Jade McGlynn

Prigozhin offered a terrifying glimpse into Russia’s future

(Photo: Getty)

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion against the Russian military and political leadership may have stopped some 200 km short of Moscow, but its reverberations will be felt in the Kremlin for a long time. The  march, and the images of people in Rostov cheering Wagner fighters and hissing at the police, was a rare and unwelcome insight into what Russian politics could look like after Putin is gone. 

Those who greeted the Wagnerites with baked goods and refreshments suggested that the fighters were ordinary folk like us, from the ‘narod’ (people). This speaks to Prigozhin’s perceived authenticity in Russia – an attribute in short supply in Russian politics generally – and also to the deliberate detachment of so many Russians from the political elites.  

With his criminal backstory and tough talk, Prigozhin has cultivated a persona that echoes Putin’s own. From the early days of his presidency, Putin presented himself as a normal bloke (muzhik) facing down the oligarchs, threatening to whack terrorists in the outhouse, and making geopolitical observations using bawdy jokes. Since 2012, Putin has entrenched that image by delegitimising any political opposition as part of an out-of-touch liberal elite, in hoc to the West and removed from the concerns of real Russians. 

The so-called Red Belt – areas that voted Communist in the Yeltsin era – is the heartland of Putin’s ‘real Russia’. Much of the Red Belt is located in Russia’s Southern Federal District, including the regions of Rostov and Voronezh taken by Wagner forces this weekend. Many in the Red Belt were disappointed by the realities of the shock transition to capitalism and the rigged version of democracy that replaced the USSR. When Putin came to power, he won over disillusioned Red Belters but Prigozhin’s recent antics have undermined his present unsuitability for the role of muzhik-in-chief.

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