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When a 77-year-old St Petersburg grandmother signed up to painting lessons in 2017, she might have appeared to classmates like just another retiree enjoying a late-life hobby.

But just one year later, Violetta Prigozhina had opened her own art gallery, called Colours of Life, in the city’s central Bolshoi Prospekt. Soon she was exhibiting her own paintings, hosting launch parties and attracting national media attention.

One report on the state-owned Channel 1 television station marvelled at the woman’s transformation into an overnight art world sensation: “She could not sit idle and found not just a hobby but a new calling.”

What casual visitors to the gallery might not know is that the artist has a famous son: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the hot dog seller-turned-private militia boss who has emerged as a powerful warlord in Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — and who is also one of the most notorious accused war criminals on the planet.

Wagner, the private army he founded, has been accused of human rights abuses including murder, rape and torture, while his business empire has been labelled a “transnational criminal organisation” by the US government.

Given the intense scrutiny that Prigozhin has faced in recent years, there has been surprisingly little attention on his immediate family. Up until days before the Ukraine invasion, Prigozhin’s own children were able to move freely across the EU, enjoying a life of international luxury even as their father and his companies had been under western sanctions since 2016.

Yet unlike many Kremlin-backed Russian tycoons, whose relatives merely live off their fortunes, western governments believe that members of Prigozhin’s family have for years played an active role in his multiple businesses.

As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine last year, the US, EU and UK responded by imposing sanctions not only on leading figures close to the Kremlin but on their families too. Two of Prigozhin’s children and his wife are under US and EU sanctions, while his artist mother has been sanctioned by the UK, EU and Canada for supporting Wagner.

However, even though international outrage at Wagner’s activities has only grown over the past year, it has proved harder than expected to impose costs on Prigozhin’s family.

Last month Violetta Prigozhina, now aged 83, won an unexpected victory in an EU court. Her lawyers convinced judges of the first chamber of the EU’s General Court in Luxembourg that she had no economic ties to her son or his primary company, Concord. The restrictions against her were lifted and the EU Council was ordered to pay her legal costs.

Prigozhina’s success in appealing against the EU sanctions, which according to the judgment relied on evidence from Wikipedia, has underlined the legal complexity holding family members of Kremlin-backed figures responsible for the actions of their relatives. The life that his now sanctioned children were able to enjoy in Europe before the invasion also raises questions about whether western governments were complacent about the Wagner boss.

“It is negligence,” says Petras Auštrevičius, a Lithuanian member of the European parliament. “Prigozhin and many Russian oligarchs and state officials openly work against the west, and at the same time they and their families enjoyed western luxury.”

He believes that the soft approach towards the Prigozhin family contributed to the Wagner boss’s ability to build such a large mercenary operation. “We overlooked and underestimated Prigozhin’s private army,” he says. “We didn’t make the right decisions at the right time.”

Contacted through his press service, Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment about the sanctions imposed on his wife and children. His mother, through her French lawyer, also declined to comment.

The showjumping scene

Prigozhin has railed against “traitors” in Russia’s elites who, he said earlier this year on his company’s Telegram channel, “live abroad, take holidays abroad, raise children abroad”.

Yet until last year, that is the sort of lifestyle that some of his family enjoyed — most notably in showjumping, the expensive sport favoured by the children of US tech billionaires and European aristocrats.

On February 20 last year — four days before the invasion — a blonde-haired Russian teenage girl competed in an amateur show jumping event in the Mediterranean resort of Oliva, near Valencia in Spain. The girl was Veronika Prigozhina, the younger of Prigozhin’s two daughters. She rode a grey gelding called Dithara and finished fourth, netting prize money of €50.

Records compiled by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), the equestrian governing body, show how from 2014, Veronika and Polina, Prigozhin’s elder daughter, competed outside Russia in hundreds of events on a stable of horses with names including Happy Feet, Brunetti and Zitana in competitions in Germany, France, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Spain.

None of the horses the Prigozhin daughters rode in these competitions were registered under the Prigozhin name at the FEI. Several horse breeders and trainers who had sold or worked with the horses ridden by Prigozhin’s daughters contacted by the FT could not confirm the ultimate owners of the animals, but said they believed they were owned by Polina. She did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2015, Paul Hendriks, a Belgian horse veterinarian, was approached by an English-speaking man who wanted to buy his horse, Cazapiloko. The man then came to view the horse accompanied by Polina, who rode it several times before buying it. “She was a very amateur rider,” Hendriks recalls. “I never heard from them again, but the girl was very happy.”

Prigozhin and his family members were not under sanctions when Cazapiloko was acquired. But Polina has ridden Cazapiloko 60 times in international equestrian events since a first outing in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 2018 — which was after her father had been sanctioned.

In late 2019, with sanctions being issued against Prigozhin’s personal property including his private jet, almost all of the horses ridden by Prigozhin’s two daughters were suddenly re-registered to the Russian equestrian federation in the names of other people, according to horse ownership data from the FEI.

Among them was Cazapiloko. Polina continued to compete on the horse after this in events in Spain and Portugal, and no other rider has competed on Cazapiloko since she began riding it.

The FEI told the FT that it “has neither authority nor jurisdiction to determine the legal ownership of a horse”, which was a matter for police and judicial authorities.

Prigozhin’s immediate family are not mere passive beneficiaries of his wealth. Last year, the US said that Polina, his son Pavel and his wife Lyubov “play various roles in Prigozhin’s business enterprise” which benefits from “his favoured status within Russia’s elite”. Pavel, according to social media posts by his father, has fought with Wagner in Syria and was awarded Wagner’s “black cross”, its own award for military service.

