Sunday, June 25, 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Billionaire Movie Producer

From The Hollywood Reporter, June 8, 2023:

Before He Turned on Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin Made Hollywood-Style Propaganda Films to Sell His War
The chief of the multi-tentacled Wagner group, who appears to be attempting a coup against Kremlin, didn’t just send his army of mercenaries to the Ukrainian front lines. He was also at the vanguard of Putin’s effort to counter Western cultural dominance, and using movies to do it.

Update: On June 23, 2023, mercenaries under the leadership of Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin seized control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don in the strongest challenge to Vladimir Putin’s presidency since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin described the action as treasonous and “a stab in the back of our country and our people,” and has mobilized forces against Prigozhin‘s paramilitaries.

Last October, a small Russian production company called Aurum released The Best in Hell, a 107-minute feature film chronicling a brutal struggle for territory in an unnamed European city. The scenes of urban warfare are visceral and raw, and the only respite from the violence comes in the form of periodic tactical lectures aimed directly at the viewer.   

 The setting for The Best in Hell is the current war in Ukraine. Online detectives seem to disagree about which of the war’s recent battles the movie is based on. Some believe it’s a re-creation of the 2022 siege of Mariupol, in the disputed Donetsk region, in which thousands of civilians perished in a three-month-long battle that the Red Cross later described as “apocalyptic.” 

Others think it refers to the battle of Popasna where, once the fighting had ended, the severed head and hands of a Ukrainian prisoner of war were discovered impaled on a wooden pole. Released online, the movie received wide coverage and was lauded for its realism.    

The Best in Hell  was shot, edited and released while the actual combatants and survivors of the battles in Mariupol and Popasna — both of which ended last May with Russian victories — were still collecting and mourning their dead. Seen in that light, the most striking feature of The Best in Hell is that it exists at all. 

That a current event of such magnitude and tragedy was so quickly and seamlessly transformed into stylized movie fare is a feature of what former national security adviser H.R. McMaster calls “Russian new generation warfare.” Other experts who study Russia have described this dynamic more simply: hybrid war. 

Since coming to power in Russia two decades ago, Vladimir Putin has engineered a massive propagandistic operation that stretches across Russia’s billion-dollar film and TV industry into a global network of state-run disinformation-as-journalism and on to the mysterious online world of right-wing mercenary worship known as the Wagnerverse. Mason Clark, the Russia Team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington, D.C., notes that as Putin’s global influence operations have expanded over the past two decades, and as his intentions to restore both the landmass and the stature of the former Russian Empire have become clearer, “the pool of assets engaged in national security” has grown in tandem to encompass “all of Russian society, including government, business, culture and media institutions.” 

To get a sense of just how blurred the lines between the imperatives of the security state and Russian pop culture have become, look no further than The Best in Hell.  Aleksey Nagin, who co-authored the script, was no ordinary screenwriter. He was a former Russian soldier turned professional mercenary for the Wagner Group, a notorious private military company that functions as a de facto wing of the Russian military. Wagner is responsible for battlefield atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and nearly two dozen African countries. In 2021, the United Nations accused Wagner of war crimes, including “torture” and “summary executions.” The group has been the target of recriminations and sanctions, to no effect.  

As a member of one of the Wagner Group’s elite assault detachments, Nagin fought in multiple battles in Ukraine and was wounded several times. Last September, just weeks before The Best in Hell  was released, Nagin was back on the real front lines, this time in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, where fighting continues. In late September, Nagin was killed. After his death, the Russian government posthumously awarded him its highest honor, the Hero of the Russian Federation. But while Nagin spent his life as a professional killer, his most enduring legacy will likely be a piece of propaganda. 

 The Best in Hell and other similar Wagner movies remain noteworthy for the outsized impact they wield in the burgeoning information war. Another Wagner title, 2021’s Tourist, chronicles the group’s activities in the Central African Republic. It was released in Russia and later in CAR, to a sold-out audience. “These are Hollywood like productions,” said Jason Blazakis, director of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and an expert on Wagner’s activities, including its forays into moviemaking. “Their [high] ratings on IMDb are quite problematic.” ....

....MUCH MORE, the writer Scott Johnson, goes deep.

A previous visit with Mr. Johnson:

Hunting the Con Queen of Hollywood: Who's the "Crazy Evil Genius" Behind a Global Racket?