Why Friedrich Schiller Offers More Insight Into Prigozhin's Revolt than Today's News
June 30, 2023
  • Ivan Grek

    Deputy Director of the Russia Program at the George Washington University

Ivan Grek sees Prigozhin's revolt as an exercise in power balancing in a feudal-like system. This approach reveals intriguing historical analogies that provide a deeper understanding of the power dynamics currently at play in Russia and what lies ahead.

In the midst of the plethora of videos, theories and articles surrounding the revolt of the Wagner Group, it is disheartening how little we can truly glean from these sources. One could argue that the only certainty about this uprising is that the story is far from over. Neither Prigozhin nor Putin can coexist in a world where their opponent walks the same earth.

However, the “march on Moscow” served as a stress test for Russia's state system and provided valuable insights into the inner workings of the regime. What unfolded revealed a curious resemblance between political developments in today’s Russia and the struggles between private armies and kings. The parallels are so lucid that this might be the time to discuss Russia as a “feudal” state and forecast its future through that paradigm.

The notion that Putin has transformed Russia into a feudal state, where elites are divided into clans and state officials exploit their positions for personal gain, is not a novel concept. Scholars have examined Putin's transformation of Russia through various lenses, positing conflicts among “Kremlin towers”, a planetary system with Putin as the sun and other groups as satellites, and a kleptocracy where Putin assumes the role of Godfather. These models complement one another and shed light on Putin's “neo-feudalism” — contemporary Russia’s political system in which the autocrat's power is based on mediating conflicts among elites while allowing the latter to engage in all forms of corruption in their offices/on their estates. The struggle among feudal elites is instrumental to Putin's legitimacy. His primary task has always been to maintain a delicate balance of power and prevent any clan from gaining enough influence to disrupt the system.

The management of Russia's military affairs also mirrors the patterns of a feudal system. Feudal obligations in medieval times required mobilizing peasants and hiring mercenaries like landsknechts. In Russia, this obligation is fulfilled by various elites, from the Ministry of Defense to business leaders and regional governors, who create private military companies or region-based military units comprising conscripts.
Consequently, the Russian army is fragmented into interest groups and sectors of responsibility, unlike a modern military that consolidates people, resources and ideas into a centralized force.
Dmitri Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos, established in late 2022 Tsar's Wolves, a group of military advisers and experts to operate in the war zone. Source: Twitter
Even though Russian law stipulates that military affairs fall under federal jurisdiction and are not the responsibility of regional administrations, the September 2022 mobilization in Russia was effectively outsourced to the governors. They became the leaders of forced conscription, akin to medieval vassals recruiting soldiers from their lands. When soldiers face difficulties during training or at the front lines, they address their regional governors in collective video complaints rather than the military officials who are formally responsible. Despite this being beyond their official duties, governors respond and attempt to resolve these issues, bypassing the Ministry of Defense. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, stands out for having had the most formidable “feudal formation” for many years — a regular state army called Akhmat, after his father, which operates as a separate unit independent of the regular Russian army.

Another medieval practice reemerging in Russia is the use of mercenaries as regular army formations. Mercenaries as a regular army lost their significance with the dissolution of feudalism in Europe and the emergence of mass regular armies in the 18th century. Thus, their reappearance as major players on the battlefield signals a regression of the centralized state.

In addition to the infamous PMC Wagner, Russian forces employ other entities such as Gazprom-owned PMC Stream, GRU-controlled PMC Redut, former deputy minister Dmitri Rogozin's quasi-PMC Tsar’s Wolves, PMC Patriot (allegedly under the control of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu) and numerous smaller groups.

Contemporary Russian “feudals” are motivated to take part in the war by the same factors as their medieval counterparts – material rewards and the ability to maintain private armies for the protection of their interests. In addition to their direct access to funds earmarked for the war, these “feudals” profit immensely from the reconstruction of occupied territories and the redistribution of captured wealth. Investigations have revealed that the Ministry of Defense channels billions of rubles to companies associated with its affiliates for the reconstruction of occupied cities. Occupation administrations exert control over hundreds of businesses in the captured territories.

How do feudal systems break?

The recent conflict between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense shed light on the significant role played by the PMC Wagner Group as a counterweight to the military that has enjoyed exclusive access to resources since February 24. Contrary to the prevailing notion that this conflict emerged recently, Prigozhin and Defense Minister Shoigu have been locked in a power struggle since the Palmyra operation in Syria in 2016-17, with Putin attempting to manage the clash until the Wagner Group's audacious march on Moscow. Prigozhin was given the leeway to publicly criticize and humiliate the military leadership, serving as a means to keep them in check. The underlying message conveyed by the Kremlin to the “feudals” was clear: Wagner is Putin's private army. Prigozhin illustrated it with the threat to prosecute any feudal disloyalty by a Wagner execution with a sledgehammer.