Russian corporate records show how Prigozhin’s children have all held shares in their father’s companies, with these stakes frequently being swapped between them.

In 2019, Polina was made a shareholder in a Russian company called Lakhta Plaza, which the US Treasury would place under sanctions in March 2022. Lakhta Plaza, which is now under the control of Pavel, according to corporate filings, has shared an auditor and telephone number with Russian companies which have shipped heavy industrial equipment to mining and logging companies in Africa that were later sanctioned by the US and EU for being fronts for Wagner.

“In hindsight, we ought to have got on top of these individuals far sooner than we did,” says Tom Keatinge, a sanctions expert at the Royal United Services Institute. “That should have included mapping and targeting family members and affiliates who will have inevitably facilitated [sanctions] evasion.”

Challenging the EU

The EU hoped to make up for lost time by placing sanctions last year on members of Prigozhin’s family. But those sanctions have proved to be less robust than was initially hoped.

Wagner does not exist as a single incorporated entity, but instead as a sprawling network of interacting companies with varying degrees of proximity to his Concord group. One of the most important entities is called Concord Management and Consulting; another is Concord Catering.

The arcane structure has presented a challenge to western governments in trying to restrict his operations.

According to the appeal against EU sanctions by Prigozhin’s mother, her only involvement in her son’s business was when she owned shares in Concord Management and Consulting from 2008 until 2017 and, she claimed, she had no influence over the company during this time.

Her lawyers said that “she has not been associated in any way with the companies linked to her son for more than five years and stresses that she had only a limited and temporary involvement in the management of Concord Management and Consulting at the time”.

The EU judges agreed, concluding that, based on the evidence before them, her only ties to her son were familial and there was no provable economic connection between them.

Corporate filings and accounts of Violetta’s art gallery, however, reveal several overlaps between it and her son’s business empire. In 2021, according to its Russian tax records, the gallery was being audited by a tiny St Petersburg consultancy called Accent, which reported annual turnover of Rbs14mn in 2022, or just under $200,000, and a staff of five people.

Accent is also the auditor for almost all of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s companies, including the various entities that form Concord as well as multiple Prigozhin family real estate businesses. At least two-thirds of its clients are connected to Prigozhin.

Accent’s other clients include M Invest, a Prigozhin-controlled company sanctioned for being a base for Wagner in Sudan, and M Finans, which was sanctioned for Wagner operations in the Central African Republic that, according to the US government, engaged in “serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions and physical abuse”. Accent did not respond to questions about its work for companies controlled by Prigozhin and his family.

In her submission to the EU court, Violetta said she had never had a connection to the rest of Prigozhin’s network of companies.

But leaked emails reveal that Violetta’s husband is a senior executive in another company in the Concord group. Correspondence between Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Russian lawyers and solicitors in the UK show that Samuil Fridmanovich Zharkoi used to be the general manager of Concord Catering. Last year Russian media reported that Zharkoi had died.

Zharkoi signed documents submitted to the US Department of Justice on behalf of the company when it was fighting an indictment for attempted interference in the US 2016 elections — an allegation Prigozhin admitted to in November last year. Internal legal documents from 2021 seen by the FT also list Zharkoi as a senior executive within Concord Management and Consulting.

Leaked correspondence also shows some of the ways in which Violetta aided her son’s attempts to overturn sanctions. In 2021, Prigozhin’s Russian lawyers hired a London firm of solicitors, Discreet Law, to sue journalists reporting on his mercenary activities.

As part of the identification check for Prigozhin, they submitted a gas bill in the name of Violetta. In the email sent by the Russian lawyers to the London firm, they claimed that Violetta lived at a St Petersburg address cited on the bill with her son — and that she paid his utility bills.

A new exhibition

The EU court ruling in favour of Prigozhin’s mother might not be the last word, however. An EU official says that Brussels can appeal against the European Court of Justice ruling within two months. It will have three options, the official says: to take Violetta permanently off the sanctions list, to appeal against the ruling or to reimpose sanctions against her with a different set of evidence. “Renewed listings are in the pipeline,” the official says.

Prigozhin himself continues to rail against western attempts to punish him for Wagner’s activities. In a response to a recent FT article about his business activities and sanctions evasion, he wrote on the Concord Telegram channel: “I spit and I will spit on any sanctions.”

The existing sanctions against Prigozhin’s family, meanwhile, have imposed some costs: the Wagner boss’s daughters are no longer able to enjoy showjumping holidays in the Mediterranean.

The horses they competed on have not appeared in international show jumping events since the invasion and now fall under a blanket ban on Russian registration. In March 2022, the FEI prohibited Russian or Belarusian riders from appearing in its events.

With his family now largely confined to Russia, there are signs that Prigozhin is devising new ways to evade sanctions. Veronika, the younger daughter who turned 18 in March, is now the only member of his immediate family not to be under western sanctions — a fact that the Prigozhin family appears to have taken advantage of. Russian corporate records show that late last year Veronika was made the owner of a company that controls a hotel in St Petersburg.

Violetta, meanwhile, has continued to exhibit her oil paintings in her gallery. Last December, as Wagner forces were bombarding Bakhmut, she opened a new show about the importance of conserving cultural monuments.

One of the works in her collection was titled “Palmyra in 2022”, a landscape of the ancient Syrian desert city whose antiquities were famously destroyed by Isis. The city was taken from the Islamist group by Russian troops including Wagner fighters, and became one of the main foreign bases for her son’s mercenaries.

In a press release for the show, which was called “Save, Don’t Destroy”, Violetta paid tribute to her supporters: “I would like to thank my whole family for creating the exhibition.”

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