On 24June 2023, I (like many) woke to the news that, embarrassingly unable to defeat Ukraine in the so-called ‘special military operation’, the long-running feud between the Wagner Group and the regular Russian military had been elevated to an uprising aimed at the Russian Ministry of Defence. Having seized the vitally important capital of the southern military district, Rostov-on-Don, the Wagner convoy then headed for the Kremlin, taking control of military sites in the city of Voronezh (halfway between Rostov-on-Don and Moscow) on the way.
What particularly grasped my attention with this story was its justification, according to Wagner leader (and former hot dog salesman) Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin has been well known for his rivalry with Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and has consistently argued that “malicious councillors” around Putin have deceived him as to the true situation in Ukraine.
Some 381 years earlier, the parliament of England similarly declared that the king had been “seduced by evil councillors”. On 27May 1642, humiliatingly twice beaten by the armies of the Scottish Covenanters and against a backdrop of increasing tensions between the king and parliament, parliament announced that it was the patriotic duty of every Englishman to disregard any order unless it came directly from both houses of parliament.
Good tsars and evil boyars
Such similarity in rhetoric is striking yet nonetheless unsurprising. In societies predicated upon the rule of one man, it is exceedingly dangerous for actors within the state to directly criticise that strongman whether it be from a sense of proprietary or a fear of repercussion.
In Tsarist Russia, this form of ‘naïve monarchism’ was encapsulated in the phrase, “the Tsar is good, the Boyars are Evil”. When Peter the Great’s reforms destroyed the rhythms of traditional Russian life and hundreds of thousands of peasants died to build St Petersburg in the malarial marshes, the suffering was blamed on the Tsar’s perfidious foreign advisers like the Switzer, Franz Lefort and the Scot, Patrick Gordon.
One can see this vaunted and established tradition continuing in Prigozhin’s criticisms of the clique surrounding Putin, without criticising the president himself either explicitly or implicitly. While Putin initially responded in the strongest terms, he has himself not yet been directly criticised by Wagner. Instead, criticism is almost uniformly aimed at Shoigu and Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. Before the uprising, Prigozhin had occasionally made a rare comment about the “happy grandfather” of Russia and questioned what would happen if that grandfather turned out to be an “asshole”, but these possible criticisms of Putin are wrapped in multiple layers of deniability and are far from direct.
In the England of 1642, a society without the king was essentially unthinkable. In its modern counterpart, with a solid grip on power for almost a quarter century and no clear successor, many Russians struggle to see how their state can move forward without Putin. This contributes to the inability of Russians to express direct opposition to the man himself.
Prigozhin and the National Covenant
Specifically, this phenomenon can be seen in a Scottish context, through the National Covenant of 1638, in which the Kirk party of Scotland made it clear that they did not oppose the king personally but rather that his ecclesiastical policies were in themselves in contravention of God’s law and the laws of the kingdom.
Much as Prigozhin countered accusations of treason by arguing that the Wagner rebels were the true patriots, the rebellious Covenanters were at pains to assert that they were still loyal subjects of the king and defend his powers. Indeed, they even specifically mention that they shall try nothing to the “diminution of the King’s greatness” and brush away the inevitable “foul aspersions” of treason because they know they are in the right.
Theocrats and fanatics
While the first English Civil War may have merely begun as an attempt by parliament to force the king to embrace their agenda and control his advisers, within the space of a decade events had moved so fast that England had become a republican military dictatorship, Scotland a theocracy and Ireland a subdued colony.
In the space of only a few years, a constitution of six hundred years had been overthrown and the first standing army in British history was attempting to fuse the Three Kingdoms into a united state while apocalyptic cults like the Fifth Monarchy Men flourished in the destabilised public sphere. In times of war and deprivation, ideas that were once unthinkable become tenable, then possible, and finally they get called inevitable in the history books.
Russia has already experienced the destruction of a revolutionary period triggered by a war and the lack of civil rights by the population, and many of the standard criteria for a revolution are already present in Russia’s current situation. While such revolutionary changes are difficult to anticipate from the fallout of the revolt of the Wagner troops amid what essentially boils down to an internal Russian dispute over resources and authority, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms serve as a poignant reminder of the speed with which events can grow out of control and the tightrope that all illiberal societies constantly walk.
Heed the example of Charles Stuart
As long as the war in Ukraine goes poorly for the Russian state and more Russian civilians see the loss of their sons and husbands in exchange for no tangible gains, discontent will continue to grow, and the situation will continue to destabilise.
Indeed, while parliament’s revolt began as an armed attempt to protect the king from evil influences and safeguard what parliament saw as the traditional system of ‘well-ordered monarchy’, it cannot be forgotten that Charles I was eventually tried, found guilty and publicly executed in his own kingdom.
While the situation in Russia is not yet even at the point of allowing public criticism of Putin, the Wagner revolt (whatever its provenance and whatever its eventual results) has shown the weaknesses of the Russian propaganda state and certainly, Putin would do well to heed the example of Charles Stuart.