In the wake of the Prigoshin mutiny, the Hoover Institution hosted a talk with history professor and, surprise surprise, Stalin expert, Stephen Kotkin, on the 23-25 June disturbance in Russia as well as the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war. The discussion was another of the constant and endless think tank displays of American hubris and lack of self-awareness regarding our history at home and abroad. Kotkin made nothing but vague and erroneous statements on the Prigozhin affair, revealing a lack of knowledge and a cliched but political proper interpretation of the affair and offering the usual American caricature of contemporary Russian politics.
I will confine myself to his comments on the Prigozhin affair. Kotkin claimed the following: (1) the Russian Defense Ministry announced in June that Prigozhin’s “businesses” will now report to the Defense Ministry; (2) “in Russia you become Treasury Secretary and then you make your $500 million.”; (3) “the people (the “riot police”) who are supposed to stop (Prigozhin) from entering Moscow are on (Prigozhin’s payroll)”; (4) there was “no rallying of the political forces around Putin; and (5) Putin has lost his “aura”–in other words: the king is naked.
Let’s take these one at a a time, shall we?
1–The Russian Defense Ministry announced in June that Prigozhin’s “businesses” will now report to the Defense Ministry. This is false. The Defense Ministry announced that the fighters and other employees in Prigozhin’s private military company ‘Wagner’ or Wagner PMC would have to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry not with Wagner. Prigozhin’s other ‘business’ ventures, Concord catering and others, were not affected. Kotkin’s claim implies that all Prigozhin’s businesses were being taken over by the government. This is a nice way of telling those who hold private property to be inviolable as all the Hoover Institution donors who listened to Kotkin had the probably consciously intended effect of shocking them as to the dictatorial arbitrary powers of Putin and the Russian state. A point Kotkin tries to emphasize as he proceeds. This helps reinforce the false notion many Americans have that Russia is like the USSR, where there was no private property, not less private businesses, banks, and other institutions. Really anachronistic and inaccurate stuff.
2—In the US one first makes $500 million and then becomes Treasury Secretary, “but in Russia you become Treasury Secretary and then you make your $500 million.” Cute but not quite accurate or amounting to something even remotely close to the whole story. Yes, corruption is still greater in Russia than in the US, but there are plenty of Russian millionaires and billionaires in Russia, who have never held office and do not have close associates in power. An important omission by Kotkin is that US government officials sometimes also make their millions or billions as a result of the office they hold or held. Two of thousands of examples suffice: US President Joseph Biden and former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (not to mention the Clintons). It seems the Republican Party to which the Hoover Institution is so very close, has made quite a point of these high profile American corruption cases, but when it comes to Americans’ discussions of Russia the comparison is always to some ideal, non-existent shining city on the hill. Really arrogant, not very self-aware stuff.
3—“The people (the “riot police”) who are supposed to stop (Prigozhin) from entering Moscow are on (Prigozhin’s payroll),” and there is only the riot police to protect Moscow. There is no evidence of this anywhere. Moreover, it is not clear to whom Kotkin’s imprecise reference to ‘riot police’ are. If he means the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), then again there is no evidence anywhere that Prigozhin has bought off the ‘riot police.’ They mobilized for emergency service on the evening of the 23rd (https://t.me/stranaua/111244 and https://t.me/stranaua/111246). If he means armed MVD units, the refutation is the same. Moreover, military units blocked the roads leading to Moscow in numerous neighboring regions, so the riot police were immaterial to the issue of Moscow’s security (https://t.me/stranaua/111456; https://t.me/stranaua/111489). As to there being only riot police in Moscow to defend the city, this needs to be corrected or at least qualified. There certainly are military units around if not in Moscow, and military equipment appeared on the streets of the capitol (https://t.me/stranaua/111241; https://t.me/stranaua/111465; https://t.me/stranaua/111453; https://t.me/stranaua/111534; and https://t.me/stranaua/111256). Really amateur stuff from Kotkin.
I could cite hundreds, even thousands of more sources on all of the above, but I am not going to Stephen’s homework for him.
