The burial of the Wagner mercenary group boss, two months after his mutiny, was shrouded in misinformation, preventing a public display of support the Kremlin did not want to see.
Even in death, the movements of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary boss, were the subject of intense interest, contradictory reporting and cultivated confusion.
Speculation about where Mr. Prigozhin would be buried on Tuesday ricocheted around news media and channels on the Telegram messaging app, including those considered close to the Russian security services. There were reports (true) of increased security presence and barriers erected at several cemeteries around his hometown, St. Petersburg, and other reports (false) of hearses and a funeral cortege.
The fog of misinformation was so dense that a joke spread on social media calling it a “special funeral operation,” a pun on the Kremlin’s term for the war in Ukraine, “special military operation.”
Then, at about 5 p.m. on Tuesday, came the announcement from his company’s press service that Mr. Prigozhin had been buried around 1 p.m., with a small group of people in attendance, at the Porokhovskoye Cemetery in the eastern part of St. Petersburg. At least some of the police contingents and rumors appeared to have been decoys — Porokhovskoye had not been mentioned in the swirl of speculation.
A makeshift memorial to deceased Wagner group leaders in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Tuesday.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
Information about the burial could not be confirmed independently, because by the time it was released, hundreds of police officers and national guard troops ringed the entire cemetery and sealed it off to all but a few people. All that could be seen of the grave from a bridge over the cemetery were a large Russian flag, a Wagner flag, and the top of a wooden cross. A Times reporter saw policemen sweeping the funeral plot with a dog trained to detect explosives.
Mr. Prigozhin was once seen as being close to President Vladimir V. Putin, and for years he and his Wagner military company were lethal tools of Kremlin policy in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa, and gained a popular following. Then in June he led a brief mutiny against the Russian military leadership, leading to widespread speculation that his days were numbered.
On Aug. 23, a business jet carrying Mr. Prigozhin fell, smoking, from the sky northwest of Moscow. All ten people aboard were killed, including the three top figures in Wagner, leaving the group’s future in doubt.
The confusion about his burial and heavy security presence at Porokhovskoye ensured that the throng of supporters expected to attend never materialized.
“It seems that the authorities, as expected, want to avoid a spontaneous rally in memory of the top leadership of Wagner and to do so, have imposed a fog around the burial place,” Farida Rustamova, an independent journalist, wrote on Telegram.
Russian state television barely mentioned the burial.
Wagner’s logistics boss, Valery Chekalov, who perished with Mr. Prigozhin, was buried on Tuesday at a ceremony that had not been publicized in advance, but was attended by several hundred people. The group’s top field commander, Dmitri Utkin, was also killed.
A funeral for Valery Chekalov, the Wagner group logistics chief, at St. Petersburg’s Northern Cemetery on Tuesday.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
In the days leading up to Mr. Prigozhin’s burial, any information released was vague, conflicting, and unconfirmed by the government or Wagner. The Kremlin said it had no information — except that Mr. Putin would not attend.
The murk was fitting for Mr. Prigozhin, whose life and death have been shrouded in mystery.
For years, he denied any connection to Wagner or to internet campaigns to interfere in American elections, before later boasting about both. Wagner’s work for authoritarian regimes came with lucrative oil and mineral concessions, but the extent of his wealth was concealed. He often disguised his locations and movements, using different aircraft, and was even said to use body doubles.
It is unclear what brought down his plane last week, but U.S. and Western officials have said they believe there was an explosion on board. Many Western officials have said they think it is likely that Mr. Putin, who has often been accused of ordering the assassinations of people he considers traitors, had Mr. Prigozhin killed as retribution for the mutiny in June.
At the White House on Tuesday, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stepped closer to saying so publicly than the Biden administration had before. She noted the failed rebellion, which Mr. Putin denounced at the time as treason, and the agreement that ended it.
“Now two months after he struck that deal, he’s been killed,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “So it’s, you know, it’s pretty evident what happened here.” She also referred to “what Mr. Putin tends to do.”
Police forces in front of the grave of Mr. Prigozhin, as seen from a bridge over the Porokhovskoye cemetery, after it was announced that he had been buried there on Tuesday.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
After the crash, Russian authorities released the plane’s flight manifest, showing the names of the 10 people who were supposed to be on board, and said that all aboard had been killed. That left room for days of speculation about whether Mr. Prigozhin was really on the plane.
The deaths were not officially confirmed until Sunday, when Russian investigators said that genetic testing showed that the victims of the crash matched the names on the manifest.
Mr. Prigozhin became widely known in Russia following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with his outspoken criticism of Russia’s military establishment and boasting about Wagner’s battlefield exploits.
In September 2022, he received the Hero of Russia designation, one of the Russian military’s top honors, after he personally recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to fight for Wagner in Ukraine. That status generally accords special burial privileges, including an honor guard and a military band, that were not present for Mr. Prigozhin, according to local media reports.
Mr. Prigozhin’s funeral “took place in a private format,” his press service said. “Those wishing to say goodbye can visit the Porokhovskoye cemetery” in St. Petersburg.
Photos released of his funeral mound showed it covered in pine branches and roses, with a photo of a poem by another St. Petersburg native, Joseph Brodsky, who had been forced into exile from the Soviet Union in 1972.
A Wagner soldier visits a makeshift memorial to Mr. Prigozhin near the former office of PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg, Russia.Credit…Nanna Heitmann
The cryptic lines from Mr. Brodsky’s poem “Still Life,” a conversation between Jesus, dying on the cross, and his mother Mary echoed the uncertainty swirling around Mr. Prigozhin. “As I step on a threshold, / I know not nor decide: / Are you my son — or God? / Are you dead — or alive?”
The final stanza, in which Jesus responds to his mother, could be taken as a reflection of Mr. Prigozhin’s larger-than-life status and his professed devotion to his motherland: “Dead, or alive / There is no difference, woman / Son or God, I am yours.”
Many of Mr. Prigozhin’s adherents have refused to believe that he is dead.
“I just don’t believe in it,” said a man who laid carnations in front of a spontaneous memorial at the Wagner Center, a sprawling, modern complex in St. Petersburg. The man, who walked with a limp, said he had served with Wagner until three weeks ago and that Mr. Prigozhin had been his direct commander, but refused to give his name to Western media.
The controversy over Mr. Prigozhin’s death may loom over Russian history for decades, said Aleksei A. Venediktov, who headed the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station before the Kremlin shut it down last year.
“Who killed Kennedy?” he asked rhetorically in his office in an interview last week. “Look, this comparison is really important, because there are many versions out there in the public domain besides the official version.”
Valeriya Safronova contributed reporting from Vienna, Austria, Jesus Jim?nez from New York, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Milana Mazaeva from Washington, and Oleg Matsnev from Berlin.