From the ‘battle of Bakhmut’ to the ‘march of justice’: Prigozhin’s audio files, transcribed

Prigozhin’s press service actively responds via Telegram to questions asked by journalists. Questions are mostly posted as screenshots, responses are mostly posted as audio messages, other posts include video. How do we turn these into something that can be searched and analysed?

Giorgio Comai


August 22, 2023

Summary of key results
  • it is possible to use open source tools for transcribing audio messages locally and the quality is reasonably good also in the case of messages such as Prigozhin’s filled with slang and expletives (adding automatic translation, the contents are still mostly readable, but the quality is noticeably degraded)

  • exploring mixed-media contents published on Telegram channels may be challenging, but feasible

  • just looking at changes in the frequency of posting it is possible to observe Prigozhin’s radicalisation journey

  • a full dataset with all of Prigozhin’s audio messages transcribed is available for download, or to consult in a single page in Russian or with automatic translation in English


As the Kremlin tightened its control of narratives and news that feature in mainstream media, Telegram has gained a significant role as the venue where Russian citizens of different persuasions look for information and opinions. Indeed, Telegram has remained one of the few uncensored on-line spaces (another one being YouTube) that can be freely accessed from Russia without having to rely on VPNs or other censorship circumvention techniques.

In many ways, mainstream media and Telegram channels seem to be two parallel information spaces, with debates and news that are dominant on Telegram (where re-posts among popular channels are common) may be completely ignored by major broadcast media. Indeed, the invisible line tightly separating these spaces is punctured only occasionally, and figures that are prominent on Telegram or even Western discourse about the war would be almost unknown to people who relied strictly on federal TV channels to get their news.

In the full web archive of news of Russia’s Pervy Kanal, there is literally only a handful of mentions of Evgeny Prigozhin until June 2023, all of them related to questions Putin has received in interviews in earlier years and that refer to Prigozhin’s involvement with the so-called “troll factory” based in Saint Petersburg. But there is no reference to his role in Ukraine, not even during the months-long battle of Bakhmut; not even a hint or passing reference to the growing tensions between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defence that marked the months preceding Prigozhin’s mutiny.1 And yet, most respondents to opinion polls seemed to know enough about Prigozhin to have an opinion about him. For a brief period before the mutiny, he was one of the public figures most frequently mentioned approvingly by survey respondents, at one point even the most frequently mentioned after president Putin, even if this is likely more the result of a relatively small number of strong supporters rather than of widespread support.

Either way, it seems clear that contents spread through Telegram reach a substantial part of the Russian population. Telegram channels is also the primary way used by figures such as Prigozhin to share their opinions and messages. In brief, there is plenty of good reasons for scholars interested in the spread of information and narratives related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to dedicate some attention to Russian-language Telegram channels. Indeed, there have been some efforts in this space that outline the prevalence of pro-Kremlin channels on Telegram.2

Rather than dealing with a large number of Telegram channels and their interactions, this post focuses on the task of analysing the contents published by a single figure - Evgeny Prigozhin. It is an interesting case not only because of its obvious relevance in relation to the war, but also technically, because of the variety of formats it employs as well as the peculiarity of each format for conveying different messages. Indeed, as will become apparent by the end of this post, in the case of Prigozhin the switch from written text to audio messages has effectively characterised the radicalisation journey of Prigozhin’s public persona.

Step 0: Understanding Prigozhin’s presence on Telegram

How does Prigozhin’s communication work? In brief, Prigozhin’s press service actively responds via Telegram to questions received by journalists via email. Questions are mostly posted as screenshots, while responses have been increasingly posted as audio messages. Other posts may be in video format, including clips with prisoners, combat images, or video clips with Prigozhin’s voice.

There is an additional difficulty: Prigozhin’s communication is surprisingly orderered in some respects, messy in others.

Prigozhin has one main official Telegram channel that he uses for “official” communication, which is called “Prigozhin’s press office”, and has the Telegram handle @concordgroup_official, “Concord Group” being the name of the holding company that controls Prigozhin’s various businesses. At the time of this writing in August 2023, the channel has almost 1 million 250 thousands subscribers.

