MOSCOW — On the day of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s ill-fated uprising in Russia, Moscow fell silent. Traffic was sparse on Saturday, and there were few people on the streets. Events were canceled and parks were closed as virtually everyone stayed inside, glued to the internet as Mr. Prigozhin’s private army convoy inched toward the Russian capital.
Moscovites were also buying airline tickets. The prices of flights out of the country soared on Saturday as Russians hedged their bets. It wasn’t the prospect of a President Prigozhin they were worried about as much as the unwelcome possibility of clashes on the streets of their typically lively, carefree city. More than anything, modern Muscovites, like residents of Russia’s other major cities, fear a radical change to their comfortable way of life, particularly a change that might bring martial law, or, worse, a widespread draft and border closures.
In the end, the march of Mr. Prigozhin’s notorious Wagner force to Moscow was short-lived, ending with a whimper in a hastily brokered amnesty deal and his troops’ departure from the captured southern city of Rostov-on-Don. For all the chaos and questions that remain about what transpired, President Vladimir Putin’s system survived.
For now, anyway. Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny, however murky and ill conceived, did manage to do one critical thing: It poked a hole in the Kremlin’s campaign to assure Russians that everything is fine — that the economy is booming, that the war in Ukraine won’t come for them, that the military is focused on winning.
Mr. Putin today is not who he was last week. Mr. Prigozhin showed Russians a fleeting glimpse of an alternative future, and by doing so, gave more Russians reason to doubt their leadership. Is Mr. Putin really the all-powerful, czar-like figure they thought he was? That is the question most ordinary Russians will now, finally, begin to ask themselves.
Mr. Prigozhin, while becoming a relatively popular figure among certain groups, was never a serious or convincing candidate as a national leader. His statements about the war in Ukraine, for instance, have been wildly contradictory in recent weeks. First, he said that to defeat the enemy in Ukraine, Russians should tighten their belts and be ready to live like North Koreans. Not long after, he took an altogether different tack — there was no need for an invasion of Ukraine at all, he argued.
A measure of the surreal nature of Mr. Prigozhin’s offensive, and of stability in Russia today, is the confusion over what he hoped to achieve when he set his fast-moving convoy off toward Moscow. What he and Mr. Putin have in common, in addition to both emerging from the depths of the authoritarian system, is that they have problems with goal-setting and strategic vision. What did Mr. Prigozhin want to do? Replace Mr. Putin, his teacher in the profession of gaining power? Too ambitious. Unseat his recent nemesis, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu? Too petty, and certainly not worth a civil war in Russia’s capital.
Perhaps assessing that Mr. Putin was ultimately stronger, and that the goals of his own campaign were uncertain, Mr. Prigozhin agreed to mediated negotiations with Mr. Putin’s envoy, President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, and stopped his convoy. (His exact whereabouts, as of Monday, were unknown.)
Nevertheless, the revolt gave the world a rare window into the Russian state’s slow decline. No state with functioning institutions can thrive while in pursuit of senseless military expansionism that contradicts the meaning of democratic and civic values, the most important of which is human life. During Russia’s transition from democracy to authoritarianism to hybrid totalitarianism, Mr. Putin and his elite inner circle have colonized civil society and built a system of repression. This is not a sign of strength, but of desperation. And the outsourcing of critical government functions, like the military role handed to Mr. Prigozhin and his Wagner force, is a glaring manifestation of that weakness.
Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny was extraordinary because, in the end, the challenge to Mr. Putin’s system came entirely from within, exposing its frailty. Like Frankenstein’s monster turning on his creator, Mr. Prigozhin, who had Mr. Putin’s blessing to deploy his private army, showed Russians that the system could produce a different future — one without Mr. Putin.
Russian citizens did not line up to march behind Mr. Prigozhin’s men, but they did give him a hero’s send-off when he pulled his forces out of Rostov-on-Don on Saturday night. Even if they are not ready to give up their relative safety and stability in favor of civil war, many Russians long for change, for competition, for words that sound different from the official discourse of Mr. Putin and his dull colleagues in gray jackets. Populism, finally. Mr. Prigozhin has embodied the voice of populism, sending an anti-elitist message despite being a product of the elite himself.
In the end, a tangible alternative to Mr. Putin came not from the liberal and democratic camp, not from the dissidents and civil organizations that have been brutally persecuted by his regime, but from the deepest core of Mr. Putin’s own system. This is why he called the mutiny a “stab in the back.” It took the ultimate insider to show the cracks in the system.
Those fissures aren’t going to shake Mr. Putin out of power now. Maybe they never will. But he understands they — and he — have been exposed. How do we know? Not once has he mentioned Mr. Prigozhin’s name in his speeches since the threat of the coup emerged. What’s the other name Mr. Putin never mentions? The opposition leader who posed such a threat he threw him in jail: Aleksei Navalny.
Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. He is a former managing editor of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the author of a biography of the Russian liberal reformer Yegor Gaidar.
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