It’s Not 1917 in Moscow—It’s 1604
In the midst of the mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brief rebellion on June 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the “treason” of the Wagner paramilitary leader with the revolutionary turmoil of 1917. “Intrigues, squabbles, politicking behind the back of the army and the people led to great calamity, destruction of the army and the demise for the state, the loss of enormous territories, and, in the end, the tragedy of civil war,” Putin said in a televised address, blaming “internal betrayal” for Russia’s defeat in World War I and the collapse of its empire. “What we’re facing is exactly a betrayal.”
As if taking his cue, some Western analysts compared Prigozhin to Lavr Kornilov, the imperial Russian general who, in August 1917, sent his troops from the frontline to Petrograd, then Russia’s capital, to clear it of revolutionaries—only to be accused of attempting a coup and imprisoned. More than 100 years later, many of Putin’s enemies asserted, Russia was imploding again. After seizing a major Russian military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin’s mercenaries moved north toward Moscow in an orderly column, passing one region after another without meeting any resistance. Meanwhile, not a peep was heard from the Kremlin, and rumors spread that Putin had flown out of Moscow. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that the Russian president was no longer in control. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian dissident in exile, suggested that ordinary Russians should arm themselves because a civil war was afoot.
Within a few hours, however, Prigozhin had called off his drive to Moscow and agreed to a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: Prigozhin would avoid prosecution for treason by leaving for Belarus, and Wagner’s fighters could either go with him or agree to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense. What had seemed to be a drama that might culminate in Putin’s demise suddenly looked more like a farce.
Still, there is no doubt the Prigozhin affair has irreversibly changed the situation in Russia. Much remains uncertain about the rebellion and its aftermath. What is clear, however, is that in harking back to 1917, Putin and his critics and adversaries alike were reaching for the wrong historical analogy. What is taking place in Russia right now bears less resemblance to the events of 1917 than to those of an earlier era: the so-called Time of Troubles, or Smuta, which lasted from 1604 to 1613. During this period, the Russian dynasty of the Rurikids came to a violent end, and it took a decade of war and civil upheaval before the Romanov dynasty consolidated monarchical authority. In the meantime, Russia almost ceased to exist as a sovereign entity—a fate that could befall Russia again today because Putin’s personalized autocratic rule has made it hard to imagine an orderly succession.
MODERN VILLAINS, ANCIENT SCRIPTS
The stage for the Smuta was set by Ivan the Terrible, whose brutal and disruptive rule ended in 1584. Ivan exhausted his people and his finances by fighting endless wars to expand his realm, primarily in the Baltic. He decimated the Russian elite in a paranoid orgy of executions as he tried to consolidate absolute power. And in a fit of rage, he killed the son who could have succeeded him, transforming the throne into an object of fierce competition among elite clans.
What followed was a period of economic decline, famine, and conflict—including between an ambitious courtier named Boris Godunov, who occupied the throne from 1598 until 1605, and an adventurous young man who claimed to be Ivan’s son. The Pretender, or “False Dmitry,” enjoyed the backing of Polish-Lithuanian rulers, who coveted Russia’s resources, as well as the support of Moscow’s elites and, briefly, the Russian population. Godunov’s death in 1605 quickly led to the triumph of False Dmitry, who entered Moscow and declared himself tsar—only to be killed along with his Polish retinue the following year by a disillusioned mob.
Civil war and economic crisis engulfed Russia as the Smuta intensified. External enemies moved in: the Swedes came from the north; the Crimean Khanate, an arm of the Ottoman Empire, raided the south; and Polish troops ended up occupying the Kremlin. It is not clear what enabled Russia to survive. Nationalist historians have argued it was an explosion of patriotism and religious faith among the Russian people. What is certain is that two rounds of mass conscription helped the Russians retake the Kremlin from the Poles and gradually restore order. In 1613, Russians from all cross sections of society elected the “lawful” tsar, Mikhail Romanov, and peace with Western countries came five years later.
The Prigozhin affair has irreversibly changed the situation in Russia.
In his lectures on Russian history published in 1904, the imperial historian Vasily Klyuchevsky argued that the Smuta formed “the underlying foundation of the modern way of life” in Russia. “Studying that time,” Klyuchevsky said, “feels like writing an autobiography.” One hundred and twenty years later, these words still hold true. A nuclear power with a sophisticated urban population, robust digital economy, and resilient financial system, Russia remains strangely antiquated when it comes to its sociopolitical structures and institutions, in some ways less modern even than the Soviet Union. As the writer and dramatist Vladimir Sorokin wrote in February 2022, “The principle of Russian power hasn’t even remotely changed in the last five centuries.”
