A sidewalk memorial near Red Square in Moscow has drawn hundreds of mourners since the death of the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, and nine others in a plane crash on Wednesday.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
Natalia, a Russian soldier who helped set up the makeshift memorial after the death of Mr. Prigozhin.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
Candles and other offerings at the memorial on Sunday.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
The tearful mourners gathered in Moscow to pay muted respect to the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, and nine other people killed in a suspicious plane crash last week.
Hundreds of people placed flowers, photographs, candles and flags — including some bearing the private military group’s skull design — at a small sidewalk memorial near Red Square in Moscow.
The gathering over the weekend reflected the broader appeal Mr. Prigozhin held for the Russian public as a result of his force’s fierce fighting in Ukraine, despite an acrimonious relationship with Russia’s military leadership and the backlash from his failed mutiny in June, when the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, initially accused him of treason.
The fate of Wagner, which Mr. Prigozhin built into a global force, remains uncertain, now that Russian authorities have officially declared Mr. Prigozhin dead, and with the Kremlin reportedly considering ways to bring the group more directly under control of the state.
Near the makeshift memorial, many wept openly, expressing shock over the death of a man they said they respected, and sadness at the loss of life. Almost all expressed their support for the invasion of Ukraine.
“This is a person the whole world feared,” said Alyona, 25. Like many who agreed to be interviewed, Alyona did not want to give her last name because of the political sensitivity surrounding Mr. Prigozhin, who frequently criticized how the war was conducted in the months leading up to his brief rebellion two months ago.
“That alone is worth respecting. He didn’t just make people fear him, he created a system that no one else had, did something that no one else had done,” she said, referring both to the creation of Wagner and the gumption to stand up to Moscow’s military establishment.
If Wagner were to disappear, she added, “it will be a big loss indeed.”
Volunteers handed out water, candies and snacks, a funeral tradition in the Russian Orthodox faith. On a low wall along the sidewalk, tea lights crowded among memorial candles and funeral wreaths. A long banner read “Being a soldier is to live forever!”
Many found it hard to believe that Mr. Prigozhin and his group’s top military commander, Dmitri Utkin, had died.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
Some Wagner fighters who came to pay their respects described their loyalty to the mercenary group’s leader.
“I was mobilized,” said one soldier, who would give only his call sign, Prapor, and his age, 32. He showed Times journalists a Wagner dog tag emblazoned with the day the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was captured in May.
“No one ever abandoned me; they helped me, they did everything that was necessary and provided me with everything that was needed,” said Prapor, who added that he had personally met Mr. Prigozhin.
Many could not believe that Mr. Prigozhin and his group’s top military commander, Dmitri Utkin — whose call sign was said to be the inspiration for the group’s name — had died.
“We didn’t believe it to the last moment,” said Kirill, 31, who wore a Wagner hat and said he had a relationship with the mercenary group but was not a soldier. He praised Mr. Prigozhin’s open, colloquial and often profanity-laced communication style.
“Wagner leaders were honest — they told us everything,” he sad. “They spoke to people informally, just as they communicated with the wider public.” He called Wagner’s capture of Bakhmut, which razed most of a city that was home to 70,000 people before the war, “a great success.”
Other mourners said they appreciated Mr. Prigozhin’s populist messages, which included criticism of the military establishment — particularly the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu — and at times appeared to stretch to Mr. Putin himself.
“Evgeny Prigozhin won my respect for the simple fact that he went against this system, against Putin, Shoigu and began an active fight against our government,” said Sergei, a 23-year-old student. “But the fact that his mercenaries are fighting in Ukraine, I am against that.”
Sergei showed pictures on his phone of himself getting arrested during rallies for another populist who dared to challenge Mr. Putin: Aleksei A. Navalny, who survived a poisoning attempt and has been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison on charges that human rights groups say are political.
The Kremlin has denied involvement in the crash, which U.S. officials have said they believed was the result of an explosion on board, possibly in retaliation for the rebellion.
Sergei said he believed that the ten people had been ordered killed as revenge for the mutiny. And even though Russia’s Investigative Committee said genetic testing showed the remains from the crash site matched the names on the jet’s flight log, Sergei said he believed there was a chance that Mr. Prigozhin could still be alive.
Police officers patrolling the memorial this weekend.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
Billboards across Moscow encourage people to sign military contracts, or proclaim the heroic deeds of fallen soldiers. But in a country where little is said about the casualties, the sidewalk memorial became a rare place for people to mourn publicly.
Elena, a 47-year-old lawyer originally from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, cried for about five minutes as she took in the photographs and mementos.
“Russia is protecting these people,” she said of Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied territory, calling the deaths of the Wagner leadership a “tragedy.”
“I feel so sorry about these people,” she said. “I’ve been following the activities of Wagner Group leaders. I thought they were Russian patriots.”
Like most people at the site, she expressed respect for Mr. Prigozhin without trying to directly contrast him to Mr. Putin or his Ministry of Defense, and did not take any stance on the Wagner mutiny or how it was resolved. Nor was she willing to speculate about the cause of the plane crash.
The improvised memorial predates Mr. Prigozhin’s death but has grown rapidly in recent days. It was initially erected for the military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a bombing in St. Petersburg in April, and features photos of other prominent pro-war Russians, including Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist, who was killed in a car bombing in August 2022.
But almost everyone seemed focused on the Wagner leader. Mr. Prigozhin, Alyona said, was unique in his generation in his ability and willingness to openly discuss the issues plaguing Russian society.
“In our history, there was only one Lenin, one Stalin and one Prigozhin,” she said. “If someone else like Lenin, Stalin, or Prigozhin appears, we will consider ourselves lucky.”
Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting from Washington.