The Conversation

How Russian history sheds light on Putin and Prigozhin – and the dangers of dissent

Danica Jenkins, University of Sydney

In Russia, failed coups portend turmoil and collapse. They also herald greater repression, and a tightening of centralised control. This is because Russian history has swung back and forth between chaos and autocracy, which have become mutually reinforcing symptoms of the same historical condition.

Russians have a word for the periods of turmoil: smuta.

Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has come to symbolise a new cycle of this history taking place in Russia today. While the fallout from his aborted mutiny in June and recent death remains uncertain, it is possible to see these events as the reverberations of a centuries-old power system grinding forward into new terrain.

Prigozhin’s mutiny had similarities with other failed uprisings in Russian history, from the Decembrist revolt in 1825, to Lavr Kornilov’s march on St Petersburg in 1917, to the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by Communist Party hardliners in 1991.

These comparisons led some to warn of growing political instability in Russia, on the grounds that Prigozhin was less a threat to Putin’s rule than a manifestation of its essential fragility. Others have argued, in the aftermath of Prigozhin’s death, that the rebellion has provided Putin with an opportunity to consolidate his authority.

Whether or not Prigozhin may have exposed Putin’s vulnerabilities, history suggests that what is to come could well be worse. “As Russians know only too well,” Russian author Mikhail Shishkin warns, “one should not wish death on a bad tsar. For who knows what the next one will be like?”

To understand this maxim, one needs to understand Russia’s history and its underlying power dynamics. On the morning of Prigozhin’s rebellion, Putin referred to the smuta in a national address. Prigohzin, he said, was attempting to “create internal turmoil” and “split and weaken the country, which is now confronting a colossal external threat, unprecedented pressure from outside”.

There was not a single Russian who wouldn’t have understood the fearsome double meaning of “turmoil” (the literal translation of smuta) and the existential threat to the Russian nation it evoked.

The origins of this historical syndrome can be traced back to Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, who in the 16th century transformed Russia from a loosely connected group of medieval states into the foundations of a modern empire.

Autocratic culture reproduces itself in the sociopolitical structures of the modern Russian state, but also in the mentality of its people. The truth is that the Russian ruler’s prerogative as tsar-batiushka or “Father Tsar” can only hold sway over an acquiescent, even infantilised realm.

Prigozhin’s mutiny will only cement Putin’s – or his successor’s – autocratic prerogative. As Hannah Arendt argued, authoritarian regimes hold out the carrot of stability, while constantly manufacturing the threat of instability. It is a self-perpetuating system. Chaos provides the impetus for autocratically imposed unity.

We don’t know who might eventually succeed Putin, but history suggests the next leader is unlikely to be liberal or democratic.

An old question arises: will the Russian people remain silent?


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