A Harbinger of Troubled Times and a Servant of Their People: a Comic Show that Russia Deserves
Russia is a country where rebellion against the authorities is often led by leaders who are even more brutal and despotic than legitimate leaders. Little-educated Prigozhin can hardly be compared with Lenin, but he has a lot in common with Yemelyan Pugachev, an (in)famous leader of the bloody Cossack War of 1773-1775.
Published on June 19, 2023
Translated by Dmitry Lytov and Mike Lytov
The last serious wave of protests in Russia took place in 2011-2013 when the protesters tried to resist the cementing of Putin's power. It did not look like a real revolution, but was rather a protest of the middle class of the two largest urban centers, Moscow and St. Petersburg, although not without local specifics.
The rallies of "white ribbons", as the opposition then branded themselves, alongside the typical hipster crowd and moderate liberals, featured nationalists under the imperial black, yellow and white flags, the regular participants at the "Russian Marches".
They also opposed Putin, but did not seek democratic changes. The supporters of the slogan "Russia for Russians, Moscow for Muscovites" did not like the president because he was not tough enough, not authoritarian enough, not enough of an imperialist, not enough of a xenophobe.
At that time, I had an account on the Odnoklassniki (“Classmates”) social network to keep in contact with many of my childhood friends from the Russian countryside. They lived their lives and, of course, did not go to any rallies, but they posted a lot of angry messages about the corrupt government along with memes about "Stalin's justice" and other nostalgic-patriotic-revanchist junk.
Dissatisfaction with Putin was visible, but the annexation of Crimea reconciled everyone with the authorities and returned them the credit of trust from both liberals ("Crimea is not a sandwich") and nationalists.
"Is the Czar not real?"
The "special operation" against Ukraine was supposed to become another gift from the authorities to the people craving for another victory, and was meant to ensure the stability of Putin's regime for many years to come. However, the events did not go according to the declared scenario: Kyiv did not fall in three days, the war dragged on, Russia suffered huge losses and began to retreat from the captured Ukrainian territories.
Such a turn works against Putin, and creates conditions for suspicions that "the Czar is not real". In Russian history, protracted and unsuccessful wars have traditionally provoked large-scale political crises. This was the case during the time of Ivan the Terrible, who lost the Livonian War, which lasted for almost 30 years, and soon after its end began the period known as the Troubled Times.
Discontent is brewing among the Russian masses: there is no visible quick victory, and the greedy and corrupt elite consists of decrepit old men like in the times of Brezhnev
This was the case with Nicholas II, who pompously entered the First World War, but later lost power due to the unpopularity of the unsuccessful warfare. Recently, the Afghan war in the 1980s was one of the important factors in the collapse of the USSR.
The current "special operation" weakens Russia in general and Putin's power in particular. However, it would be naïve for us to hope that a pacifist movement will emerge in the Russian Federation, or a civil society will be born that will put an end to aggression. The war, despite all the obvious negative consequences, remains popular in the Russian Federation.
If you watch the street polls of ordinary Russians, you can see that a lot of ordinary citizens support a radical solution to the "Ukrainian question" and say: "Why don’t we drop some kind of a bomb on them". It is not difficult to guess that they mean the use of nuclear weapons.
The lack of success, or insufficiently harsh measures against the enemy stir discontent among the Russian masses: there is no visible quick victory, moreover, the war is gradually spilling over into the territory of the Russian Federation, the elites are greedy, old men sit in the government, as in the time of Brezhnev, even the last Victory Day parade looked pitiful and miserable. Which puts the traditional Russian question "Who is to blame?" back on the table. Even propaganda TV started to talk about it one way or another.
Dissatisfaction with the ruling elite is a phenomenon known to many countries. When voters become disillusioned with traditional politicians, very unexpected characters enter the arena.
Yemelyan Pugachev and Prigozhin
The rage of “simple Americans” gave rise to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Ukrainians saw an alternative to the stagnant elites in Volodymyr Zelenskyi and his project "Servant of the People". In Russia, Evgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the "Wagner" Private Military Company, entered the big political game as a voice of Russian anti-systemism.
Russia is a country where rebellion against the authorities is often led by leaders who are even more brutal and despotic than legitimate leaders.
The illiterate Don Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev, who claimed to be Czar Peter III, raised the Yaik Cossacks and the Turkic peoples of the Volga region against Catherine's rule. In his methods of struggle, he surpassed all the atrocities of the then-current government. The self-proclaimed Czar and his henchmen committed atrocities of unheard-of severity, which Alexander Pushkin later called "a Russian riot, senseless and merciless."
Lenin and the Bolsheviks with their red terror were much less humane than Czar Nicholas II, whom they called "bloody".
Little-educated Prigozhin can hardly be compared with Lenin, but he has a lot in common with Yemelyan Pugachev. Both enjoy the company of robbers and ex-convicts. Both of them like the principle that when the people love a strong hand, then its strength should be unlimited, the hand should take the people at the throat with an iron grip. Both like to act like comedians and be foolish. And most importantly, they know how to speak to the people in their language.
For the "average" russian citizen, the current president is still an arrogant intellectual
It may seem to Western diplomats that Putin is too brutal a politician. But for the "average" Russian citizen, the current president is still an arrogant intellectual.
