The battle between evil and evil

Leonid Gozman explains what Prigozhin’s armed rebellion has shown us

The battle between evil and evil

Vladimir Putin meeting officers of the Russian army and special forces, 27 June 2023. Photo: Getty Images

The country hasn’t experienced such a shake down in a while. Since 1993.

It may seem that back then, the situation was more severe: there was more blood spilt, the forces behind the rebellion were not made up only of criminals, and there was a legitimate parliament in the country.

And the 1993 government acted differently — you can accuse those leaders of a lot of things, but not of cowardice and losing touch with reality. The attitude towards the authorities was different, too: a part of the public united around the president, 20,000 people came out to the Moscow City Council building. The support of intelligentsia was worth a lot, too.

However, Prigozhin’s mutiny is not an operetta, it’s a civil war, although one that didn’t reach the hand-to-hand combat stage. And during this war, a man — a convict recruited to the Wagner Group — could’ve easily shot his own brother conscripted into the army. Or did, in fact, do so — pilots were killed [by Wagner’s anti-aircraft missile defence], after all.

Just like the spring rain washes away snow and exposes cracked asphalt and holes covering roads, so did Prigozhin’s rebellion demonstrate the sordidness of the government and the abyss that stretches between the people and the authorities.

In fact, there has already been a lot written about the fiasco all state institutions stepped into: about the army that let a group of former convicts march through the entire country, about various national guards that were nowhere to be found, about the residents of Rostov-on-Don who were taking photos in front of the tanks that were on their way to overthrow the president they had allegedly voted for.

A state is not something (doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad) that’s outside of us. It’s not only a body of law, police officers in uniform, and judges in robes. It’s also in us, in our consciousness. Without us, a state is a decoration that can be toppled down by a gust of wind.

The sheer fact that there was an attempt to carry out an armed rebellion means that this main, mental state doesn’t exist anymore. For example, there was a war between the South and the North in the USA. But never has the country faced an armed rebellion attempt,

even though there were, of course, popular officers who were not satisfied with the government. In theory, one of them could have taken control of the White House, sat down in the Oval Office, and made an announcement to the citizens: so, the Jews and Commies (or someone else) are no longer in control, and now we will begin living in a just country.

But this has never happened just because all Americans — both the ones supporting the government and the ones drastically opposed to it — think that the only person who can be the president of their country is the one people voted for on the first Tuesday following the first Monday that falls on November during a leap year. Only this person and no one else! To become a president, one doesn’t need to capture the White House, but only to capture the minds of the people.

At first glance, it seems as if we didn’t learn anything new from the coup: didn’t we already know that our state is a fiction? But there was one new thing, after all.

We didn’t know we had no army. The thing that allowed itself to be blocked and didn’t offer any resistance is not an army.

We didn’t know that the National Guard and the other units were not present either. We knew that the government was unpopular, but it suddenly became clear that no one at all was planning on defending or supporting it. We knew there was no such thing as Putin’s majority but we didn’t realise fully that there’s no Putin’s minority either. That he, just Nicholas II, will be abandoned and betrayed by everyone: from generals to propagandists.

The level of lying and hypocrisy, just like the level of stupidity, has reached a new stage thanks to Prigozhin’s “march of justice” — we’re at the parody stage.

Putin gathered the troops in the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square and thanked them for their bravery and professionalism demonstrated when they had been saving the Fatherland. At the same time, he knew that they hadn’t saved or demonstrated anything

— the coup had been stopped during a criminal shootout, without the troops being a part of the proceedings. The soldiers and officers standing in the square knew that too: they hadn’t done any of the things the Supreme Commander-in-Chief was thanking them for. One wonders what they were thinking at that moment? That he has been misled or that he has gone crazy? Were they laughing at him on the inside? And at everything else, too — the deafening sovereign lies about unity, togetherness, and loyalty.

During the ceremony, Director of the National Guard General Zolotov let the world know that his guardsmen, on their way to defend the Homeland, — on their way where, what are you even talking about? — “gave up their money stashes to their wives, which they’ve since come to regret”. The bad jokes we can let slide; one shouldn’t laugh at a man just because God didn’t grant him a sense of humour.

But this is such an outdated worldview, too. He lives in a world where a “stash” is hidden in a pocket of an old jacket or in a toilet tank; he’s never heard of credit cards. Just like the head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin who used a magnifying glass on a laptop screen. But judging by Zolotov’s career, this worldview is quite close to the people who appointed him and to the higher-up Russian officials he interacts with. In fact, their geopolitical views are on the same level — as demonstrated by the war.

We knew that our leaders, to put it mildly, are not brave men. But they’ve never shown such cowardice before. Putin compared the rebellion to 1917. And thus, compared himself to Nicholas II, the man who was forced to abdicate and then shot to death. Putin asked for Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s help, without realising that in case of a clash between the Wagner mercenaries and Kadyrov’s soldiers, the population, the army, and the special forces would be on the side of the coupists. But everything worked out: Kadyrov’s troops got stuck in traffic and never made it to the location of their heroic deed.

The strange case of [Deputy Commander of the Joint Group of Russian Forces in Ukraine] General Surovikin means one thing: Putin is scared to death of admitting that the coup was something more than a personal initiative of Prigozhin, who got caught up in his “excessive ambitions”.

By the way, Hitler, facing a similar situation, — after an attempt on his life by von Stauffenberg — was acting with much more confidence. Putin definitely would like to be doing the same, but he can’t: he doesn’t realise that there’s an abyss around him. He feels like a naked king who’s suddenly realised something many had known for a long while — he’s naked! And he’s trying to cover this nakedness with pointless and confusing speeches and a useless trip to Dagestan’s Derbent. A demonstration of the population’s love was organised for him there. Was this his employees’ way of getting him some therapy?

But this is not the end, this is only the beginning. Even if there’s no new rebellion or palace coup, there’s still the war. And the officers fighting in Ukraine are watching all of this embarrassment happen and thinking: who are we risking our lives for? This man? The morale of our army was already very low, which is natural for this brutal and pointless war, but the government’s reaction to the coup lowers it to new depths. It’s highly unlikely that Ukrainians will not make the most of this opportunity.

But there’s one previously unknown thing we’ve learnt due to the coup. First of all, we saw for ourselves that in the upcoming battle the Dragon would likely be fighting not with Lancelot but with someone, possibly, even more disgusting than he is. That dungeons will maybe crumble down, but the new Russia will quite likely be born not due to a battle between Good and Evil, but one between Evil and Evil. The result of this battle is unknown. The only thing we do know is what the current Evil having power is leading — has led! — us to.

And this poses the question before those of us who identify with our miserable country in any way at all: which side will you choose? One could, of course, talk about not wanting to choose between the lesser of two evils. Understandable! But then the choice will be made without you and for you. Out of two competing fascists, the one to get power could be the person who would kill everyone instead of the one who would only kill many. And the second person might not get chosen due to the lack of your support. But if you do support him, he might kill you as well in lieu of thanks.

Now imagine something that currently seems impossible. Transparent presidential elections in Russia. But the second round isn’t between [Alexey] Navalny and [former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny] Roizman, instead it’s a run-off between Putin and Prigozhin.

I will tell you a terrible thing: if you feel responsible for your country, you will have to decide for yourself which one of them will do more harm and, accordingly, vote for that person’s opponent. And then, of course, fight the winner, be it peacefully or armed. But first you’ll have to vote.

I never said you’d like that choice.

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