Let’s start with the surprisingly ordered part: (almost) each message starts with a numeric identifier, in a format such as the following: “#903 Запрос от редакции газеты…” (“#903 Question from…”). The post on 26 June in which Prigozhin offers some “clarifications” on the mutiny which has by now over 4 million views starts with “#1851 We publish the response of Evgeny Prigozhin…”. As of August 2023, no other message has been posted on this channel. So in principle, everything looks nice and clear: there are so far 1851 statements by Prigozhin.

Now, let’s move on to the messy part.

First, there is no official website to take as a point of reference. The official Telegram channel’s bio includes a link to the official page on Vkontakte, a popular Russian service similar to Facebook. However, the page on VKontakte has been blocked after the mutiny by request of the Russian authorities and appears to be still blocked with the following notice:

The Telegram channel itself was opened only in November 2022, with message #897. Previous messages were probably published first on VKontakte (now not reachable), and presumably reposted from there in other Telegram channels.

Telegram channel “Prigozhin’s hat”, for example, has over 500.000 subscribers and was opened in February 2019. Even earlier posts look exactly the same as ones published on the official channel, and it appears they are effectively just (partially automated) re-posts. However, unfortunately, they do not include the same numeric id used in official posts. Besides, there are some more contents published on Prigozhin’s hat that do not feature on the official channel, including a few posts published after the mutiny. These are mostly forwarded from other Prigozhin-related channels such as “Razgruzka Vagnera” or “SOMB - ’Tourists in Africa” (related to Wagner’s presence in Africa). On 21 August 2023, for example, a new video post by Prigozhin aimed at recruiting personnel for Wagner missions in Africa appeared; an audio message posted as a response to a question supposedly by an African media posted as a screenshot in French has appeared on the same day. A new chapter in Prigozhin’s communication efforts may be beginning.

Prigozhin’s hat” may at this stage be the easiest source for earlier posts issued by Prigozhin (as well as possibly for the post-mutiny period)^[Others sources may well be available; I welcome suggestions about full archives if available.], while @concordgroup_official is the most consistent source for recent months. As will appear from the following sections, it is really starting from early 2023 the Prigozhin stepped-up his virulent rhetoric expressed through audio messages, so in many respects it makes sense to focus on more recent contents and look at previous contents only as a term of reference.

To summarise, contents posted by Prigozhin’s press service are a combination of:

  • text messages
  • text included as screenshots of emails (and, occasionally, documents)
  • audio messages
  • video clips of different length and format

How do we turn these into something that can be searched and analysed?

Step 1: Get the data out of Telegram

From Telegram Desktop, it easy to export the full archive of Telegram channel in machine-readable format, exporting all posts with metadata as a single .json file, as well as all images and files in dedicated subfolders.

First, let’s have a look at some basic information about the dataset we have:

Earliest post: 2022-11-05

Latest post: 2023-06-26

Total number of posts: 1 242

Total number of audio files: 408

Earliest post with audio file: 2022-12-26

Latest post with audio file: 2023-06-26

Total duration of audio files: 29628s (~8.23 hours)

Average duration of audio files (in seconds): 73

Median duration of audio files (in seconds): 51

For reference, it may be useful to look at “Prigozhin’s hat” to look at the frequency of posts in earlier months.

It appears there is a distinct crescendo in the number of posts published by this channel (presumably reflecting Prigozhin’s overall post frequency also on its currently unavailable official channels), from just a handful of posts per month until September 2020, then mostly between 40 and 80 monthly posts until September 2022, going up to more than 200 post per month until the end of June 2023, when the channel fell silent post-Mutiny, after averaging close to 10 posts per day in the previous weeks

Even these basic descriptive statistics reflect some of the things we know about Prigozhin: the big increase in posts in October 2022 can easily be explained by the fact that it is only then, more precisely on 26 September 2022, that Prigozhin publicly admitted its ties to Wagner. Two days earlier, on 23 September 2020, the US treasury significantly expanded its sanctions against entities linked to Prigozhin, which may be related to him taking a more public role.

