It’s been busy few weeks in Russia. On June 24, Russian warlord, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, led an armored column that seized military headquarters in Rostov-On-Don and Voronezh, cities of more than a million people, then embarking on his “March for Justice” to Moscow. Vladimir Putin warned the nation that traitors had stabbed Russia in the back.
That evening Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belorussian autocrat, received a call from Prigozhin, an old friend, and made a deal. By 10 pm, 120 miles from Moscow, the column turned around. Prigozihin “retired” to Belarus, and charges of treason against him were dropped. (Or so it seemed.)
In following days, Western pundits spun feverish scenarios with Putin’s regime cracking and Prigozhin pronounced a dead man walking. By July 1, the so-called traitor walked into the Kremlin for a three-hour conversation with Putin and walked out again unscathed. On July 4, he left Rostov-On-Don in his business jet for St. Petersburg to be given back his private arsenal seized from his private residences (including his favorite Glock pistol).
Winston Churchill famously said that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in mystery.” Its interests were unfathomable. But a name from Russia’s past may provide some clarity, decoding a salient aspect of the Russian riddle: “Potemkin Vvillage.”
Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tavrichevskiy was born into mid-level nobility in 1739. After his father died, his mother moved the family to Moscow and enrolled Grigory in a preparatory school for Moscow University, Russia’s oldest, where he excelled in languages and theology. He joined the army and enrolled in a famous horse guards regiment. A top student, he was sent to St. Petersburg for further study, but embraced the fast life, was expelled, and then made the army his home.
During a palace coup that killed Tsar Peter III and enthroned Catherine II (The Great), Potemkin caught her attention during an imperial review by offering her a bit of finery for her regal dress. He impressed her with displays of bravery and ability in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74. Imperial favor and skill resulted in his creation of the Black Sea fleet. His adroit diplomacy allowed Russia to annex the Crimean Peninsula peacefully in 1783.
Brilliance combined with his rollicking personality delighted Catherine the Great. When she replaced a noted court figure to give him an important post, German diplomat and a friend, Baron von Grim, scolded her. She wrote back: “Why do you reproach me for dismissing a well-meaning but extremely boring bourgeois in favor of one of the greatest, the most comical and amusing characters of this iron century?” Potemkin and Catherine became lovers, and he would act as her consort.
In 1787 he arranged a six-month triumphal procession down Dneiper River for Catherine into the newly annexed southern province, Novo Rossiya, “New Russia,” and its great prize, the Crimea. War had devastated the region, but Potemkin had villages decorated and arranged for peasant dances and singers to greet the imperial barge at festive stops. He reconstructed damaged buildings, and in famine-ridden Tula, an early industrial center, he brought in a better-fed crowd to greet her.
His critics claimed that he constructed faux villages and hired actors to portray adoring peasants during Catherine’s leisurely triumph and moved the sets to the next stop to re-stage the performance. This gave rise to the notion of a fake façade erected to convince observers that things were better than they actually were, the famous Potemkin Villages. Russians came up with this lampoon, later a useful device for rival factions to employ in autocratic societies. It became a perennial trope of sardonic Russian humor appearing frequently in Russian literature. To deceive in this way is not unique to authoritarian regimes but is a staple of Russian propaganda done to befuddle foreigners, sidetrack critics, and cajole the domestic audience.
Lukashenko’s pettifogging description of Wagner Group’s turnaround as part of a “regular rotation for this kind of war,” was matched by Putin’s glib depiction of the bedlam forcing the frantic deal as a benign process that: “took time, including to give those who made a mistake time to think again, to understand that their actions are resolutely rejected by society.” Both sound like Mafia dons promising on the souls of their grandchildren to “make nice.” Such a facade fails to obscure the violence and bungling that brought the situation into being, just as it highlights the disaster by its sheer ineptitude.
Russia today is not the Soviet Union, nor is it Tsarist Russia. It is a resource-rich but economically impoverished, demographically challenged, authoritarian mish-mash of 100 nationalities and 89 sub-national jurisdictions including 21 ethnic republics, 10 autonomous regions, six territories, and 89 oblasts (provinces). On the west it faces the European Union, an economic and military powerhouse. On the south is the sectarian chaos of the Middle East and Central Asia. A technologically burgeoning India looms as another super-power in competition with China, and the “Asian Tigers,” focused intently on Siberia’s abundant oil and natural gas. And beyond these is the United States.
Putin is supreme commander of Russian military forces and its 5,889 nuclear warheads, more than any other nation possesses and whose use he regularly threatens. But there are at least two other war lords in Russia. Prigozhin’s private army is said to be financed by Syrian ISIS oil production and gold and diamond mines in the Central African Republic and Sudan, and now, supposedly, by the Russian military.
The 141st Special Motorized Unit, the Akhmat special force unit, Vostok Battalion and Chechen Death Battalion (all also called Kadyrovites) are controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic (one of the 21 ethnic republics mentioned above). The Akhmat unit has replaced the Wagner Group in Bakhmut, and Chechen forces are said to serve as “blocking” groups to prevent Russian soldiers from retreating by shooting them. Historically Kadyrov has financed operations through blackmail, fraud, ransom, and protection, plus income from the Russian federal government and Syrian ISIS oil. As far as we know, there has been only one major mutiny among them—Prigozhin’s.
But Griogory Potemkin’s name is also fatefully associated with Serge Eisenstein’s 1925 production of Battlership Potemkin, a classic film depicting the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship in the Black Sea Fleet. Eisenstein focused on the crew’s successful overthrow of the ship’s brutal Tsarist officers and the support given by residents of the Russian/Ukrainian port of Odessa. Highlights are the massacre by Tsarist Cossacks of men, women, and children on the Odessa Steps, the historic gateway to the city. The film ends with Potemkin flying the red flag of revolution as it passes triumphantly through a cheering Black Sea Fleet.
That ending is wishful thinking, a cinematic Potemkin village. All but one other vessel in the fleet turned against the mutineers who were forced to seek asylum in Romania and scuttled the ship. Churchill’s riddling, enigmatic mystery has now become a monstrous, tottering Potemkin village, threatening chaos and cataclysm. Another mutiny may be the pebble that causes the fatal avalanche. What then?