The Prigozhin Model.
The Gangster Will Go, but the Gangsterism Will Stay
July 1, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer

Oleg Kashin sees the reason for Prigozhin's revolt in the fact that with the advent of his “private military company” in Russia, for the first time in a hundred years a powerful military entity free from political control emerged. The revolt looks set to lead to the final disappearance of moral foundations in relations between the state and society.

Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s longtime aide and one of the architects of his Ukraine policy in 2014, commenting on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed revolt, recalled a criminal episode from 40 years ago – three bandits attacked a woman, one strangled her while the two others took off her jewelry and shoes. “The one who attacked the woman from behind and choked her was called Yevgeny Prigozhin. And that’s all you need to know about Prigozhin. Nothing else. Everything else doesn’t matter.”

A gangster in a gangster state

Surkov’s idea is understandable: when a real criminal gets into politics, this in itself should be so shocking that everything else ceases to matter. But does this logic work in the Russia of 2023, when the state itself is waging a criminal war, and aside from the war, society is used to seeing episodes of real crime perpetrated by the state – extrajudicial murders, poisonings, beatings, fabricated criminal cases.

Political consultant and gallery owner Marat Gelman, who 20 years ago worked with Surkov on Kremlin election projects, now writes: “Prigozhin is better than Putin. Sure, the same murderer and thief, but he speaks about it openly. Against the backdrop of the general hypocrisy, it really stands out.” Such a view, however cynical it may be, looks much more interesting than Prigozhin’s criminal past – even the most reasonable opponents of Putin, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on the day when Prigozhin’s fighters were marching on Moscow, offered their support and openly.
Russian mercenaries deployed in the Central African Republic, October 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
It should be kept in mind that the robbery of the unfortunate woman 40 years ago for which Yevgeny Prigozhin got sentenced to prison is far from the only and not the most recent criminal episode from his biography. Khodorkovsky has brought up the murder of three documentary filmmakers in the Central African Republic in 2018, with investigations leading to Prigozhin-connected entities. A few years before, Prigozhin was fingered as the organizer of a series of attacks on bloggers and opposition activists in St Petersburg, as well as on the husband of prominent politician Lyubov Sobol in Moscow.

This is only “classic” criminality, while the corrupt side of Prigozhin’s business has been commented on even by Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Moreover, what are not quite accurately called private military companies (there is no legal status for them in Russian legislation) fall under the Criminal Code article on mercenarism in Russia.

In other words, there is enough evidence that Yevgeny Prigozhin is less of a cook (who remembers the last time he cooked anything?) and more of a gangster. Still, gangsterism does not seem like something out of the ordinary in a state that itself has come to behave like a gangster.

A fighting “sharashka” instead of the Red Army

No one is really surprised by the outright lie repeated publicly by Vladimir Putin that the Russian state had nothing to do with PMC Wagner, while now he has suddenly admitted that the company was entirely financed by the state. A public, conscious lie in Russian political etiquette is also not considered something unacceptable – Kremlin loyalist and nationalist philosopher Yegor Kholmogorov once said, not without pride, “when we need to, we lie across the whole country.”

And considering Putin’s latest admission that the state spent RUB 86 billion (about a billion dollars) on PMC Prigozhin in a year, you can appreciate the “gray” economy of the Russian state, which is greasing the gears of the state amid the war and sanctions.

But Prigozhin’s raid is still not a business event, and the military-political aspect of Wagner’s existence still seems like one of the key mysteries of the war and the current political situation in Russia. Interesting is the remark of Andrei Morozov, a prominent field commander of the so-called DNR People’s Militia who is known as a consistent critic of the Kremlin from a radical, pro-war position. He says that the main asset of Wagner, and the main contribution of the state to its development, was personnel, not money –
“For several years, the Ministry of Defense pursued a conscious policy of moving the best trained commanders and fighters from official army structures into Prigozhin’s PMC.
Soldiers of Yevgeny Prigozhin's private military company Wagner in Bakhmut, Ukraine. May 2023. Source: VK
This seems close to the truth – it is only now, as the Ukraine war drags on, that a prisoner sent into the meat grinder in exchange for his freedom has become the face of Wagner. Before, for many years, when Wagner fought in Syria, Libya and African countries, its units consisted of professional special forces soldiers, trained and educated incomparably better than the “ordinary” army.

From the standpoint of effectiveness, this division of the armed forces into “formal” and “real” is part of the tradition of “privatizing the gains and nationalizing the losses,” which Morozov also writes about. The “official” army is a cumbersome, inefficient structure, mired in corruption, bureaucracy and much more. Taking out the army that can really fight and giving it special terms may be unusual, though at the same time it is very Putin-like.

Wagner was fundamentally arranged in the same way as the other pet projects of the Russian leader – for example, the Skolkovo research center or the Sirius educational center, where a model institution is separated from the rest of the industry and put in ideal conditions both in terms of funding and the legal regime (Sirius is in Sochi but outside the purview of the city authorities). In historical terms, Wagner is a fighting “sharashka” (this is the name of the Stalin-era institutes and design bureaus controlled by the special services where prisoners who were engineers worked, tasked with the most important government matters such as building atomic weapons or missiles).

