Prigozhin as Pugachev or Pilgrim: The Wagner Rebellion in Historical Context
As with many War on the Rocks readers, I was taken aback by the events of June 23rd to 25th in Russia. This weekend I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing this world-historic event at my cousin’s bachelor party, rehearsal dinner, and wedding. Despite the wide range of backgrounds among the groomsmen, as we threw axes and played pool, rehearsed the wedding, and talked at the reception, one topic dominated. Where is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group mercenaries, heading as he advances north up Russia’s M4 highway? Has he taken the Southern Military District Headquarters? How many kilometers to Moscow? Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko claims to have done what? One hopes the bride didn’t feel overshadowed.
Part of what held our attention stemmed from surprise. How could Putin’s Russia, a state famously run prioritizing loyalty over competence, be facing a coup? My doctoral advisor, Professor Katherine B. Aaslestad, had the answer. Before her passing in 2021, she constantly reminded her lecture halls and graduate seminars: “Regimes that choose war rarely achieve their goals at the outset. War has a way of changing the situation. War takes on a life of its own.” She most frequently said this in the context of the wars of the French Revolution, but it is the case across military history. While Spartan King Archidamus and Athenian Pericles reluctantly led Sparta and Athens into the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, neither was alive in 404 when the war ended. The political landscape had been totally reshaped by war, reshaping each side’s goals and objectives with it. We can observe a similar change in Russia today. Over the third full week of June, we have seen a spectacular cluster of developments in Russia. The new scale of warfare that President Vladimir Putin began in February of 2022 has taken on a life of its own. Regardless of the result of this particular Wagner mutiny, which is still playing out in real-time, the legitimacy of Putin’s regime has been challenged as never before.
Mutiny and Regime Change
Mutiny, regime change, and civil war are some of the ways in which war can reshape the political landscape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this type of event has occurred in Russian history many times before. Usually, Americans with a passing familiarity with Russian history might remember Lenin’s Revolution in 1917, but other revolutions, coups, and regime changes that occurred in 1741, 1762, 1774, 1801, 1825, and 1905 are sometimes forgotten. Taking a broad look at the history of war-related unrest in Russia should keep one thing firmly in our minds: today, we don’t know where we are in the story. Coups and regime change often beget more coups and regime change. In 1917, there were three major coups, both successful and unsuccessful. In 1762, there were three different Russian rulers in the space of six months. In Russian history since 1700, rebellions and coups fall into two categories: those which sought legitimacy and continuity by replacing one ruler with a ready-made replacement, and those which sought to overturn the existing social system.
In 1762, the death of Czarina Elizabeth Petrovna brought the young Czar Peter III to the throne. Although historians have attempted to re-evaluate the long-term impact of his reign, he is recalled for his disastrous pro-Prussian military policies, essentially switching sides during the ongoing Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). This eventually led to his removal during a military coup led by his wife, Czarina Catherine II “the Great.” After a rule of barely six months, Peter III was deposed and murdered by elements of the military who were disgusted by his “Prussomaniac” outlook and obsession with fighting a war with Denmark over the Duchy of Holstein. The new Czarina Catherine then ended Russian military commitments in the Seven Years’ War.
A key part of fomenting rebellion in eighteenth-century Russia was ready-made legitimacy. In order to overthrow the state, coup plotters needed to have both military support and a member of the royal family on their side, or at the very least claim that they did. Thus, in 1741 Elizabeth Petrovna seized the capital with the help of the guard regiments, in 1762 Czarina Catherine’s military backers overthrew her husband Peter III and placed her on the throne, and in 1801 the Tsarevich Alexander took the throne of his father Paul I after Paul was murdered by a group of army officers. Even the 1774 Cossack rebellion led by Yemelyan Pugachev asserted that, in fact, Peter III was still alive and present with the rebels. Claims of legitimacy and continuity, even when fabricated, bolstered eighteenth-century rebels’ position in the court of public opinion. This stands in stark contrast to more modern seizures of power, which offered ordinary Russians not continuity but change.
The Decemberist Revolt of 1825 bridged the gap between an older style of rebellion based on monarchical continuity, and a newer style of revolution that asked for social change. In this uprising, a group of army officers declared for the deceased Czar’s brother, Grand Duke Konstantin. This same group of army officers was also hoping for a Western-style body of laws to limit the power of the Czar: a constitution. At least according to legend, the soldiers participating in the revolt chanted, “Konstantin and Constitution.” Brutally defeated by superior forces loyal to Nicholas I, the failed Decemberists left a mark on Russian history with their hopes for a new system, not just new elites.
