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‘If the authorities had rallied around Putin, Prigozhin wouldn’t have even reached Rostov’ Historian Andrey Zubov on why the Wagner rebellion may spell regime change in Russia
It’s been less than a week since Prigozhin launched his “march of justice,” leaving the frontlines in Ukraine, capturing Rostov, and parading toward Moscow, before abruptly turning around — all within the span of 24 hours. While the full impacts of the insurrection remain to be seen, the rebellion has raised many questions about Putin’s hold on power, whether his grip is as tight as was once thought, and what it all means for Russia’s war in Ukraine. In an interview with independent outlet Verstka, Russian historian Andrey Zubov explains how Prigozhin’s march demonstrated the lack of support for Putin among both the population and the elite, and the possibility for a quick change of hand in the Kremlin, making apt historical comparisons to other key moments in Russian history. Meduza in English is publishing an abridged translation of the interview.
Parallels with 1917
“This is no revolution,” says Andrey Zubov, referring to the events of June 24. Rather, they constitute your “typical military rebellion,” which he defines as “an armed group of people who illegally stop obeying their source of authority,” and “aim to pressure them to make changes favourable to the group.” In this case, instead of obeying Putin’s orders, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin marched toward Moscow. A revolution, on the other hand, is a long political process, Zubov says, referencing American historian Richard Pipes, who considers the Russian Revolution to have taken place over the course of 24 years (from 1900 to 1924).
When asked if it’s worth comparing the Wagner rebellion to the Kornilov Affair, Zubov said that the main similarity was that both General Lavr Kornilov and Prigozhin had political goals: prevent their opponents from holding power, whether that be the Bolsheviks in the case of Kornilov, or Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in the case of Prigozhin. Zubov has no doubts that Prigozhin’s rebellion was not ideological, but rather, specifically aimed at making material demands.
While the authorities didn’t switch to Prigozhin’s side during his revolt, they also didn’t stand in his way. Talk of authorities rallying around Putin are nonsense, says Zubov, “if it were true, then Prigozhin wouldn’t have even made it as far as Rostov.” It became clear that Putin’s “power vertical” simply doesn’t exist.
After Prigozhin’s rebellion, Zubov says, Putin no longer commands the elites. Neither does he command the people, it seems. He finds himself in the same position as Alexander Kerensky, jokingly referred to as “persuader-in-chief.” Many of those who would be able to take advantage of this vulnerable situation and take power find themselves living comfortable lives under Putin’s leadership. But power is seductive, says Zubov, “and brings immense wealth.” People capable of seizing it will eventually agree that no one needs Putin. These could be the security officials or the army. “I can’t exclude the possibility that even Prigozhin could play this role,” remarks Zubov.
Inheriting a criminal system
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, demonstrated a “complete military failure,” says Zubov; the rebellion showed that the FSB and other policing agencies are only capable of controlling unarmed groups. While “loyalists” say that law enforcement agencies standing down during Prigozhin’s march wasn’t an example of inaction, but rather, an attempt to avoid a bloodbath, Zubov disagrees. He says that the best way to avoid bloodshed when enemy forces are hours from the capital would be to abdicate, as did Nicholas II in 1917, just prior to the Russian Revolution. Instead, Prigozhin’s forces decided to turn around, for reasons still unknown.
The historian notes that Putin […] has inherited that same gang of Bolsheviks that took power in 1917. Putin basically serves as the head of the Cheka, the Bolshevik party’s secret police, and its successor organizations, who got rid of anyone that stood in their way. That’s one of the main characteristics of Putinism, says Zubov: “an inherited criminal system, based on the abuse of power,” which they actively continue.
Everyone — the population, the elites — turned their backs
Wagner forces entering Rostov were given a warm welcome, but Zubov suggests that we shouldn’t read too much into it: “[The residents] were just having fun. It’s summer, it was a Friday night.” Residents saw it as a type of “show” — just one that featured tanks. They couldn’t have cared less about the rebellion.
Just as the authorities showed inaction, so did local residents. No one — not in Rostov, nor in Voronezh — stood in Wagner’s way to defend Moscow. There were people unhappy with the state of their roads after the rebellion, but they hardly seemed to care about the prospect of Putin being overthrown, explains Zubov. He argues that the fact that Wagner fighters were able to waltz through Russia clearly shows the world that Putin doesn’t enjoy any real support among the Russian population. Everyone turned their backs — not just the elites, but also the general population.
It’s difficult to expect the average Russian citizen to look at clashing armed groups with anything but indifference, explains Zubov. When the State Duma protects Putin’s interests instead of those of the population, rigs elections and classifies a major chunk of the state budget, people have basically learned to separate their own lives from that of Putin.
The Russian population’s lack of engagement in politics can be interpreted positively, however:
Thank god, we’re not in a situation like the Kornilov Affair, when large swaths of society deeply hated each other. It’s easier for those who are apathetic to go out and vote than after the carnage and murder that marked 1917-1918. A politician’s job is to figure out how to get this done.
A coup on the horizon
Could this rebellion trigger a change of power? “Now that the trigger has been pulled, it’s just a matter of months. Or perhaps even a matter of weeks,” predicts Zubov.
Russia has a long history of unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the government, from the 17th-century Russian princess Sophia Alekseyevna, to Lieutenant General Lev Rokhlin. Despite this, the historian notes that there are several successful instances in Russian history, with Catherine II or Elizabeth of Russia coming to power with the support of the army. Zubov adds that “without a doubt,” the Russian army “will play a role in the future change of power.”
How would this affect Russia’s war in Ukraine?
Zubov is confident that regime change would bring an end to the war in Ukraine. According to him, no one needs this war — not Russian citizens, not soldiers, and not even Prigozhin. After the government regime is overthrown, the front will collapse. Then, whoever comes to power next will have the task of ending the war, withdrawing troops, and working toward normalizing relations with the West. Without a democratic government, this would be impossible. That’s why it’ll be necessary to conduct elections at every level of government, rebuild the country, and legitimize the new head of state. Zubov remains optimistic:
Russian society is alive and has a long history and culture, which people have carried into emigration. That’s why we have a chance to develop Russia into a normal, European, democratic country.
Abridged translation by Sasha Slobodov
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