No more guardrails against revolts

Seemingly, the inevitability of Prigozhin rebellion arose precisely at this early stage.

The Russian army, the direct successor of the Soviet army, has always been deprived of power and has never been a full-fledged state or public institution with its own interests. This model of organizing the army was developed by the Bolsheviks a century ago, when they were faced with the need to recruit politically disloyal military specialists who had served in the Russian Empire army. So that these potentially unreliable officers and generals did only their duties, following the orders of the political leadership and not staking claim to anything else, the Red Army was equipped with several additional lines of defense – a representative of the party, a commissar, was placed over each commander, and both were watched by a “special department” subordinated to the secret services.

For the Soviet Union’s 70 years of existence, this system never failed. The army never claimed a say in the country’s politics whatsoever, even during World War II, and there were only two instances when the political leadership of the USSR suspected the army command of, as it was then called, “Bonapartism,” and both times the Kremlin easily managed to get rid of the suspiciously ambitious military leaders. In 1937, Stalin had Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other marshals who might have plotted against him shot, and 20 years later Khrushchev easily got rid of Marshal Zhukov, who was also suspected of excessive political ambitions.

In the crisis years between Russia’s Soviet and post-Soviet history, the army twice found itself at the center of a political maelstrom, though neither time did it claim a say in politics – in 1991, the military followed the orders to bring tanks into Moscow and to withdraw them over a span of three days, while in 1993 it submitted to President Yeltsin and helped him crush the resistance of the parliament that he had dissolved. In all cases, there was simply no reason for a military leader to emerge.

Recall 1998, when General Lev Rokhlin, a hero of the First Chechen War, popular in the army and an MP, tried to create a military opposition movement and even seemed to be planning a mutiny – it’s impossible to confirm this, because against the backdrop of the rumors about a conspiracy, Rokhlin was shot dead at his home under mysterious circumstances. In the last century, there were no other cases where you could even suspect a mutiny in Russia or the USSR. What has changed?

The answer lies precisely in the structural simplification of the “sharashka,” which had been effective because it freed the part of the army that moved into Wagner from everything superfluous, but in the end not only corruption and bureaucracy turned out superfluous, but also the usual forms of political control – the political workers and special officers stayed with Shoigu, while only real soldiers went to Prigozhin.
For the first time in a century, the army, albeit in a truncated and informal form, was free of the external restrictions that deprived it of power – this reason is why the rebellion became possible and then inevitable.
The reason why Prigozhin decided to challenge Shoigu (and Putin, too, though everyone denies it) is of no fundamental importance. The notion of Chekhov’s gun is appropriate here – if a gun is hanging on the wall, then it should be fired at some point. When the army has the opportunity to claim its interests, sooner or later it will do so. There are no armies that are always satisfied with how they are treated by the political leadership, and the more imperfect the state system, the higher the likelihood of the army as an institution coming onto the scene.

The apparent failure of Prigozhin’s stunt does not solve the problem and will not be forgotten moving forward. The genie is out of the bottle, the system of total control of the political sphere (which the Bolsheviks created a century ago at a huge cost and in completely different historical circumstances) has been destroyed, and it cannot be restored. The precedent has been set and is becoming the subject of a social contract – anyone who has tanks now knows that in the event of differences with the regime, he can send tanks on Moscow – and what difference does it make who will be next, whether it’s Prigozhin, Surovikin or some hitherto unknown general?

Putin judo in Prigozhin’s kitchen

Or maybe Putin himself. In analysis of Russian politics in the first Putin years, references to “Putin judo” were popular, the basis of Putin’s favorite martial art – a fighter seizing the opponent’s energy and using it to defeat him. Practical examples of this “judo” include the transformation of the anti-Kremlin Fatherland party, which Putin and the Kremlin faced off with in 1999, into the foundation of Putin’s United Russia party, and the transformation of Chechnya, where the Kadyrov regime – little different from the separatists with which Moscow fought 20-30 years ago – today is super loyal and faithful to Putin.

And if this is applied to Prigozhin, how might it look? When defeating his rivals, Putin takes trophies with him, and in the case of Prigozhin, the trophy will be his criminal habits and gangster ethics, frankness bordering on shamelessness. Prigozhin calmly confessed to extrajudicial executions of his enemies – Putin has not behaved this way yet, but now why not? Prigozhin posed with the corpses of soldiers who had died under his command – maybe we will see Putin against such a backdrop.

In its most general form, the political philosophy of Yevgeny Prigozhin, which goes far beyond the current war and explains everything he has done so far (not only the attacks on activists, but, say, troll factories on the Internet), can be formulated as a fundamental and consistent rejection even of the simplified and flawed morality that until now had been undisputed in relations between the state and society in Russia. Prigozhin’s model is a default on moral obligations, a catapult toward the archaization and savagery of the country, and though it fell to him to be the trailblazer, it is hard to see now who and what can be done to make Russia turn away from it.
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