A very Russian revolution

As the world was distracted by an episode of Russian drama complete with the betrayal of a once-loyal servant, armed mutiny and panic at the court of a tsar, Ukraine was being shelled. On the night of 23 June, at least 20 missiles were fired on the Kyiv region alone, and at least five people were killed in the capital. But we’re used to that sort of news coming out of Ukraine. It’s no longer dramatic. Nor does the Ukrainian counteroffensive, conducted without much fanfare, fulfil our craving for drama. Instead, Yevgeny Prigozhin obliged.

On 23 June, the night when fragments of a Russian missile hit a residential building in Kyiv killing people in their homes, the leader of the notorious Wagner Group announced that he and his mercenaries were staging a ‘march for justice’. This type of declaration coming from a war criminal makes a mockery of the word. The justice he meant, of course, was not for Ukrainians whom his private army has been slaughtering over the past 16 months, nor was it for the victims of the massacres conducted by his mercenaries on the African continent or in the Middle East. The ‘justice’ he sought was for himself.

Earlier in the month, Prigozhin’s boss in the Kremlin upset him by endorsing an order for those fighting for ‘volunteer detachments’, including Wagner, to sign a contract with Russia’s Defence Ministry. That would have limited Prigozhin’s powers and he was having none of it. To show off his might, he marched his troops on Rostov-on-Don, occupying the city that is home to the headquarters of Russia’s southern military district and serves as a crucial command centre in the war against Ukraine. The mercenaries then progressed towards Moscow, threatening to reach the capital by the end of the day.

As the army comprising war criminals and convicts was making its rapid progress through Russian territory, expert after expert appeared in the media analysing the situation. Among them were commentators who in 2014 accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a done deal, and analysts who in February 2022 wondered if Kyiv would fall in 72 hours or in a week. Now they were dishing out evaluations of the potential for Moscow to fall within 24 hours.

The enthusiasm with which the media got drawn to the Wagner Group’s mutiny matched the speed of its advance on Moscow. Maps of rebellious troops mushroomed on news feeds, eager commentators watching their every step. They are in Rostov, in Voronezh, in the Moscow region!

I don’t recall such rapt news coverage of the destroyed Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine a few weeks ago. Many observers engaged in the whodunit discussions, but few focused on how to mitigate the environmental damage resulting from this latest crime perpetrated by Russia, and how to prevent the next one. The areas affected by this ecocide were a territory unfamiliar to most observers around the world. They couldn’t compete with Moscow for our attention. The people of the Kherson region whose homes were drowned in the flooding were not as newsworthy as the infighting in the court of the tsar.

As the expert community was predicting Russia’s future in light of the mutiny, the president of the Russian Federation preferred to focus on the past. It is a trick that’s tried and tested: when in doubt about his future, he threatens the world with history. In his televised address to the nation, Vladimir Putin, a man who fancies himself as a bit of a tsar, condemned the disloyalty of the rebels and drew parallels with the period that haunts him in his worst nightmares: the revolution of 1917, or, to be more precise, the coup that brought the downfall of the last Russian tsar.

In 1917, the Russian monarchy might have ceased to exist, but the empire had not. The Bolsheviks kept it going. Nor did the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 mean that Russia entirely lost its empire. In its neo-imperial guise, Russia went on to fight neocolonial wars. A revolution is unlikely to bring this variant of the empire down. A decisive defeat on the battlefields of Ukraine has a better chance.

Unlike Putin, the West is enchanted by the Russian Revolution. Back in 2017, living in London, I was bombarded by the celebrations of its centenary: from exhibitions revelling in the revolutionary art to underground trains plastered in Russian colours. Perhaps the West’s obsession with the potential of Russian revolution comes from the desire to see the people of Russia revolt, if not against their country waging a war in Ukraine, then at least against being forced into poverty by their own leaders. But the Russia we like to imagine is not the Russia that exists in reality.

During their brief occupation of Russian cities, the Wagner soldiers were met by residents who cheered them, brought them food and looked upset to see them leave. It appeared that the Russians were not as detached from political reality and fooled by the Kremlin propaganda as some would have us believe. At least some of them looked ready to ditch their weakening dictator and replace him with a new strong hand. One thing is clear: none were taking to the streets to demand an end to the war in Ukraine. Those who welcomed the mercenaries were showing support for the men who have demonstrated themselves as most effective at killing Ukrainians.

This chapter of a very Russian revolution might be over, but Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not. Before we settle in to watch the next episode, whenever it is released, we might want to put our popcorn away and stop treating Russia’s war as something that happens on our TV screens. Let’s not forget that an army known for its ability to blow up strategic targets whatever the cost to the population and environment continues to occupy the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Although damage to the largest nuclear power station in Europe would have grave consequences, it hasn’t been the focus of the media. Yet, if we allow it, it won’t just happen on our TV screens; it will plunge the whole world into the very centre of the Russian drama.