Russia – Oligarch’s Revolt or Khovanshchina 2023

11 / 7 / 2023

Two weeks have now passed since the so-called Prigozhin ‘rebellion’. New details about the events emerge with each passing day as the background and motives become more defined. Let’s figure out why the oligarch started an armed insurrection and how did Putin manage to overcome probably one of the most difficult days in his 23-plus years of unchallenged power, considering the political and social context of Russia today.

Regardless of the official statements of the Kremlin, eyewitnesses to the events in Rostov-on-Don are divided over the Wagner uprising. Some claim that in their advance into the Rostov and Voronezh regions, the rebels only left a trail of destruction in the already poor infrastructure of the Russian south. Others welcomed the mercenaries as heroes, having taken the weakened and disoriented administration under their own control, proving once again that the crisis of authority is tangible and how incapable the presidential office is in coping with the growing tension within the Russian army.

How can we characterize the PMC Wagner, its structure and area of influence? An unofficial army division founded by a Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has been a prominent unit serving as a tool to protect private facilities and participate in armed conflicts across the globe. While describing themselves as warriors of ‘Blood, Honor, Homeland and Courage’ they are not officially aligned to any of the ideologies but are strongly associated with ultra-nationalism and right-wing rhetoric. According to Vedomosti, daily newspaper based in Moscow, with a reference to the former head of Prigozhin’s analytical service, the driving force behind the army’s internal ideology is based on fear, deception and ‘military communism’. The last statement remains to be quite questionable, given the purely capitalistic and imperialistic nature of the organization, which becomes somewhat controversial when foreign medias such as Italian newspaper La Stampa compares Wagner Group with the Red Army and even Yevgeny Prigozhin with Lenin himself.

The phenomenon of private militias financially backed by millionaires and businessmen is becoming alarmingly present in resolutions of local and international conflicts, particularly in so-called ‘anti-terrorist’ interventions, and Wagner is no exception. Starting with participation in most of the Ukraine related operations, such as Crimean Crisis and Donbass War in 2014, Wagner Group has expanded its presence on global scale in Syria, Libya, Central African Republic and most recently Mali. The All Eyes On Wagner (AEOW) project prepared a report on the activities of the group in Mali during their first year in the country, including data from public sources, local media and testimony of witnesses and human rights activists about the crimes of Russian mercenaries. These crimes include massacres, rapes, looting and attacks on the local civilians, showing how they have not only failed to help the Malian authorities, but have also worsened lives and security inside the country. What motivates the fighters are their high salaries, multiple benefits and absolute separation from other Russian institutional structures. Thus, what may be the most plausible and realistic reason for the revolt is the reduction and division of the budget and ammunition supplies to the Wagner soldiers stationed at the front, who later accused the army forces of killing some of the mercenaries. Indeed, Prigozhin criticizes the Russian military leadership for its lack of support for the fighters and takes responsibility for understanding the origin of this “lawlessness in the country”.

What does this mean for ordinary Russian citizens as well as authorities? The governmental incompetence to keep the national army together and regulate internal conflicts reached its peak on 24th of June, when state authority failed in Rostov-on-Don, the first time since the end of World War II (excluding the war in Chechnya). The situation in the region on that fateful day is a litmus test for assessing the credibility of those in power, an irrefutable evidence to the fact that post-soviet Russia is built on oligarchic hegemony. It is a deeply corrupted system that functions by oppression and authority acknowledgement solely measuring it with wealth and tangible assets, where the dialogue between institutions of power and their protagonists looks more like a showdown between drinking buddies rather than diplomatically conducted negotiations. We can clearly state that the rebellion of the Prigozhin’s troops in Rostov is the consequence of the conflict of interests that has been rising ever since the beginning of Russian invasion to Ukraine last year.

“Endless 20 years we wait

With hope for the Ballet…”

Obviously, the authorities understand the need for legitimization by society, a popular recognition of power, something that the Kremlin has been working on very attentively ever since 2014, creating an efficient machine of propaganda in media that can hardly be escaped. While locals have witnessed the moment of complete destabilization, the rest of the nation, media blindfolded, is subjected to propaganda information filtered through the official media. In this situation, it was decided to use a classic move of mass distraction, broadcasting a documentary about Putin’s recently deceased old friend Silvio Berlusconi. The historical nature of this strategy of actively suppressing people’s interest in political issues added to the grotesque comedy created by the political information vacuum and dissemination of the agenda. However, one of the most unexpected results for the Wagner Revolt (or its attempt) was the spontaneous politicization of Rostov residents, who showed support to soldiers from the state-funded paramilitary organization, calling them heroes. The important fact here is not so much the support and ‘cheering’ for Wagner, but the ability and readiness of the population to come out of the stupor of hopelessness to recognize that there might be a regime change in the region. Therefore, for most Russians, the day of the mercenary uprising proved to be yet another day of illusion of order in the country, while the TV covers news about the life (and death) of the oligarchic elites. The silence of the authorities was also another political signal, even as Putin tried to feign a semblance of order by going to Saint-Petersburg for the annual ‘Scarlet Sails’ graduation ceremony, shortly after his brief address to the nation, in which he only wanted to show that he still had pseudo-control over the army and government.

Despite the prevailing feeling of confusion, distortion of facts and strongly pro-government rhetoric trying to save the administration’s face in front of a decades-weary nation, it is clear that the government is by no means stable and is quite susceptible to internal conflicts. However, Putin’s regime and the elites directly involved in the ruling class can still make use of a vertical power structure, given the non-existence of local self-government. Modern Russia is not the direct descendent of Soviet Union’s values, but a state governed by a group of entrepreneurs competing with each other for power, a state built on the synthesis of imperialistic ideas fueled by nostalgia for the good old days and the forced construction of capitalism. The current system can be described as corrupt, thieving, oligarchic and criminal at its core, as it was born after the dissolution of the USSR and grew with the impactful neo-liberal reforms that remained to be ‘all covered with birthmarks from socialism’, as the politician and economist Yegor Gaidar, who was responsible for the painful capitalist shock therapy in the first half of the 1990s, put it in 1996. All these factors have led to the current situation, in which the nation fearfully waits for the next authoritarian move, hoping to maintain a minimum standard of living, while the elderly is on the brink of bankruptcy, the rich get richer and richer, and those in power entertain themselves with the imperialistic idea of the strong nation based on the memory of the USSR. This is why what happened on 24th of June is an unexpected but also logical event, because it has destroyed the idea of the concentration of state power in the hands of one protagonist. The silver lining in this complicated situation is not the superficial choice of sides among the current forces in the field, nor even the blind faith in the arrival, sooner or later, of spontaneous opposition movement, but the possibility for Russian society to wake up from the decades-long torpor imposed by the regime and open spaces for the social mobilization against the weakening regime. The system is slowly eroding from within and at the hands of those who seemed to be its most loyal allies. For now, what remains for the people is to gather the remaining shreds of long-forgotten hope and take initiative to create a better reality than the current one.

*In the title of the article, reference is made to Khovanshchina, a conspiracy organized by the Moscow Streltsy at the beginning of Peter the Great’s rule, provoked by the non-payment of fees. The conspiracy became famous thanks to Modest Petrovič Musorgsky's opera, composed between 1872 and 1880.