Since the very beginning of its online presence, Prigozhin’s press team published the questions it received as a screenshot, and added Prigozhin’s own reply either in the text of the message or as an additional screenshot with text. As emerges from the following graph, it is basically only starting with 2023 that Prigozhin started to respond with audio messages - often, angry rants - that quickly became a trademark element of its communication.

As a consequence, since the focus of this post is Prigozhin’s audio messages and its rhetoric escalation in recent months, for the rest of this post I will mostly stick to Prigozhin’s official channel: as no audio message was posted before the new channel has been opened, key contents should all be there.

Step 2: An overview of the kind of posts published

Posts published on the official Telegram channel of the Prigozhin’s press service as well as on “Prigozhin’s hat” Telegram channel including older posts by Prigozhin are mostly based on a combination of formats; sometimes the contents are repeated in more than one format, sometimes they are not.

For example, this post shows a question asked by a media organisation as a screenshot:

Conveniently, this is accompanied by another post that includes both the question and the answer given in both textual and audio format:

In this case, everything seems easy: we can in principle ignore both the screenshotted picture and the audio-file, as the very same contents are presented also in textual format.

But then, in other occasions there are only audio-files or voice messages with no context whatsoever. This was the case, for example, for most messages posted during the mutiny on 24 June, including the one that announced its end:

In others still, the content of the question previously-screenshotted is transcribed, but Prigozhin’s comments are conveyed only in audio format.

Finally, there are occasional posts including some documents or video files:

Video files often include spoken comments, or depict meetings. They are only very occasionally central to Prigozhin’s communication, and even when they are, mostly not for the spoken content. Video files should not be dismissed, however, and they may actually be an important part of the communication of other Telegram channels, all the way from Strelkov to the “military bloggers” who produce video contents. In the rest of this post, I will leave out video clips, both for facilitating consistency in the processing of results and because including them introduces further ethical questions (they include, among other things, the voice of Ukrainians prisoners of war).

In the following steps, I will proceed with turning images into text (only briefly) and then really focus on turning audio messages into text format that can be searched and processed further.

Step 3: OCR images

As screenshots of text have become less common on Prigozhin’s official channel in recent months, and as they are broadly a format less frequently found on Telegram in comparison to video and audio files, I will go through the image part quickly, and then focus more on audio messages. Given the prevalence of textual screenshots in earlier posts, this section will take messages from “Prigozhin’s hat” Telegram channel, rather than the official one; the vast majority of posts are exactly the same on both channels, but, as mentioned before, “Prigozhin’s hat” has a lot more of the early posts.

OCR techniques to recognised text from images are well established. In this specific case, the quality of results is hindered mainly by two aspects:

  • low resolution of the images
  • the fact that many of these are screenshots of emails, and they may include some email metadata at the top, or some signature text at the bottom of the email
  • the fact that there are sometimes more than one language in the same image, either because there’s some clutter in the email screenshots, or because questions are asked in English and the response given in Russian (in the vast majority of cases, however, both questions and answers are given in Russian)

The following is a quick attempt to extract the text of the images via OCR, with no particular effort dedicated to polishing the results. Even so, the process allows to conduct quick searches among transcribed text. For example, if you look for “Wagner” (“Вагнер”) in the search box for the text_photo column, only posts where “Wagner” is mentioned in the screenshotted text will be kept. For the records, this shows that out of 1 839 posts with valid text extracted from the images, 491 mention “Wagner”, all the way from the early days of the channel back in 2019 when Prigozhin was still vehemently denying any association with it.

Some information about the following table:

  • the table includes all posts that have attached a photo from where seemingly meaningful text could be automatically extracted
  • the text has been automatically extracted with OCR with tesseract, setting the language as Russian (hence, the glaring inaccuracies where the images include contents in other languages)
  • if the post has attached more than one image, the text for each image is included in a separate row; the embedded post is always the same and it may not be immediately obvious that it includes more than one picture
  • very often, the response to the question is given in a separate post: clicking through the embedded post, and then clicking on “context” may be helpful in finding more details in the posts immediately preceding or following any given post.