, hailing him as a hero of the people.
Prigozhin was killed when his private jet crashed on its way from Moscow to St Petersburg on August 23, two months after he led a failed mutiny on Moscow.
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Two other top Wagner commanders, Prigozhin’s four bodyguards and the plane’s three crew were also killed in the still-unexplained crash.
At the 62-year-old’s grave in St Petersburg, his mother, Violetta, and his son, Pavel, laid flowers. Supporters waved the black flags of Wagner which sport a skull and the motto “Blood, Honour, Motherland, Courage”.
In the Eastern Orthodox church, it is believed that the soul makes its final journey to either heaven or hell on the 40th day after death.
Memorials also took place in Moscow and other Russian cities with dozens of Wagner fighters and everyday Russians paying their respects.
There was no coverage on Russian state television or any official tributes.
Wagner fighters have played a key role in the fighting in Ukraine, helping Russia capture the eastern town of Bakhmut in May after weeks of bruising battles. Wagner, whose troops were moved to camps in Belarus as part of a deal to end the mutiny, was also active in a number of African countries.
“He can be criticised for certain events, but he was a patriot who defended the motherland’s interests on different continents,” Wagner’s recruitment arm said of Prigozhin in a statement on Telegram.
“He was charismatic and importantly he was close to the fighters and to the people. And that’s why he became popular both in Russia and abroad.”
Prigozhin’s mutiny, which followed months of expletive-laden videos insulting Russia’s top military officials, was arguably the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule since the former KGB spy rose to power in 1999.
The Wagner troops took over the southern city of Rostov, shot down several Russian aircraft and advanced towards Moscow before turning back 200 km (125 miles) from the capital following a purported deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
Mourners spoke of respect for Prigozhin, who got to know Putin while running a restaurant business in St Petersburg in the 1990s. He went on to win lucrative state catering contracts earning him the nickname, “Putin’s chef” and expanded into media as well as an infamous internet “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the United States for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Wagner brought him further into the limelight with the mercenary group developing a reputation for brutality and ruthlessness.
“He was a real authority, a leader,” Mikhail, a soldier in Russia’s armed forces who refused to give his second name, told the Reuters news agency.
Moscow resident Marta, who also refused to give her surname, said the people believed in Prigozhin but that Wagner had been “decapitated” by the deaths of him and co-founder Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer and a Nazi sympathiser.
Prigozhin was also supposed to have moved to Belarus as part of the deal to end the mutiny.
Russia looks set to continue using Wagner units despite the recent turmoil.
On Friday, the Kremlin said Putin had told Andrei Troshev, one of Wagner’s top commanders, that he should “deal with forming volunteer units that could perform various combat tasks, primarily in the zone of the special military operation” – a term Moscow uses for its war in Ukraine.