It is an exaggeration that nonetheless reveals deep insights. Every time Russia begins to more closely resemble modern Europe, some jolt sends the country back to its medieval origins. Half a century of industrialization and modernization ended in the horrors of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik tyranny. Three decades of struggle to overcome the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s brutal legacy seemed to bear fruit under Mikhail Gorbachev but ended in the collapse of 1991. Promising attempts to “Europeanize” the country in the 1990s eventually triggered the slide backward under Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s Russia does not resemble the communist dictatorship, but it is strangely archaic. In some ways, it seems better suited to the seventeenth century than to this century or the last one. Gone is the cultural capital of the imperial and Soviet times. Gone are the idealistic socialists and the enlightened bureaucrats. Gone are the notions of chivalry and honor that inspired Kornilov to try to save Russia from chaos. One does not even find the squeamishness that prevented the KGB from massacring the Russian opposition in August 1991, when a group of Soviet hard-liners failed to seize power from Gorbachev. Humanistic and enlightened impulses that for decades propelled Russia’s intellectual and social modernization are now underground. All that is left is a nearly operatic cast of figures: the isolated tsar, the supine patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the treacherous courtiers, the money-grabbing warlords, and, finally, the audacious pretender—all of them acting according to the ancient scripts.
There are plenty of role models for Prigozhin in the history of the Smuta. He could be a modern Vasily Shuisky, the scheming and mendacious courtier who plotted to kill the Pretender. Another model could be the rebellious warlord and ex-prisoner Ivan Bolotnikov, who in August 1606 led a ragtag army to Moscow with the aim of killing the elites and electing a “people’s tsar.” Defeated by government troops, he was betrayed by his associates, blinded, and drowned. For a single day, Prigozhin became a pretender to the throne in Moscow—the embodiment of the hopes, expectations, and grievances of millions of people. Yet to the great frustration of many on all sides, he quickly shirked this role.
THE TRIANGLE OF STABILITY
The narratives of the Smuta say more about Russia today than the narratives of 1917, which are misleading for many reasons. First, there is a tsar in the Kremlin, not an impotent provisional government like the one in power in 1917. And nowhere—not even in the murkiest corners of Western libraries—are there Russian radicals such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Moreover, there can be no comparison between Prigozhin and Kornilov. The latter was ready to die for the country and for democratic principles and did so less than a year after his failed march to Petrograd—on another march to liberate Russia from the Bolsheviks. Prigozhin, by contrast, is a mercenary leader who does not believe in anything. He is a cross between a courtier and a mob boss. He was incensed when his enemies, Putin’s other courtiers, prevailed over him and decided to take away his business, his money, and his private army. He never intended to become the next tsar. And his mutiny was not a careful plot to seize power but rather a desperate act to prevent Wagner from being dissolved.
The Smuta also provides a useful framework for understanding both the brittleness and the resilience of the Russian state. In the early seventeenth century, stability depended on the interactions of four centers of power, three domestic and one foreign: the tsar, the elites, the people, and external enemies. During the Smuta, Russia was embroiled in almost constant wars with its Western neighbors, above all the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The domestic triangle, however, was decisive in determining the outcome of this period. Everyone understood that without the tsar, Russia would fall apart. The Russian elites, however, feared their own population more than they feared foreign enemies, and they were prepared to accept foreign rule or at least to compromise with Western potentates in order to prevent a mass upheaval from below and the redistribution of wealth. Yet every time they supported a Western-backed pretender such as False Dmitry, the masses rallied around the tsar, religion, and Russian statehood. The civil war in Russia ended in a new Leviathan, a covenant between the elites, the people, and the tsar.
This domestic power triangle still holds sway over Russia today. The Prigozhin mutiny weakened the tsar, denting Putin’s authority and image. His wooden appearances on TV screens at times when most people were asleep called to mind the troubled days of the 1991–93 period. Putin did not know what to say, and even his warning about “another 1917” sounded feckless. One does not stop a coup by telling people how bad it would be if the plotters succeed. Putin did not lead and did not take full responsibility for the chaos. His threats rang hollow. As farcical as it was, therefore, the putsch made the Russian leader weaker than before.
The fact that Putin is weak does not mean the end of his rule is near.
Yet the fact that Putin is weak does not mean the end of his rule is near. Russian elites, the military, and the people did not side with an adventurous warlord against Putin because they rightfully suspected that squabble and chaos would only hurt them, leading to another Smuta with colossal financial losses and possibly violence. The mutiny ended before the Russians were forced to take sides, but Prigozhin never stood a chance of winning over both the elites in Moscow and the broader population.
The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the greater the risk of another Smuta in Russia. Russian elites are once again divided from the masses, just as they were on the eve of the Time of Troubles. The figure of the tsar is the only thing that unites them and allows the state to function. But if Putin suddenly disappears from the picture, his courtiers will face a stark choice: go down the road of Godunov and plunge the country into chaos or circle the wagons, avoid an internecine struggle, and enable all groups to elect a new president in emergency national elections.
Two days after the Prigozhin mutiny fizzled out, Putin addressed the Russian people once again, praising everyone, even the Wagner fighters, for their patriotic and sensible behavior. But he also mentioned the Smuta, a term of warning that is still understood by all Russians. The prospect of a nuclear power sliding into a modern Time of Troubles should scare Western countries as it scares the Russian people. The odds of a quick transition from wartime autocracy to a more accommodating, liberal regime in Moscow are long. And they are made longer still by the scripts of Russian history.