Reading, Watching 06.25
Let Him Cook
This is a regular feature for paid subscribers wherein I write a little bit about what I’ve been reading and/or watching recently. Hope you enjoy!
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Every one wants to know: What on earth is happening in Russia? Well, I don’t really know either. To sum up what I’m sure you’ve gathered already from the news: On June 23rd, Yevgeny Prighozhin, founder of the Wagner private military company, upset with the course of the war and the conduct of the Ministry of Defense and after months of provocative statements, announced he was leaving the front lines and marching to Moscow with his men in order to…do what exactly? Unseat the government? The FSB announced it was pursuing a criminal case against Prigozhin for inciting a rebellion. He entered Rostov, where his troops took over the Ministry of Defense building and then began driving towards Moscow. Putin made an address to the nation, not mentioning Prigozhin by name but angrily denouncing the “traitors” and bringing up the specter of the revolution 1917, the great fear of the Russian political class. In the meantime, it appears Wagner forces had shot down several Russian military helicopters on their way to Moscow. With Prigozhin’s column a few hundred kilometers from the capital, the country appeared about to tip over into all-out civil war. And then…it just stopped. Details are still hazy and none of this may actually happen, but some kind of amnesty was announced for Wagner, which would also be incorporated formally into the military, and Prigozhin is apparently going into exile in Belarus. By the time you read this no doubt, this will all be out of date.
Obviously beyond the question of just what is happening, this raises a lot of other questions about the stability of the Russian state, the viability of the war effort, and also broader question about statecraft, political sociology, and political theory. I have some of my own thoughts, but first here’s what I’ve been reading: —
In The New Statesman, Vladislav Zubok, author of the excellent history Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, writes that even a failed mutiny will shatter the false propaganda reality of Putin’s state:
The unfolding events have broken the spell of the Kremlin propaganda machine – the false partition that had been erected between domestic affairs and the war is definitively over. Millions of Russians, who distrusted people like Khodorkovsky (the old oligarch, now a leading opposition activist in London) and trusted Prigozhin, are in a state of cognitive shock. There is a huge contrast between Prigozhin, a new strongman, and Putin, the aged, bunker-ridden autocrat who looks almost like an AI-generated clone of himself. After two decades of “no alternative”, suddenly there is one. It is the Russian peoples’ great misfortune that this choice is being played out on the planes of southern Russia, by the men with the rifles.
In his The Technique of Revolution (1931), the Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte described the essential ingredients of a successful coup. His main reference was to Lenin and Trotsky’s revolution in 1917. Malaparte argued that a passionate minority with a determined leadership can succeed only if they acted resolutely at a tipping point, when everything hung in the balance – without worrying about the consequences. Those in power, if they dithered and prevaricated, would lose. The period of charmed suspension inside Russia seems to have come to an end. Even if the Prigozhin mutiny fizzles out, it has punctured a hole in the performative Russian “reality”. And through this gaping hole everyone can see a looming catastrophe. The next stage of the drama will be decided by the military officers along the front line and the security forces at the rear. They may capture and kill the most adventurous of their kind. Or they may shout: “Hail Caesar!”
Or it may all just fizzle out.