Why Prigozhin's "underputch" gives a bad sign to the Kremlin

Prigozhin's march. Yet in the early 1980s, the dominance of the communist ideology in the USSR seemed unbreakable. The dissident movement was stifled, and the KGB was mainly engaged in knocking up various "free-thinking" groups in the student environment with the help of planted secret agents, the activities of which were successfully "exposed" a few months after their organization. Their participants, as a rule, were expelled from universities, and the heads of local KGB offices reported on successful work, received awards or were promoted, getting more or larger stars.

Hidden dissatisfaction and mass joking about the aging marasmic Soviet leaders, the chase for Western goods, as symbols of prestige and social success, perfectly coexisted with demonstrative "Soviet patriotism" in the Soviet people.

It seemed that nothing could change this situation. The Soves "didn't buy" the "bourgeois propaganda" transmitted by "enemy radio voices". It seemed that there was no reason to hope that one day they would refuse to support the official Soviet ideology. And without this, there was no hope for any social changes.

But, as the experience of the mid-1980s showed, the inviolability of communist ideas was shaken by something completely different, namely, the "return to Leninist principles" proclaimed by Gorbachev. Gorbachev accused his predecessors that "Lenin's ideas of socialism were interpreted simplistically, their theoretical depth and significance were often stripped away." In this situation, Lenin acted as a mythical character who, within the framework of the Soviet ideology, was the bearer of the qualities of the "ideal hero" and had to embody all the best that this ideology could bring to its adherents.

Further developments confirmed that the internal collapse of the totalitarian system, in the absence of competing ideas and ideologies in the totalitarian society, begins precisely with calls for the return to the "original purity" of the ruling ideology. After all, the ideologues of the totalitarian system cannot oppose such appeals. And the very fact that such calls appear and receive wide support indicates the presence of a widespread, but until a certain time hidden, dissatisfaction with the System.

Similarly, in modern Russia, the chances of a "liberal opposition" guided by "foreign liberal ideas" for broad popular support look illusory. Navalny, like the Soviet dissidents, is in prison and his fate is of little interest to most Russians. Public opinion polls show the support for the Putin regime by the vast majority of Russian citizens (81%, according to the Levada Center's June survey).

But suddenly June 23 comes, and Yevgeny Prigozhin begins the "march of justice" to Moscow. Policemen on the roads salute Wagner columns, soldiers make way for them, fighters of the so-called "Russian reserve forces Storm-Z", created by the Russian Defence Ministry from prisoners, publish videos in support for Prigozhin and declare that they are ready to side with him. If the residents of Rostov-on-Don, captured by the "Wagnerians", are worried about anything, it is only that a possible military conflict does not lead to the Russian army shelling the city. At the same time, those who managed to take selfies with Prigozhin and his fighters feel "lucky". On the way to Moscow, the "Wagnerians" shoot down one military plane and six helicopters, after which the mutiny stops, the "Wagnerians" are pardoned and go to Belarus.

On June 29, Putin supposedly meets with Prigozhin and the commanders of the Wagner PMC, and no one mentions the two dozen Russian pilots killed by the Wagnerites during the mutiny — despite the fact that those who dare to say something bad about the "special military operation" receive real prison terms. All because the Russian propaganda itself created Prigozhin the image of kind of "Lenin today", that is, an "ideal hero", the bearer of all the best qualities, from the viewpoint of this propaganda. According to the Russian research group Russian Field that polled Russian citizens on July 16–19, 2023, that is, a few days before the mutiny, in the conflict between Prigozhin and the Russian MOD, 45% of respondents supported Prigozhin, and only 12% supported the Defence Ministry.

This precisely explains the indecision of the Russian authorities in the fight against the Prigozhin putsch — their leaders look too unattractive, compared to Prigozhin, precisely within the ideological paradigm created by the Russian state propaganda. According to the Levada Center poll held on June 22-28, Prigozhin's sympathizers attribute to him the following qualities: "he tells the truth, is a straightforward, open, honest person", "a leader, a good manager, takes responsibility, stands his ground", "a strong personality, can unite the people", "he created a strong army", "is proactive, energetic, fearless, courageous, keeps his word". In the absence of other heroes, propaganda "moulded" the image of a hero from Prigozhin according to the principle "the heroes are no better than the country." And although during the putsch, "Wagner" banners began to be urgently removed from the streets of Russian cities, nothing could change this attitude.

Of course, public opinion polls after the putsch showed a decline in Prigozhin's support in Russia, but this is a problem of polls, or, rather, sincerity of respondents' answers in Russian realities. Even after the putsch, according to the poll conducted by the Russian Field from June 26 to 30, 21% of respondents answered that, in their opinion, Russian society supported Prigozhin's actions on June 24, while the lack of such support was indicated by not the majority but only by a relative majority (42%) of respondents, while others either stayed indifferent or refused to answer.

So, as in the case of the "struggle for the purity of Lenin's principles" in the mid-1980s, Prigozhin's "march for justice" (as this justice is understood by the fighters for the "purity of the Russian idea") undermines the monolithicity and steadfastness of the Russian power vertical, destroying the ideological foundation on which it rests. As the historical experience shows, after such damage, this "foundation" is difficult to repair.



Mykhailo Mischenko

Deputy Director, Sociological Service

Born in 1962 in Kyiv

Education: Taras Shevchenko Kyiv State University, Faculty of Philosophy (1984). Ph. D in Philosophy


1984 – 1990 — Sociology Department at the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

1990 – 1998 — Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

1998 – 2003 — Ukrainian Institute of Social Research

February – September 2003 — Kyiv International Institute of Sociology

Since October 2003 — Deputy Director, Razumkov Centre Sociological Service

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