In the West, the public has a hazy familiarity with Lenin’s 1917 October Revolution, where the Bolsheviks seized power, deposing and eventually murdering the Russian Czar Nicholas II. This revolution also fueled a multi-year civil war in Russia, with casualties in the millions. My undergraduate students are less familiar with the idea that the October Revolution was the third in a series of regime changes that year. In February, a group of democratic protests against the wartime policies of Czar Nicholas II led to the end of Czarist rule, with a classical liberal provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky. That government attempted to maintain its commitments to Czarist foreign policy goals, continuing Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War One. In September, General Lavr Kornilov, the commander-in-chief of Russian forces, with some level of input from Kerensky, launched a coup attempt, designed to eliminate the influence of the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) worker’s council or Soviet. The military units in this coup failed to reach St. Petersburg, delayed by striking rail workers and crippled by desertion. The direct commander of the units committed suicide after surrendering, and Kornilov was killed fighting in the Russian Civil War seven months later. If Putin and Prigozhin were working together behind the scenes, and the Wagner rebellion turns out to be a “fake” coup, the Kornilov affair might be the best parallel. Was it a rebellion of military hardliners with cooperation or even tacit approval from the Kremlin, designed to rid the current administration of troublesome elements?
Lenin’s Bolshevik October Revolution is more familiar because it was enshrined in Soviet public memory. To a large degree, the October Revolution was successful because it had military support, particularly from sailors. As in many modern coup attempts, support from the military formed the key contributing factor to success. Of course, the October Revolution brought not just a new set of elites to power, but radically reshaped Russia’s political and economic future over the next seventy years. To some degree, the road to 1917 was paved in 1905, when failures in the Russo-Japanese War collapsed morale among the fleet and led to public protest at home. Sailors were also involved in the 1905 Revolution, but, unlike in 1917, the military largely remained loyal to the regime in 1905. Popular pressure in the 1905 Revolution instead brought incremental change: Czar Nicholas II agreed to the creation of the State Duma, or Parliament.
Pondering Prigozhin’s Motives
With this litany of palace coups, dynastic squabbles, mutinies, and workers’ revolutions, how can Prigozhin’s Wagner uprising be best understood? Was he trying to replace Putin? Was he an early modern plotter, or did he want lasting changes in Russia?
The best way to understand Prigozhin’s “rebellion” does not come from the twentieth century, or even from Russian history. Instead, from a historical perspective, Prigozhin’s public actions have a distinctly late medieval and early modern flair. His demands for Gens. Valery Gerasimov’s and Sergei Shoigu’s replacement fit well within a late medieval paradigm of rebellion. At that time, rebels rarely demanded the removal of the king, but instead called for the removal of “wicked advisers” and “evil councillors.” Despite all of the possible parallels in Russian history, I believe that the most interesting parallel to the current situation is the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion during Henry VIII’s reign in England.
In October of 1536, Catholic believers in the North of England rose in revolt against the church reforms of Henry VIII. Although their motivations were economic and religious, important similarities between these peasants and Prigozhin exist. They called their rebellion the Pilgrimage of Grace, trying to disguise it as a military movement. They insisted that their grievances lay not with the actions of the king, but with “persons of low birth and small reputation” who were, they claimed, advising him poorly.
Knowing that it would be difficult to stop the pilgrim army, which numbered in the tens of thousands, Henry VIII’s government chose to negotiate. The pilgrims were promised immunity, that a special parliament would meet and address their grievances, and that the king would agree to their immediate demands until the parliament met. Seizing upon a pretext to abandon this pledge, forces loyal to Henry then suppressed a new uprising and executed around two hundred leaders of the initial rebellion.
There are many similarities between Prigozhin’s uprising and the Pilgrimage. Prigozhin referred to the events of June 23rd to 24th as “марш справедливости” or “the March for Justice,” rather than a coup. He insisted that Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, not Putin, was at fault for the failures and that they deliberately misled Putin. Like the Pilgrimage of Grace rebelling against the “evil councillors” of Henry VIII, Prigozhin cloaked a formidable military effort to destabilize the state in language that suggested loyalty to the monarch. Likewise, once the initial emergency had passed, both Henry VIII and Putin appeared all too eager to change the terms of the deal. Although it initially seemed that Putin might have caved to Prigozhin’s demands for Shoigu’s removal, Putin appeared alongside his defense minister in a meeting on June 26th.
What comes next? I’ve previously argued that Prigozhin reminds me of a Freikorps Inhaber rather than Prince Wallenstein, and his possible fate of Belarussian exile reminds me of the story of Polish Prince Jerzy Marcin Lubomirski, a mercenary commander who had to stay one step ahead of his former employers. So where does this leave us? I’ll admit to being quite surprised by these developments, and echo my comments that historians should be historians, not ersatz policy commentators and predictors. History provides a range of possibilities from which to understand the present, and in history, unlike Putin’s Russia, we know where we are in the story. With that said, although cracks are appearing in the foundation of Putin’s Russia, Prigozhin will be lucky to avoid the fate of Pilgrimage of Grace leaders like Sir Robert Aske, who was hung in chains.
Alexander S. Burns is an assistant professor of history at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, studying the American Continental Army’s connection to European militaries. His edited volume, The Changing Face of Old Regime Warfare: Essays in Honour of Christopher Duffy, was published in 2022. You can follow him @KKriegeBlog.
Image: Wikimedia Commons