All his hallmark phrases, like "finish them in the outhouse", "you like it or you don't, bear with me, my beauty", appear to the eyes of a resident of the hinterlands as nothing more than a lame attempt to appear cool, like when a student takes a puff of a joint from another high schooler to prove himself, only to break out into a coughing fit after.
Prigozhin does not choose his words carefully, he speaks like a typical Vologda or Saratov man with a long criminal record. He is what is called a "self-made guy", and he does not need to learn a role or choose the right words - it is enough to be himself.
The Ukrainian TV audience were mostly fans of the "Evening Quarter" and the "Servant of the People", which is why they later elected the main character of these shows as their president. Prigozhin is the embodiment of two popular Russian TV series: "Bandit Petersburg" and "Penalty Battalion".
Little is known about the true biography of the head of the "Wagner" PMC, but his involvement in organized crime in Leningrad (the Soviet name of St Petersburg) is an established fact; he spent almost the entirety of the 1980s in prison.
His record includes "involvement of minors in criminal activity." In the 1980s, the following phenomenon was common in large industrial cities: a “rogue” appeared among high schoolers. He entertained the boys with stories about the penitentiary zones and stories that romanticized criminality, and would treat them to vodka or a cigarette. During these seemingly empty chats, the "recruiter" from the criminal world looked closely at which of the "minors" he could recruit as his accomplices.
Presumably, Prigozhin performed a similar mission. Actually, these skills came in handy for him when co-opting convicts into his PMC. In a word, in the criminal world, Putin's so-called cook has the right to present himself as a native of "St. Petersburg's street thugs", which legitimizes him both among real convicts and the fans of the series "Bandit Petersburg".
The TV series "Penalty Battalion" is typical schlock about the Second World War, which contains little historical truth. Instead, it created a cult of noble and brave criminals who are ready to defend the "fatherland" in a difficult moment.
Actually, not real criminals (commanders and Red Army men, most of whom were convicted already during the war), but the heroes of the film became the prototype of the Wagnerites. The informal leader of the convicts in the "Penalty Battalion" was a certain Antip Glymov: a cunning, brutal, but just thief in law who hates not only the Germans, but also the "red collar tabs" (law enforcement officers and military command). Doesn’t he resemble Prigozhin?
How can this be?
Sometimes you can hear skepticism, "how can a cook rebel against the almighty master"?
Firstly, Prigozhin never mentioned the president's name in his angry videos. Even when on the Victory Day he spoke about the “old man who lost his mind”, he later clarified that he was alluding to Russian generals. Currently, he is playing the "good king vs his bad vassals" game.
At the same time, Prigozhin boasts of his rating, which, according to media close to Wagner, is only slightly lower than Putin's. The leader of the Wagnerites refers to a telephone survey, according to the results of which the current ruler of the Kremlin has 42.5% support, and he himself - 39.7%. This survey does not inspire much confidence, as does all of Russian sociology, but if such numbers get into the media, then Prigozhin does have political ambitions. Professional Russian sociologists give completely different figures, where Prigozhin has about 2% in the presidential rating.
Secondly, Russia is not a democratic country — it is quite difficult to imagine that Putin and Prigozhin will meet in the second round of the presidential elections. It is possible that the leader of PMC "Wagner" is a project of one of the towers of the Kremlin, which is preparing an anti-Putin palace coup.
This is evidenced by Prigozhin's trip to the regions of Russia, which in its nature resembles the "indoctrination" of the electorate, and additionally, posters featuring the #1 Wagnerite appeared in the occupied Donetsk region, whose style looked similar to that of election posters.
In his sarcastic speeches about the Russian generals, Prigozhin pays a lot of compliments to Ukraine and the Armed Forces. This should not be surprising. During the First Chechen War, which Yeltsin's Russia actually lost, the opposition politicians (both left and right-wing) also made positive comments about Dzhokhar Dudayev's army, which was able to defeat the "talented generals".
However, those critics did not condemn the very fact of aggression against the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria -- they rather berated the “corrupt democrats” who "robbed the country and disgraced themselves in the Caucasus." In the wake of this revanchism, Putin came to power and started the Second Chechen campaign, which was victorious for Moscow.
Likewise, Prigozhin often says that the war against Ukraine cannot be won with the current army and the current command.
And this means only one thing: he simply claims a greater role in this war. Likewise, his statements that "Wagner" will no longer fight in Ukraine, and his refusal to submit to the Russian security forces, indicate that this warlord got carried away by the political game.
Future Russian defeats during the Ukrainian counteroffensive will strengthen anti-elitist sentiments in the Russian Federation and increase Prigozhin's popularity. For the first time in many years, the Russian opposition (not democratic, but chauvinistic) got a leader.
They expect reprisals from Prigozhin against the old elite and the creation of a new and bloodthirsty one (like at the time of Oprichnina), and only then will begin a "gathering the lands." He has already tested his force on some Russian military commanders — like the commander of the 72nd brigade of the Russian Armed Forces kidnapped by the Wagnerites. His coming to power, at first glance, seems ominous. But we must remember that the Pugachev War, the Razin War and many other troubled periods of Russian history with numerous impostors ruling, weakened the empire and gave peace to its neighbors for a while.