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What the life and death of Yevgeny Prigozhin tells us about modern Russia

The Wagner leader is destined to fascinate historians for centuries to come

EuropeWar Zones

Russian oligarch and leader of the Wagner private military company Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash on August 23. Photo by Mikhail Mettsel/TASS.

“A dead man walking” was how some pundits were describing Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin after his failed mutiny two months ago. Asked if he was able to forgive, Russian President Vladimir Putin once replied that he could indeed do so, “but not everything.” He could not forgive betrayal, he said. For many observers, this statement is proof enough that Putin himself was bound to punish Prigozhin and was therefore almost certain responsible for the plane crash that killed Prigozhin and several others on August 23.

This may be the case, although as yet there is no evidence of the cause of the crash and whether it was due to mechanical failure or outside interference, such as an anti-aircraft rocket or a bomb onboard. Some suspicion must also fall on the Ukrainian secret services, who have developed quite a habit of blowing up Russians they dislike. Victims of assassination attempts in the past 12 months include journalist Darya Dugina (daughter of philosopher Alexander Dugin), military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, and novelist Zakhar Prilepin. The first two were killed and the third badly injured. The list of people who might have wanted Prigozhin dead was quite long.

In any case, the question of who, if anybody, killed him is perhaps less interesting than what his life and career have to tell us about the workings of modern Russia. The general assumption in the West is that Russia is a highly centralized state in which nothing important happens without the knowledge and approval of its supreme leader. Thus, in the case of Prigozhin’s death, popular Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti comments that Putin “would have had to have at the very least approved any decision to kill Prigozhin.” But Galeotti himself has done much to spread the idea that the Russian state does not work that way, but is instead what he calls an “adhocracy.” That is to say that it is a system in which “the boss doesn’t micromanage, but rather sets broad objectives and hints at what kinds of things he would like to see.” Lacking clear instructions, ambitious figures do their best to guess what will please Putin and act accordingly. This system encourages and rewards initiative, but can also lead to misunderstandings and inappropriate behaviour. It can thus be very counterproductive.

Prigozhin’s career is a case in point. He came to fame in the West in the context of the Russiagate scandal that followed Donald Tump’s election as president of the United States. It emerged that a number of strange social media messages targeted at US audiences had originated in a “bot factory” in St Petersburg owned by Prigozhin. Known as the “Internet Research Agency,” this bot factory was assumed to be acting under instructions from the Kremlin to undermine the US presidential election.

The influence of the Internet Research Agency’s inept and seemingly aimless Twitter messages was always much exaggerated. Furthermore, it is not at all clear what connection, if any, there was between the Internet Research Agency and the Russian state. The assumption that the former was acting on orders from the latter was always just an assumption. But recent events have shown that Prigozhin was never very good at taking orders, but was instead very much a wild card who followed his own, sometimes erratic, inclinations.

The primary example of this was his management of the Wagner private military company. For most of the past year, Prigozhin spent his time publicly berating the Russian general staff and defence minister Sergei Shoigu. He was never much of a team player. The Russian state nevertheless tolerated him because he got things done. And in this respect, he fitted a general pattern of government.

Running Russia has never been easy. Moscow’s ability to control its underlings in its far-flung provinces has traditionally been quite weak. The country’s rulers thus tend to turn to informal methods of governing. The result is what has been described as a “dual state,” in which the formal, legal institutions of the state exist alongside informal, extra-legal ones. Successful rulers are those who are able to find competent and energetic people who are then given a broad mandate to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and get results using whatever means are necessary.

Such entrepreneurial spirits enjoy considerable freedom. The only limitations are that they should not challenge the leader himself and that they should avoid being so overtly corrupt and criminal as to excite public demands for action. Prigozhin fits this model. Rather than viewing the Internet Research Agency and Wagner as creatures of the Kremlin, it is perhaps better to view them as products of a particular sort of entrepreneurship, in which private actors are permitted to operate largely without supervision because they fulfil useful functions that the Russian state itself is unwilling, or not able, to fulfil itself.

In some respects, this modus operandi has proven quite effective. The Wagner company has helped to spread Russian influence in Africa, supported Russian military operations in Syria, and proved adept at recruiting volunteers (many from prison) to fight in Ukraine. It has thus been able to do things that the Russian state by itself might not have been able to. Profit-seeking entrepreneurs can indeed prove more dynamic than state institutions.

Relying on them only works, however, if the entrepreneurs understand the limits of their position. Prigozhin, it seems, did not. The activities of the Internet Research Agency, for instance, did great damage to Russian national interests, helping to convince many in the United States (especially in the Democratic Party) that Russia was a malign force that needed to be confronted. More spectacularly, Prigozhin’s mutiny indicated the danger that comes from hiring mercenary forces. They tend to be loyal to the person who pays them not to the state that they notionally serve. Prigozhin was a charismatic figure, whose troops were willing to follow him even to the point of mutiny. As such, he eventually became a threat to the state that he notionally served.

In broad terms, the informal privatization of certain aspects of government is likely to remain a prominent feature of the Russian system for some time to come. Nevertheless, in the specific area of the military, the Kremlin has no doubt learnt its lesson, and it is unlikely that it will ever again allow an individual to build a private army that can seriously threaten it. In this respect, while fitting a wider pattern, Yevgeny Prigozhin will probably prove to be a unique figure, destined to fascinate historians for centuries to come.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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