Putin made a critical error in feudal management that led to Prigozhin's revolt. While there is limited information to speculate on Prigozhin's motivations and the deal he struck with Putin, historical analogies can provide insights into the dynamics of power struggles between the “monarch” and rebellious “feudal subjects” in their service.

Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634) stands as arguably the most successful private military company manager in world history, having played a pivotal role in winning the Thirty Years' War.

His success hinged on two key elements: his exceptional talent in creating and utilizing his own PMCs, and his personal loyalty to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, who strategically exploited Wallenstein's oath of allegiance to outbalance the Catholic League, the union of feudal states within the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand II relied on Wallenstein, whose formidable army posed a real threat to the autonomy of (each) Herzog (duke) within the Empire, to ensure their obedience.
The parallel between Wallenstein and Prigozhin extends beyond their political dispositions; it also encompasses the potential consequences for the emperors they served.
Albrecht von Wallenstein, a highly successful Bohemian military leader and statesman, fought on the Catholic side during the Thirty Years' War. Source: Wiki Commons
Toward the end of his career, Wallenstein found himself embroiled in a war against Sweden, the mightiest military force of the time. Granting Wallenstein full autonomy from the imperial headquarters, Ferdinand II hoped to resolve the Swedish threat. However, Wallenstein suffered significant defeats against the Swedes and began negotiating with the emperor's enemies to end the war, possibly with the intention of establishing his own state or even marching against Ferdinand II. In 1634, the emperor sought to preempt the impending military revolt by issuing a patent to revoke Wallenstein's authority. In response, Wallenstein secured personal oaths of loyalty from all his officers and defiantly conveyed to Ferdinand II that he disagreed with him, disregarded the order and would continue fighting for what he believed was in the best interest of the empire. Wallenstein had already begun preparations for a new campaign when assassins, acting on behalf of his officers, abruptly ended his ambitions to become a king in his own right.

How can a feudal paradigm inform our understanding of future scenarios?

First, all feudal actors within such a system are driven by personal interests and ambitions, highlighting their inclination toward redistributing power and resources from the weaker factions, even if the weakest is the emperor himself. Prigozhin's “march on Moscow” reveals that the “king's” authority is vulnerable, and will force Putin to cede power to the feuding factions to secure their loyalty for the time being.

Second, feudals have the potential to strike separate agreements with international actors. Though there is a possibility that Prigozhin engaged in negotiations with Ukraine behind Putin's back, he did manage to avoid Wallenstein's fate and started a rebellion ahead of time (the perfect timing would be after a defeat at the front, but there’s no defeat in sight – and, besides, Prigozhin was in a rush, hardly in a position to wait for the right moment).

Third, it is important to consider the possibility that Prigozhin may be an instrument rather than the ultimate beneficiary of the revolt. As seen in historical cases such as Cardinal Richelieu's manipulation of both the emperor and Wallenstein, a third party, either external to Russia or within the Kremlin itself, could be controlling Prigozhin's operations and reaping the benefits.

Fourth, the feudal battles end only with a decisive victory of one side over the other, and as long as Putin is in the Kremlin and Prigozhin is still alive the conflict is far from over.

Finally, the political system under Putin's rule is undergoing a major transformation, and the exact nature of its evolution remains uncertain. The ongoing power struggles and shifting alliances within the feudal framework will undoubtedly shape the path of this transformation.

These general observations about the functioning of feudal-like political regimes suggest that Prigozhin's march on Moscow initiated an internal power struggle resembling a feudal battle. A group of the elites with the ability to utilize both domestic and possibly limited international means to exert pressure on Putin is currently reducing his power. Their ultimate goal is victory, leaving Putin with no choice but to submit or risk his own life. It seems that so far that Putin is opting for the former, but we do not have enough information to say for sure.

As is often the case when analyzing authoritarian states with limited available information, one should turn to historical parallels for understanding. While we await further information on Prigozhin's revolt, it could be valuable to explore Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein (1799), a play that delves into a strikingly similar feudal conflict.

In tatters we see lying these days an

Old solid form once given Europe

By peace 150 years ago

Into the midst of that war now the poet

Places you. Sixteen years of laying waste,

Of robbing, snatching, misery have flown by.

Over the earth dark masses swarm and seethe;

No hope of peace glows even from a distance;


Against this gloomy ground an undertaking

Of bold exuberance and a dauntless, rash,

And daring character stand out in contrast.

You know him: the man who made brave armies,

The idol of his men, scourge of the countryside,

The Kaiser’s best man and his nemesis,

The child of Fortune, her adventurous son, who,

Exalted by the favor of the times,

Ascended quickly to the highest honor

And, unappeased, still striving onward, upward,

Fell victim to his ravenous ambition.

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