The final sentence in Kotkin’s claims about the lack of support for Putin from Russian military, political, and public figures – ‘Maybe this guy could be successful’ – suggests that Kotkin’s assumption is that Prigozhin was out to overthrow Putin and seize power. Succeed at what is the obvious question. To save his business from a Defense Ministry corporate raid? Why would one expect rallying around Putin if the issue at stake was Prigozhin’s business interests and desire to convince Putin to remove Shoigu and/or Gerasimov? Clearly, Kotkin assumes Prigozhin was attempting a major coup to seize power. The various institutions and publics that mobilized and rallied around Putin could be forgiven for their fears at the moment of the mutiny, but a supposedly serious scholar a week after the events should not be. Numerous Internet, radio, television and Telegram channels reported all the evidence Kotkin somehow missed or ignored attesting to support for Putin and which debunks Kotkin’s and the US mainstream’s ‘Putin isolated’ narrative.
(5) On queue from his interviewer, who waxes in dull bromides about ‘eterna; Russia’ and its failure to follow the Western path, Kotkin argues that the mutiny removed an unspecified “aura” from Putin as it supposedly prompted Russians to entertain the idea of an alternative to Putin, who “is a calamity, a disaster.” I find it just a little odd that analysis at a supposedly sophisticated, political science research institute image that the Hoover Institution advertises to its donors would answer an extremely complex question of history, culture, personalities in history, the interaction between domestic factors and foreign affairs (e.g., NATO expansion’s effect on Russian republicanism in the 1990s-2000s) would center around Putin’s aura. One would think that Russian public opinion and how it has come to be shaped (NATO expansion, color revolutions, Maidan putsch) might come up. But no, alas.
Professor Kotkin, the topic is researchable. Russian public opinion surveys registered no or little decline in Putin’s approval rating after the mutiny. The VTsIOM polling agency found that Putin’s rating fell from 78.9 percent on June 17 (before the mutiny) to 77.2 percent on July 9th or after the mutiny (Trust in politicians). Levada Center polling and focus groups indicated that Putin’s approval rating, along with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s ratings, “as a whole did not change” during or immediately after the mutiny. Thus, it remained arpund Putin’s approval rating in Levada’s June polling before the revolt: 61 percent approving, with 23 percent disapproving his performance of presidential duties. At the same time, Prigozhin’s approval rating was cut by nearly two-thirds, from 58 percent to 22 percent (Levada-Center and Forbes). VTsIOM polling found that distrust in Prigozhin’s main target, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, rose 2.5 percent and within the margin of error (WCIOM). Naturally, those of Kotkin’s mind will scramble to reject ‘science’ by saying that Russia is corrupt and a dictatorship and therefore opinion polling cannot be trusted. Let such people note that the Levada Center has been designated a ‘foreign agent’ by Russia’s Justice Ministry, meaning that Levada is thought by the Russian government to be financed at least in part from abroad.
Now I wrote that Putin’s political image or legitimacy probably took a hit as a consequence of the mutiny, arguing that Putin is partially responsible, given that Prigozhin’s rise in Russian politics occurred only because of his association with the Russian president. I also concluded that the mutiny was not a play to seize power or a Western-sponsored plot. I issued this analysis one day after the mutiny ended and before opinion polls came out showing only slight damage to Putin’s approval ratings. Kotkin made his faulty remarks some two weeks after the mutiny ended. There is no excuse for he and Hoover to get things this wrong. But in the think tank world, it is not so much accuracy so much as marketing, networking, and supporting one or the other side of the DC swamp.
Kotkin may be a fine historian, but that work and the think tank milieu he is enmeshed in do not allow him to shed much light on issues such as the Prigozhin affair or Russian politics in general. Moreover, the US think tank universe is stale, often anti-intellectual and non-scientific, and highly politicized one. It produces a few gems, but increasingly it simply belches out the DC Party-state line. It is entirely incapable of prompting the kind of introspection and soul-searching that America so desperately needs today.