August 25, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

A portrait of Yevgeny Prigozhin at a makeshift memorial near the former PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday, August 24. Anastasia Barashkova/Reuters

Among the mass of red carnations laid outside Wagner’s St. Petersburg headquarters, a photograph of the Russian private military group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, peers out.

On it, the words “in this hell he was the best” are printed in Russian. His death has still not been officially certified, but everyone is now speaking of him in the past tense.

Across Russia, makeshift memorials for Prigozhin, which sprang up after he was reported killed in a plane crash alongside some top aides Wednesday, have seen a steady stream of Wagner fighters and their supporters come out to pay their respects.  

Under Prigozhin, the Wagner Group reveled in the infamy of its brutal methods worldwide and its battleground victories in the Ukraine war. One mourner, named Arkady, said his presumed death was “a huge setback, not just to the city but for our entire country and its prospects in the war.”

“Aside from being a great patriot he was also a top military commander. We have all witnessed his success in (eastern Ukraine’s) Bakhmut. How the war will continue without him is a big question,” Arkady added.

A man who identified himself only as Dmitry told CNN the Wagner boss gave work to thousands of people in St. Petersburg, which paid well and provided them with a mission in life. That, he said, was now over.

Nestled among the memorial’s flowers was a sledgehammer. It is a potent symbol of the extreme violence the group represented: Last year, the warlord applauded a video in which a former Wagner member, who had deserted, was brutally murdered with a sledgehammer, cementing Wagner’s image as uncompromising and ruthless.

Some in the crowd at the memorial speculated about the reasons behind Prigozhin’s plane crash. One woman blamed it on Ukraine – a claim that has been denied by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Others said that they think Prigozhin might be still alive. Zlata and Vitya, a couple who live in the city, said they think the mercenary leader’s death was orchestrated to allow the Wagner boss to be deployed on other missions for the benefit of Russia.

CNN has reported that while the US intelligence community is still determining what happened, it believes the crash was deliberate and the goal was to kill Prigozhin.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday that any assertions that the Russian government was somehow involved in the crash are “an absolute lie.”

A woman who walked by the St. Petersburg memorial told CNN that his death represented “one mafioso” falling “victim to another, bigger mafioso — who’s become … bigger and stronger by swallowing (the) ‘Kremlin’s chef,'” referring to Prigozhin’s nickname.

She added: “No tears shed here. You reap just what you sow.”

CNN’s Tara John contributed reporting to this post.

Hear why someone left a sledgehammer at a Prigozhin memorial: