ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Long before he was indicted by the United States in a case involving the troll factory that spearheaded Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 United States elections, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin emerged from prison just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and opened a hot-dog stand.
Soon, he has said, the rubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them in the kitchen of their modest apartment, and he was launched on his improbable career. He earned the slightly mocking nickname of “Putin’s cook.”
Despite his humble, troubled youth, Mr. Prigozhin became one of Russia’s richest men, joining a charmed circle whose members often share one particular attribute: their proximity to President Vladimir V. Putin. The small club of loyalists who gain Mr. Putin’s trust often feast, as Mr. Prigozhin has, on enormous state contracts. In return, they are expected to provide other, darker services to the Kremlin as needed.
On Friday, Mr. Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by the United States special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for interfering in the American election.
According to the indictment, Mr. Prigozhin, 56, controlled the entity that financed the troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency. He has denied involvement.
“The Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti quoted Mr. Prigozhin 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.”
Mr. Prigozhin’s critics — including opposition politicians, journalists and activists, the United States Treasury and now Mr. Mueller — say he has emerged as Mr. Putin’s go-to oligarch for that and a variety of sensitive and often-unsavory missions, like recruiting contract soldiers to fight in Ukraine and Syria.
“He is not afraid of dirty tasks,” said Lyubov Sobol of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization established by the prominent opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny to investigate abuse of state contracts and other illicit schemes.
“He can fulfill any task for Putin, ranging from fighting the opposition to sending mercenaries to Syria,” she said. “He serves certain interests in certain spheres, and Putin trusts him.”
The United States imposed sanctions against Mr. Prigozhin in December 2016, followed by his two main, publicly acknowledged companies, Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering. In doing so, the Treasury Department said he provided extensive support to senior Russian Federation officials, including constructing a military base near Ukraine that was used to deploy Russian troops.
The most notorious venture linked to Mr. Prigozhin, however, is the troll farm that is accused of attacking opposition figures in Russia and seeking to magnify and aggravate social and political divisions in the West. Despite his frequent denials of any involvement, his critics say he and others like him provide a way for the Kremlin to engage in such activities while maintaining a discreet distance.
The indictment on Friday says, among other charges, that Mr. Prigozhin frequently met in 2015 and 2016 with Mikhail I. Bystrov, the top official in the troll factory, which ran a disinformation campaign called Project Lakhta that by September 2016 had a monthly budget of $1.2 million.
Boris L. Vishnevsky, an opposition member of the city council in St. Petersburg, who has called for an official investigation into threats by Mr. Prigozhin against journalists, said the Kremlin endorsed projects like the troll farm without directly organizing them.
“This is done by somebody…
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