ST PETERSBURG (Russia) • Long before he was indicted by the United States for his links to the troll factory that spearheaded Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 US elections, Yevgeny Prigozhin opened a hot-dog stand.
He had just emerged from prison, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and soon, he has said, the roubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them in the kitchen of their modest apartment.
Thus began his improbable career, and he eventually earned the slightly mocking nickname of "Putin's cook".
Despite his humble and troubled youth, Prigozhin became one of Russia's richest men, joining a charmed circle whose members often share one particular attribute: their proximity to President Vladimir Putin.
The small club of loyalists who gain Mr Putin's trust often feast, as Prigozhin has, on enormous state contracts. In return, they are expected to provide other, darker services to the Kremlin, as needed.
On Friday, Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury for interfering in the US election. The indictment said Prigozhin, 56, controlled the entity that financed the troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency, which waged "information warfare" against the US by creating fictitious social media personas, spreading falsehoods and promoting messages supportive of then presidential candidate Donald Trump, and critical of his rival Hillary Clinton.
PUTIN'S RIGHT-HAND MAN
He is not afraid of dirty tasks. He can fulfil any task for Putin, ranging from fighting the opposition to sending mercenaries to Syria. He serves certain interests in certain spheres, and Putin trusts him.
MS LYUBOV SOBOL, from the Anti-Corruption Foundation, on Yevgeny Prigozhin's ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin has denied involvement. "The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see," Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on Friday.
"I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him," he said.
Prigozhin's critics - including opposition politicians, journalists and activists, the US Treasury and now Special Counsel Robert Mueller - said he has emerged as Mr Putin's go-to oligarch for a variety of sensitive and often unsavoury missions, like recruiting contract soldiers to fight in Ukraine and Syria.
"He is not afraid of dirty tasks," said Ms Lyubov Sobol from the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was set up by prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny to probe abuse of state contracts and other illicit schemes. Ms Sobol said: "He can fulfil any task for Putin, ranging from fighting the opposition to sending mercenaries to Syria. He serves certain interests in certain spheres, and Putin trusts him."
Mr Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition member of the city council in St Petersburg, said the Kremlin endorsed projects like the troll farm without directly organising them.
"This is done by somebody who receives large-scale government contracts," he said. "The fact that he gets these contracts is a hidden way to pay for his services."