The death of Prigozhin: another act in Putin’s theatre of power

Sociologist Svetlana Stephenson explains the manner of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s extravagant execution

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The death of Prigozhin: another act in Putin’s theatre of power


The fatal crash of Yevgeny Prigozhin's business jet has again focused attention on how the Russian government operates. Many have already noted the mafia-style nature of the reprisal meted out to Putin’s former “chef”. By the brazen killing of a member of his inner circle who had dared to rebel, Putin demonstrated that he has the strength and determination of a mafia boss and will not let his rule be challenged.

The Russian omertà 

In the world of organised crime, a “boss” must show his readiness to deal with any threat to his power. As a member of a Kazan gangster group whom I interviewed in the mid-2000s put it, “the leader must be a tough and self-confident person who loves power and is ready to fight for it by any means”. Any sign of weakness can lead to overthrow of the boss and ultimately his death.

But while such violent methods of reprisal are accepted as the norm in the criminal world, their adoption by the state is another matter entirely. They raise the degree of general tension and instability in a country which is already living in extraordinary conditions.

Putin could have easily used the state machinery and punished Prigozhin’s armed rebellion using the law. Though the judicial system operates in “slow time”, as opposed to the “fast time” of mafia justice, the use of the totally obedient court system would have given the revenge a semblance of legitimacy. The mafia is forced to act through direct physical violence and reprisals because, unlike the state, it has no legal instruments of coercion.

But instead of using the judicial system, Putin first seemingly forgave Prigozhin, returning his seized assets and allowing some of his Wagner troops to settle in Belarus. Meanwhile Prigozhin himself continued to conduct his business in Russia and Africa, making public appearances in Moscow and St. Petersburg (including at the Russia-Africa forum). It seemed he was indestructible.

It was only two months later that the demonstrative reprisal followed. It turned out that Prigozhin’s wartime achievements, his value for potential operations on the Belarusian-Polish and Belarusian-Ukrainian borders, and his military and commercial activities in Africa, which observers — and apparently Prigozhin himself — believed made him an important part of Putin’s system, were all of little consequence to a wounded dictator.

Dictator’s game of cat and mouse

While seemingly a manifestation of a mafia-like worldview, the Russian leader’s actions are in fact entirely characteristic of autocratic rulers.

The trap that Putin set for Prigozhin and his closest associates is a common strategy used by autocrats. The cat-and-mouse game, the delayed punishment, the capacity to disorient the victim and then destroy them whenever you choose — this is the pinnacle of power. Those who carry out such actions are driven not only by necessity, but also by a particular kind of pleasure.

In Crowds and Power, sociologist Elias Canetti wrote that those in power often carry out violence in a delayed, leisurely manner, as when a cat plays with a mouse:

“It lets it go, allows it to run about a little and even tum its back; and, during this time, the mouse is no longer subjected to force. But it is still within the power of the cat and can be caught again. If it gets right away it escapes from the cat’s sphere of power; but, up to the point at which it can no longer be reached, it is still within it. The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it-all this together, space, hope, watchfulness and destructive intent, can be called the actual body of power, or, more simply, power itself.”

Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti, 1960, translation by Carol Stewart.

Dictators often disarm their victims with promises of forgiveness or displays of warmth and generosity. Stalin was a master of such games. Often, before destroying a prominent diplomat or party figure, he would invite them to Moscow, thank them for their excellent work and offer them a new position — all while their arrest and execution were already predetermined.

Such actions by dictators, their capacity to act without rules and without exhibiting their clear intentions, do not undermine their power, but instead represent expressions of their sovereignty.

Also, when people cannot understand the rules by which the system operates, this disorients, disarms, and instils fear, both in members of the elite and in the wider population. Under Stalin, for instance, it was impossible to predict who would keep their life and status and who would be eliminated. The same is increasingly true today.

Shakespearian plots

Extrajudicial reprisals, assassination attempts and murders, including using such medieval methods as secret poisonings, seem strange and exotic for a modern-day, 21st century state that has a well-built judicial system acting in the interests of the authorities. But power has its own games and traditions, fears and pleasures.

The system of power built in Russia presupposes personal loyalty, but at the same time it is fraught with conflicts, betrayal and treason. It will continue to provide us with Shakespearean plots, such as those we have been witnessing over the past two months, from the dramatic rebellion of Prigozhin to his equally dramatic elimination, for a long time to come.

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